Volunteers Rachel Gallagher and Christina Cooper

Phinda was pure heaven...

Choosing a conservation project was the hardest obstacle to overcome All of us who work in some of the finest zoological parks and institutions still yearn to experience the splendour and glory of our charges in the wild. The normal photographic safaris can be very cost-prohibitive to the average zoo employee, and the adventure, while authentic, does not allow for immersion in the conservation efforts of a game reserve, nor does it offer a “behind the scenes” experience.

This past November, I found myself between careers and needing a life-changing adventure. I was fortunate to discover African Conservation Experience, or ACE, a U.K. based company that matches volunteers to different wildlife research and conservation projects, primarily in South Africa.

Cost was definitely 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. Best yet, 60% of the prices collected would be donated to the conservation project I signed up for. Choosing a conservation project was the hardest obstacle to overcome, as all of the projects were worthwhile and offered a myriad of exposure opportunities with South African wildlife.

However, the ACE staff was diligent in asking questions and 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 setting of the facility is on a free roaming reserve, and there are opportunities during your stay to enjoy its beauty. Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre conducts tours of the facility to educate visitors about the plight of wildlife in Africa, and it cares for some animals on a permanent basis that are unable to be released back into the wild. However, their main focus is rehabilitation and release, and while I was there we rehabilitated and released spotted eagle owls, a civet, and a marabou stork, just to name a few.

On my first day at Moholoholo the volunteer coordinator asked for volunteers to sign up to babysit Bullet the adolescent cheetah and Della the baby rhino. I raised my hand immediately. On my very first day, I spent an hour alone bonding with each of the two animals. It was incredible, to say the least, and these babysitting “jobs” were available on a daily basis. There were daily feeding and cleaning chores for the animals on exhibit, but the hands on opportunities with the animals were the highlight and reward for the several hours of hard work.

During my volunteer experience at Moholoholo, I handled cheetahs, a baby black rhino, a sable antelope, a pair of genets, a bush pig, a mongoose, a bataleur eagle, a cuckoo, a spotted eagle owl, servals, and a bush baby. I participated in both a hippo and hyena capture and relocation, learned how to tube feed an eagle, wallowed in a mud hole with a baby rhino, set a leopard bait and trap, watched the collaring of vultures for tracking, learned to identify and track animals from their spoor, went on bush walks, and went on game drives at Kruger National Park. My adventure was just beginning though.

Phinda Wildlife Research Project

My next project was Phinda Private Game Reserve. ACE effortlessly coordinated my transfer to the next facility, which involved a van transport then overnight stay in Johannesburg, followed by a short flight to Richards Bay and another van transport. I was so impressed by the professionalism and organisation of ACE throughout my volunteer experience. All I had to do was pack my bag, and ACE took care of the rest.

Phinda’s 56,800 acre private game reserve is home to all of 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 is conducting long term studies on the movement and behaviour of the elephants, lions, cheetahs, and rhinos on the reserve. Volunteers participate in twice daily game drive viewings of the animals to locate individuals and record observations of their behaviour.

The Phinda experience was to me, pure heaven. The game drives were unbelievable, and witnessing these magnificent animals in the wild was unforgettable. My first day at Phinda I saw a lone bull elephant drinking from a dam, two rhinos grazing on a steppe, two male lions napping under a tree, and a mother cheetah and her four cheetah cubs playing on a low lying branch. The cheetah walked within twelve feet of our Land Rover. Watching the four cubs tackle each other, pounce on tails, hunt insects, and scurry after their mother was breathtaking. Phinda was wild and dynamic, and participating in the conservation efforts and management of the game on the preserve was very exciting.

Phinda is home to over one hundred white rhino and approximately thirty black rhino. Four of the white rhino were immobilized and moved to another game reserve during my tenure, and volunteers actively participated in the operation. The rhino was darted from a helicopter, completely immobilised, and then partially reversed. It’s eyes were covered, ropes were applied, and then the manpower of a crew of 18 pulled the rhino with ropes into a waiting crate, which was lifted by crane to the bed of an eighteen wheeler. As they say in South Africa, it was a mission. Afterwards, the three volunteers were given the opportunity to fly in the darting helicopter, and our hearts were in our throat and smiles plastered across our faces as we swooped over several rhino, flew even with a running herd of giraffes, and dipped down over a hippo.

Representatives of all of the species being studied are collared with radio tracking devices, and the Phinda leopards have been part of a ten year study affiliated with Panthera, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the study of large cats. Leopard capture took place at night, and finding and illuminating a leopard face with a spotlight is particularly thrilling. During my first leopard capture, we witnessed a male and female mating several times.

Volunteers participated in the efforts to immobilise and collar three leopards, and as we helped record measurements we were educated as to the plight of the leopard in Africa. Two male lions were added to the Phinda population during my stay, and many of our efforts involved tracking the two of them to monitor their assimilation into the reserve.

During one encounter, we baited an injured lion into a clearing with a warthog carcass chained to the back of the truck. In a particularly tense moment, the lion and I met each other’s gaze and he crouched and roared. I thought he might jump into the bed of the truck with me! The excitement and adrenalin generated in that moment caused me to extend my stay another three weeks. My adventures at Phinda included participating in rhino ear notching, tracking animals using telemetry equipment, immobilisation of leopards for collaring, immobilisation of lions and rhinos for relocation, immobilisation of buffalo to test for Foot and Mouth disease, canoeing down a river with crocodiles, camping in the bush, prey and population counts, and snorkelling at Sodwana Bay Beach.&nbsp

We witnessed a lioness make a kill, lions mating, leopards mating, a lioness and her four tiny cubs at a wildebeest kill, bull elephants fighting, cheetahs from Phinda fighting two cheetahs through the fence of a neighbouring preserve, and a mother cheetah grieving over the loss of her cub. My adventure with African Conservation Experience was everything I had hoped it would be and more.

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