As an aspiring vet, I have always enjoyed watching documentaries about African wildlife and dreaming of seeing it all in person. So it was the chance of a lifetime when I was able to spend a month of my gap year volunteering at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and work with a fantastic variety of animals: lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, wild dogs, zebras, honey badgers, eagles, vultures and many more.
I decided to go with African Conservation Experience (ACE) because they were so detailed and helpful during the very personalised phone conversations I had with them, telling me about all of my options and following up with more information by email.
With their help, travelling was an equally smooth experience. As a 19-year-old travelling solo for the first time, I was somewhat cautious about going on such a major trip. Any nerves were immediately put at ease when I arrived at Johannesburg airport and met Martin and the rest of the ACE team - I am so appreciative of the work they do to make our trips as easy as possible!
Spending four weeks at Moholoholo could not have been better. The days were long, but the work was rewarding. Morning rounds began at 6.30am, where each group of volunteers fed and cleaned the enclosures of the animals they were responsible for. Then we worked on communal “big jobs” for the rest of the morning. In the afternoon, we either relaxed or took part in an activity organised by the staff, and then we did afternoon rounds until dinner. At the start I asked a lot of questions to try and get my head around the feeding charts, cleaning procedures etc., but I quickly settled into the routine and soon the newer volunteers were coming to me for help!
When I was looking for a project, it was important to me that there would be a thriving and friendly volunteer community - this is certainly the case at Moholoholo.
Meals are eaten together, often alongside staff members, and free time is usually spent chatting or playing cards. The common room and accommodation is at the heart of the centre, so you are constantly immersed. You fall asleep at night to a serenade of insects buzzing and whirring in the bush, the stillness broken only by the low rumbling call of a lion or the shriek of a hyena.
In the month that I was there, I was involved in two releases: a genet and an endangered lappet-faced vulture, the latter of which had to be GPS-tagged.
I also helped to trap and relocate a problematic honey badger who was destroying a local farmer’s livelihood.
There were plenty of veterinary cases, both routine and emergency. At Moholoholo you quickly learn to be prepared for anything, as you find yourself being called away at a moment’s notice to help with some new and exciting case! Around the rehab, I bottle-fed a baby zebra and even taught a two-day-old baby bird how to eat.
My favourite activity was being able to try falconry, which is done both for rehabilitation and enrichment - I even got to fly a martial eagle, the largest eagle in Africa!
I learned a lot about conservation, attending two talks. I was able to see how Moholoholo’s efforts fit into the wider world of conservation, which made my trip all the more eye-opening. My perspective shifted as I realised that there was a vast “grey” area between the black-and-white of conservation that I originally saw. The lessons I learned will last a lifetime.
The staff at Moholoholo were amazing, to the extent that I have kept in touch with several of them since leaving. Everyone was helpful, kind and good-humoured, and this is what creates the wonderful atmosphere which makes the rehab so attractive to volunteers. When I left, it truly felt like I was leaving a home and a family.
Returning to Johannesburg airport, I was met off my transfer once again by Martin. He was interested to hear about my experience and we had a good discussion about Moholoholo, as well as some big-picture conservation ethics, while in line for the baggage drop.
I am so grateful to ACE and the Moholoholo team for giving me such a memorable experience.
I will definitely be back, certainly to return to Moholoholo and also hopefully to try some of the other ACE projects. It was humbling to be part of the incredible work Moholoholo does and I feel privileged to have been able to make a difference, however small, to the conservation of the magnificent African wildlife.