Over the last couple of years I had been thinking how amazing it would be to go to Africa and make a hands-on contribution to helping the wildlife. I am an avid watcher of wildlife programmes and love watching documentaries that focus on people who are working hard to help protect creatures such as elephants, rhinos, lions and treating them when injured, or rescuing the babies when their parents have been killed by snares and/or poachers, or have died of natural causes.
I set about Googling and discovered there were many organisations that arranged these trips enabling volunteers to help with all sorts of work with animals in many countries around the world. Whilst searching I came across African Conservation Experience (ACE), and Moholoholo wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre, and it was just what I had been looking for!
I contacted ACE and they were extremely helpful explaining in detail what being at Moholoholo entailed and what was expected of volunteers. Not having ever done anything like this before, it was great to have ACE making all the arrangements, booking flights, arranging insurance, transfers from the airport to Moholoholo etc. They provided a very comprehensive ‘kit list’ of what to take and all sorts of information to ensure I was prepared for my trip.
So on the 8th April 2019, I set off on my Moholoholo adventure.
On arrival at Moholoholo you are welcomed by the team that manages the centre and are shown round so you can get your bearings, and then its down to work almost immediately. All the volunteers are put into groups and each group looks after a number of different animals and birds. My group was led by Laura (a long-term volunteer) and as well as myself there was Kean, a young chap from Tanzania. We looked after four Servals – all with wonderful names: Likamom, Serval Kitten, Scruffball and Tigger! Also a pair of beautiful Yellow-billed Kites, and a pair of awesome Giant Eagle Owls.
A typical day started at 6.30a.m. when you armed yourself with buckets, scoops and rakes and went to the enclosures of your charges to collect feeding bowls (whilst noting what was left in them – if anything – so it could be recorded how much they had eaten), refreshing drinking water bowls, picking up poop and raking the enclosures where needed to keep them tidy and clean.
After breakfast there were the ‘big jobs’! This usually entailed giving the larger enclosures, which housed animals such as cheetah, hyena, vultures, lions, a good deep clean and tidy up – with the big cats and hyenas having been encouraged to enter the smaller cages on the side of each enclosure – for both their safety and ours! The vultures and other birds would remain in their enclosures with you, whilst watching with interest what you were doing, but they were all so used to this activity there was never a suggestion of any danger, but you of course gave them a healthy respect and always remembered they were still wild animals.
In the afternoons we had a couple of hours ‘own time’ when you could just relax and hang out with fellow volunteers, but most often we were invited to do other activities such as helping with young cheetahs who had come into Moholoholo as cubs and were being trained to be comfortable in human company, so they could become ambassadors of Moholoholo and be taken out and about to villages, or to meet visiting groups to Moholoholo – tourists, school children – who would come to see and learn about the valuable work that they do at the Centre.
Helping with the cheetahs was a wonderful experience – taking them for walks around the centre so they were exposed to all sorts of sites and sounds, and being with people. At one point we sat with them at the picnic tables – onto which they soon jumped and lounged lazily, purring very loudly and enjoyed having cuddles and ears scratched! On another occasion myself and a few others were taken to meet an elderly cheetah who actually lived in the garden of Brian Jones, who established Moholoholo in 1991. We sat with her for a while and she loved the attention, and I had the rare experience of having my face licked! Cheetah tongues – as I discovered – are quite rough, so it was akin to having my face exfoliated! Amazing!
Another afternoon we were taken on a bush drive on the Moholoholo reserve where we saw the resident hippos – a huge male, a female and baby hippo. We of course were safely watching from the truck which allowed us to be quite close to them without disturbing them. They were awesome – especially the male – such a powerful animal! On the same drive we met a herd of Nyala, who were clearly used to seeing visitors – and were very tolerant of us being in close proximity to them. We also came across a herd of Zebra and were able to observe them quite close up from the truck. The bush drive was a really special treat.
Other ‘treats’ included a talk on how they manage baby animals when they are brought into the centre, their feeding and general care. Also we had the opportunity to ‘fly’ some of the larger birds. I flew a Martial Eagle and it was such a privilege to be able to have such a close experience with this beautiful (and huge!) bird.
At the end of the afternoon from 4pm to 6pm our tasks were to feed the animals in our care, and check they were all safe and sound before nightfall. We had to prepare their food (not for the squeamish, but you got used to it!) which was carefully measured out and records kept of which animal had what. Laura, Kean and I would then do the rounds of our charges, giving them their food and generally checking they were all ok.
I had been at Moholoholo almost a week when myself, and fellow volunteer Leigh, were given probably the best job at Moholoholo, which was looking after the thick-tailed bush babies – Cinnamon and Bun. Oh my goodness what a delight they were! They were beyond cute, very mischievous, and loved leaping on you from the branches in their enclosure – usually when you were least expecting it! They would sit on our heads, and have great fun crawling all over us evading all attempts to keep them under some sort of control. I was very sad to say goodbye to them at the end of my stay at Moholoholo and often think of them and hope they make/have made it safely back into the wild.
At around the same time as looking after Cinnamon and Bun, I was asked to look after a cut-throat finch (so named due to the blood-red feathers all around his throat!) which had been brought to the Centre after falling from his nest. I love birds, so I really enjoyed looking after him. At first I was feeding him every 45 minutes or so and gradually the gap between feeds became longer as he became stronger. In spare time after lunch he and I would sit outside in the sunshine for a while so he could get his vitamin D quota, and at night he would be in my room so I could feed him up until around 10p.m. He was a dear little thing and quite a character. I often think of him too and hope he is now flying out in the wild with other finches.
As further reward for our hard work during our stay at Moholoholo, we had a wonderful full day out in the Kruger National Park. We were lucky to see so many different animals – an array of species of antelope, also rhinos, many elephants (with babies!), giraffe, zebra (also with babies), buffalo, warthog, a rather illusive leopard, monkeys, and many many birds – large, small, colourful, so many I can’t list them all! It was a very special day.
On another day a group of us were taken to an area at the very southern end of Kruger, where we had a bush walk – and were lucky enough to see an elephant. The main purpose of the trip however was to experience a night camping under the stars! A camp fire was made, delicious food cooked and eaten, and we settled down under our blankets. Throughout the night there was always someone ‘on guard’ with torches scanning the bush for eyes! It was wonderful gazing up at the galaxy of stars and listening to hyenas and lions calling somewhere in the distance! Thankfully no ‘eyes’ were spotted so a swift dash for the safety of the vehicle was not needed!
I was only at Moholoholo for two weeks, but I cannot believe how much was crammed into that time (there’s more I could have added to the above!). The team who manage Moholoholo for Brian were very diligent in making sure everyone had a chance to do and experience as much as possible throughout their stay. They were a great team – Carla, Nikita, Leigh, Martial and Richard – all dedicating themselves to the animals in their care, and the ethos of Moholoholo. I am full of admiration, and thanks, for the work they do which must be both rewarding and heart breaking in equal measure, with many success stories but also very hard decisions that have to be made when the welfare of an animal is compromised.
And of course, Moholoholo would not exist without Brian’s experience, knowledge and dedication, and the generosity of Mr Strijdom, the owner of the farm on which the Centre is situated.
The whole experience was an absolute pleasure and a privilege.