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Phinda Wildlife Research Project: 28 November - 12 December 2023*
Someone once told me that once you visit Africa, a part of your heart will always be there, and I couldn’t agree more. Having volunteered in Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre last year with ACE, there was no question that I would return to South Africa to volunteer again. This year, I chose to volunteer with rhino at Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary.
Having previously volunteered with ACE, I knew that I had their complete support from the moment I booked my trip, to my safe arrival in Johannesburg airport, right through to my departure back home. Any concerns I had prior to my trip, as I was travelling solo this year, were answered and dealt with promptly. Something I was very grateful for. I could not fault them.
Upon my arrival I was greeted with big smiles from Martin and Natalie at Johannesburg Airport. After a brief catch up with Martin following my previous trip, I was introduced to my fellow volunteers who would be travelling to Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary with me. Upon arrival in the local town of Care for Wild, Nelspruit, we were met by a member of staff and we quickly got a sense of the importance of the project we were attending.
The location of the project is kept private for the safety of the rhinos within, and their safety measures were clear to see. A beautiful location with an inner zone called the Intensive Protection Zone, where the adult rhinos were free to roam under a watchful eye. After settling into our rooms, which were basic and comfortable with four beds, I met the other volunteers at the centre. A component of volunteering that I love is the opportunity to meet like-minded people from all across the world. I made incredible friends from South Africa to the UK, and Australia right through to the U.S.
My first proper day at the project. Just wow. I remember walking down to the bomas and seeing my first rhino. Her name is Sophia and she is the first rhino calf that I bottle fed. What an incredible moment. To feed a rhino baby. To approach them with their adorable mouths open wide in preparation for their milk. The sweet squeals from the babies as they patiently awaited their morning feed will forever be my favourite sound. The heartwarming moment was bittersweet, as I remembered the reason this sweet sweet baby was here… her mother was killed.
We got a real feeling for the project during my first day there. Hearing the brutal stories that resulted with each beautiful baby arriving at the project was heartbreaking. Photos and videos of the situations these animals came from left me in tears of frustration and anger. How could anyone harm and hurt these creatures? It is still something I fail to comprehend. I threw all of my emotions into the work at this project.
Everyday at the project was full of intense work in temperatures my Irish skin found harsh at times. If you think you will get to cuddle and play with a baby rhino, you are wrong. That is not the purpose of this project. Shovelling rhino dung and dragging bags of teff (hay). Preparing milk feeds and rolling bales. Bush walks and night rides. The anti poaching dog unit training and the mounted unit check ups. Early morning sunrises and chats around the dinner table. Educational presentations and creating mud wallows. Powerful documentaries and creating friendships that will last a lifetime. These are just some of the things I got to experience in this incredible place. We would smell utterly delightful at the end of the day. But all the tough work was so worth it to see the babies running around or wallowing in the mud. Heading out into the IPZ we could see where the babies were ultimately journeying towards, safe release into the wild. The adults out in the protected zone roamed freely, and it was so encouraging to see what we were striving towards.
I knew of the poaching crisis prior to my trip. However, I would be ignorant to say that I understood the full extent of it. The dedication and commitment from the staff at Care for Wild is truly admirable. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year these animals are monitored. While we slept in bed after what we considered a tiring day, the anti poaching unit sat in bushes and under trees in the cold watching the rhinos all night long. It is inspirational. To think that a small gesture, such as a late night drive around the reserve to hand out cups of hot chocolate to the night unit was greatly appreciated is outstanding. The emotion I felt knowing these people have dedicated their lives to protecting and preserving these animals is empowering. I have nothing but sheer admiration for every staff member there. My outlook on daily life was ultimately changed after my time spent here.
If you are considering volunteering at Care for Wild, do it. Yes, it is hard work. Yes, you will be tired. Yes, you will smell of dung, teff and milk. Yes, you will get up at early hours. Yes, you will endure cold showers. But trust me when I say it is all so worth it. My only regret is that I couldn’t stay longer.
I have left with an enormous amount of love and admiration for this animal and I will continue to be an advocate for their care and protection. I hope that one day, rhino will be able to freely roam in the wild, free from any risk of poaching. Until then, it is up to us to continue to strive and work towards it. What are you waiting for?