Volunteers Rachel Gallagher and Christina Cooper

Phinda was pure heaven...

Selecting a conservation project proved to be the most challenging hurdle to overcome. Those of us working in some of the finest zoological parks and institutions still yearn to witness the animals we work with within their natural habitats. Traditional photographic safaris can be quite costly for the average zoo employee, and while authentic, they lack immersion in a game reserve's conservation efforts or the chance to get a "behind the scenes" experience.

Last November, I found myself at a crossroads in my career, craving a life-changing adventure. Luckily, I stumbled upon African Conservation Experience (ACE), a UK-based organization that connects volunteers with various wildlife research and conservation projects, primarily in South Africa.

The cost was a consideration, so I was pleased to find that for almost a three-month excursion, I would pay close to the same amount as if I had travelled on a week-long safari through a traditional company. Even better, 60% of the fees collected would be donated to the conservation project of my choice. Choosing the right conservation project was the most challenging part, as all the options were worthwhile and offered numerous opportunities to interact with South African wildlife.

However, the ACE staff was diligent in asking questions discerning my needs and identifying my goals for the volunteer experience, and helped me make the right decision.

Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Since my previous work experience involved working in a free-roaming safari park rather than a traditional zoo, I picked Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre for my first project. The centre is located on a free-roaming reserve, offering opportunities to appreciate its natural beauty. Moholoholo conducts educational tours to raise awareness about wildlife conservation in Africa. They also care for animals unable to be released back into the wild, alongside their main focus on rehabilitation and release. During my time there, we rehabilitated and released spotted eagle owls, a civet, and a marabou stork, among others.

On my very first day at Moholoholo, the volunteer coordinator asked for volunteers to look after Bullet, an adolescent cheetah. I eagerly volunteered. This opportunity allowed me to spend an hour bonding with Bullet. These "babysitting" tasks were available daily. While there were routine responsibilities such as feeding and cleaning the animals on display, the hands-on interactions with the animals were the most rewarding part of our hard work.

During my time at Moholoholo, I had the privilege of working with cheetahs, a sable antelope, genets, a bush pig, a mongoose, a bateleur eagle, a cuckoo, a spotted eagle owl, servals, and a bush baby. I participated in a hippo and hyena capture and relocation, learned to tube-feed an eagle, set leopard bait and traps, witnessed the collaring of vultures for tracking, learned animal tracking from their spoor, went on bush walks, and explored Kruger National Park on game drives - and this was just the beginning of my adventure.

Phinda Wildlife Research Project

My next project was Phinda Private Game Reserve. ACE seamlessly arranged my transfer to this facility, involving van transport, an overnight stay in Johannesburg, a short flight to Richards Bay, and another van transport. I was impressed by ACE's professionalism and organisation throughout my volunteer experience. All I had to do was pack my bags, and ACE took care of the rest.

Phinda's 56,800-acre private game reserve is home to the Big Five (elephant, white and black rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard), as well as cheetah, nyala, hippo, warthog, red duiker, steenbok, waterbuck, giraffe, hyena, zebra, impala, and jackal. Phinda conducts long-term studies on the movements and behaviour of elephants, lions, cheetahs, and rhinos in the reserve. Volunteers participate in daily game drives to locate and observe these animals.

For me, the Phinda experience was pure paradise. The game drives were breathtaking, and observing these magnificent animals in the wild was unforgettable. On my first day at Phinda, I saw a lone bull elephant drinking from a waterhole, two rhinos grazing on a plain, two male lions napping under a tree, and a mother cheetah with her four playful cubs on a low branch. Phinda was a wild and dynamic environment, and getting involved in the conservation and management of the reserve's wildlife was thrilling.

Phinda is home to over one hundred white rhinos and approximately thirty black rhinos. During my stay, four white rhinos were immobilised and relocated to another game reserve, and volunteers actively participated in the operation. The rhinos were darted from a helicopter, immobilised, partially reversed, and then moved into a crate with the help of a team of 18 people. Afterwards, three of us volunteers had the opportunity to fly in the darting helicopter, witnessing incredible views and heart-pounding moments as we swooped over rhinos, flew alongside a running herd of giraffes, and dipped down near a hippo.

All the species being studied at Phinda are fitted with radio-tracking devices. The Phinda leopards have been part of a ten-year study in collaboration with Panthera, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study of large cats. Leopard captures took place at night, and illuminating a leopard's face with a spotlight and capturing their measurements was particularly thrilling. I also participated in the effort to immobilise and collar three leopards, gaining valuable insights into the challenges faced by leopards in Africa.

During my stay, two male lions were introduced to the Phinda population, and tracking their movements to monitor their integration into the reserve was a significant part of our work. We even baited an injured lion into the open with a warthog carcass chained to a truck.

In a tense moment, the lion and I locked eyes, and he crouched and roared. I thought he might jump into the bed of the truck with me! The excitement and adrenalin generated at that moment caused me to extend my stay another three weeks.

My experiences at Phinda included participating in rhino ear notching, tracking animals with telemetry equipment, immobilising leopards for collaring, and relocating lions and rhinos. We even got involved in disease management testing buffalo for Foot and Mouth disease.

I got to do some other amazing activities like canoeing down a river with crocodiles, camping in the bush, conducting prey and population counts, and snorkelling at Sodwana Bay Beach.

During my time at Phinda, I witnessed a lioness make a kill, lions and leopards mating, a lioness with her tiny cubs at a wildebeest kill, bull elephants in combat, cheetahs from Phinda clashing with cheetahs from a neighbouring reserve through the fence, and a mother cheetah grieving over the loss of her cub.

My adventure with African Conservation Experience exceeded all my expectations.

In retrospect, I would have paid three times the fee asked of me. I felt the conservation knowledge and life experiences I received working alongside professionals in the field were priceless.

Christina Cooper, ACE Volunteer