It all started with an unknown television show. It was the last Saturday in April 2016 and while flipping through the menu of television programs, the description of a travel show caught my eye. It was about rescuing rhinoceroses from extinction.
I thought to myself “oh, that’s interesting”, considering I didn’t know rhinos were close to extinction. I was only able to watch the last 15 minutes of this travel program which featured the world’s largest rhino rehabilitation centre (Care for Wild Africa). I was in awe of the infectious passion of its founder, Petronel Nieuwoudt, and that of her staff for the amazing work they do, which is to rescue orphaned rhinos whose mothers had been brutally poached (“poached” is simply a polite word meaning “killed illegally”). What an incredibly noble raison d’être! I was also intrigued by the fact that the place is run with the assistance of volunteers who travel from all over the world and pay to help these animals.
Immediately after watching the last half of this travel show, whose name to this day remains a mystery to me, I visited Care for Wild Africa’s website, read it in its entirety, and watched some videos posted by past volunteers as well as other videos related to rhino poaching. I was so moved by what I had read and seen that I knew right then where I would be travelling to next.
That afternoon, I wrote an email message to African Conservation Experience (ACE), who had been mentioned in the show, asking several questions about volunteering at CFWA. They promptly answered my questions, and after some back-and-forth correspondence, I had a telephone interview with Ellie from ACE and an application form was sent to me to complete.
Deep inside, I knew I would do this trip, but I wanted to ‘step back’ and think about this: I was on the verge of deciding to travel to the other side of the world, to a country and continent that I had never been to before, to volunteer and help in the efforts to save a species that, up until a few days earlier, I had not known was close to extinction, and I got this idea from watching 15 minutes of television. This was crazy! But after a few days of quasi-objective thinking and doing a bit more research, I submitted my application and said “sign me up”.
So, for the next four-and-a-half months, during almost every lunch hour at work and during almost every weekend at home, I obsessively scoured the internet for websites, articles and videos, looking to learn as much as I possibly could about CFWA and the issue of rhino poaching. The more I read and the more I viewed, the more impressed I became with CFWA. At the same time, though, I became more upset imagining the horrific scenes the young rhinos must have witnessed as they cruelly became orphans. With these mixed emotions, I was convinced I had made the right decision to volunteer. This trip was not only something I wanted to do, but it was something I felt I had to do.
I’m so glad I learned of this opportunity; prior to watching that travel show, I was unaware that such an opportunity even existed. As a Canadian, and being so far from where rhinos roam, I wanted to contribute in a way I could, with my time, energy and a donation.
And so, on the evening of October 2, 2016, I boarded an overnight flight from Toronto, Canada to Munich, Germany, where I caught another overnight flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. I landed in Johannesburg early in the morning of October 4 and once I passed through customs and picked up my backpack, I was greeted by Martin Bornman from ACE. I immediately recognized him from my research prior to the trip. Although I was sleep-deprived from two long, uncomfortable flights, I didn’t care. I just wanted to get to my ultimate destination – Care for Wild Africa – and start working.
Sitting around a table at the airport, Martin gave four other newly-arrived volunteers and me a very interesting briefing on South Africa, the poaching crisis, and an idea of what to expect at the places where we’d be volunteering. One of the other four volunteers (Karen from the United States) was going to the same place I was, while the other three were volunteering at other ACE-sponsored projects.
After our briefing, Karen and I hopped on a shuttle that would take us to the city of Nelspruit, the capital city of the province of Mpumalanga. During the three-hour drive, we had the opportunity to talk and to get to know each other. She’s an incredibly nice lady who volunteers at an animal shelter back home, but like me, she had never done any volunteering like the kind we were about to encounter.
The shuttle took us to a depot in Nelspruit, where we were met by Shannon, an energetic young lady who works at CFWA. We put our bags in the minivan and hopped in. On our way to CFWA, we had to stop at a local veterinarian's office to pick up something. Karen and I thought we were going to pick up supplies, but instead, we picked up an adorable baby duiker. Apparently, it had been in an accident and CFWA was going to give it additional medical attention and rehabilitate it back to health. This beautiful creature was so small and fragile. Without wasting any time, we had gotten a sense of CFWA’s rescue efforts even before we arrived at the sanctuary. Although CFWA specializes in rehabilitating orphaned rhinos, it also takes in other abandoned, injured and displaced wildlife.
After a twenty-minute ride, we arrived at the unmarked gates. Naturally, Karen and I were really excited. As we drove along the long, winding and extremely bumpy dirt road, we were spotting kudus, impalas and duikers roaming freely, constantly asking Shannon to stop so we could take pictures. She willingly obliged and it was just so beautiful and captivating to see these wild animals in their natural surroundings. That drive seemed like a mini-safari.
Once we arrived at the barn at the heart of the sanctuary, Karen and I unloaded our bags and were warmly greeted by some staff members (Michaela, Dot and Izak) and the three other volunteers (two were leaving the next day, but one [Jessica from Sweden] would stay another week). Another lady, Lise, also from the United States, was starting her two-week volunteer placement alongside Karen and me. After unpacking and settling in to our quarters, we all took the opportunity to walk around the property together, seeing some of the animals that we would be caring for, and began working that evening with the preparation and feeding of the baby rhinos.
What an experience that was! Bottle-feeding baby rhinos was simply amazing. Looking into their eyes, I saw their beautiful souls each and every time I fed them. “And I get to do this every day for two weeks”, I thought to myself.
Actually, it was a privilege and honour to be entrusted to care for all the animals there, both big and small, both approachable and dangerous. But the rhinos were undoubtedly the main attraction and it didn’t matter if they were babies, adolescents or adult rhinos. After all, they’re the principal reason why volunteers are attracted to Care for Wild Africa.
I’m not sure there is a ‘typical’ day at CFWA, but my days usually started around 6:00 am (sometimes sooner; it depended on when Tuscan, the resident lion, would provide his morning wakeup call), and we finished working around 8:00 at night. In between, there would be formulas to prepare and administer, dry feeds to prepare and distribute, a lot of cleaning up (our own preparatory mess and the rhinos’ messes), a lot of physical work, some meetings, a bit of downtime and a lot of laughs and smiles, all while forming incredible friendships, bonds and memories. I remember saying to Lise early in our placement, “for the next two weeks, we’re family”, and like family, we all looked out for each other, helped each other, and supported each other whenever one of us was feeling a little overwhelmed (whether physically or emotionally). Fortunately, the chemistry between all the volunteers (including Jeremy and his newlywed wife, Courtney [from Scotland], and Sabrina [from Argentina], who joined Karen, Lise and me during our second week) was natural and instantaneous. Sitting around the occasional bonfire at night after a hard day’s work only strengthened the comradery among the volunteers and the staff. It didn’t matter how tired we were at the end of the day, all of us volunteers were ready and willing to do it all again the next day.
The set of daily chores and tasks was more or less consistent, although sometimes changes were in the offing. For me, one of my little ‘deviations from the norm’ was cooking breakfast for everyone one Sunday morning (a day off for some of the staff). I was more than happy to do it, and I think I did a decent job with the eggs and sausages. Another was accepting Izak’s invitation to walk the perimeter of the property with him to inspect the electric fence that was in the process of being installed and to take measurements between posts. This adventure was also one of the trip’s highlights for me, for a few reasons: I got to see parts of the property that hardly anyone sees (like the newly constructed guardhouse); our work led, in part, to the eventual permanent release of the adult rhinos into their natural habitat (a significant and joyous achievement for CFWA subsequent to my departure); and I truly enjoyed the adventure with my new South African brother. Hiking the steep inclines and declines of the mountainous terrain in scorching hot weather was not easy. It’s probably safe to say that sections of the hike were dangerous. There were numerous places in the unforgiving landscape where we could have easily slipped on the loose gravel and fallen and injured ourselves on the sharp rocks or we could have electrocuted ourselves if we had fallen against the fence instead of away from it (into the thorny bushes). The physical challenge was extremely enjoyable given the company.
During one of our three hiking days, while resting on top of a hill, we saw a herd of wildebeests running across the reserve. There must have been 50 of them; what a beautiful sight! “Only in Africa”, I said to Izak, before uttering some colourful language when I realized I had no memory in my phone to allow me to take a video or photo of the event. Later along our hike, a giraffe stood about 20 feet from us – another wonderful missed photo-op. That night, I made sure I cleared some memory for our next day’s outing so as not to repeat these mishaps. As luck would have it, we had a couple of giraffes pose for us the next day.
I’m happy there weren’t any new orphaned rhino arrivals at CFWA during my two-week placement there, although I was pretty confident rhinos were poached anyway in nearby Kruger National Park. I don’t know how I would have reacted – probably with a mix of emotions: sympathy because of the horrific and traumatic situation these innocent animals were forced to endure at such a young age; anger towards those responsible for the heinous acts; and admiration and gratitude to the team of dedicated vets and staff who would do anything to save these precious lives. Sadly, though, a few arrived in the weeks following my volunteer placement.
Every animal under CFWA’s care has a sad story that has led to them being placed there, whether it’s a poaching incident, abandonment, an injury or confiscation by the local authorities. Regardless of the animals’ specific circumstances, there’s an urgent, desperate and indisputable need for sanctuaries like Care for Wild Africa to exist. Recognizing this need, I did a little fundraising before my trip. As I had written earlier, I felt this trip was something I had to do. Even though my fundraising effort was modestly successful (I raised $723 Cdn from friends, colleagues and family members, equivalent to over 7,200 South African rand), I always felt I wanted to do more. When I discreetly presented Petronel with the cheque, she was overwhelmed; she cried and gave me a hug. I felt so good about my initiative.
Now that I’m back home and after having let a bit of time pass, I’m ready to do more. I think it’s incumbent upon all ACE volunteers to become ambassadors / spokespersons for the species we care about. Although we cannot fight every injustice in the world, we should stand up for at least one cause. For me, it’s animal rights and rhinos. Never before have I been so passionate about an issue. Whenever I talk about my trip or do anything related to it (like writing this article, for instance), I cannot help but get emotional about it. The rhinos have a hold on me. They are constantly in my mind and in my heart; they inspire me.
Rhinoceroses must not become extinct in the wild; some have estimated this eventuality could occur in as little as 10-20 years! Instead, they must once again thrive and grow in numbers to a more sustainable population, well above today’s level. Their extinction, if it were to happen, would be a tragedy and a very sad commentary on humanity. It’s bad enough they’re already endangered, but they are becoming more endangered by the day because of greed and misplaced beliefs. A change in mindset, spurred by information, must take hold. At work, I’ve offered to do a travelogue presentation to not only share my South African experience with others, but more importantly, to raise awareness of the plight facing rhinos by informing my colleagues of what I had learned during my months of research leading up to my trip. Hopefully, that information will encourage at least one more person to act.
On a larger scale, I’m looking into the possibility of starting a Canadian charity that will help fund Care for Wild Africa, and possibly other sanctuaries as well. It will not be easy to accomplish. I have already done a fair amount of reading on starting a charity in Canada, but I have to find other like-minded individuals who share the same passion as me to save these wonderful animals and who are selflessly willing to invest the time and effort to make it happen. In a recent telephone conversation I had with a founder of the US-based charity Baby Rhino Rescue, Helena, who I had the pleasure of meeting while volunteering, she poetically said to me “the rhinos are calling you”. I believe she’s right. I heard their call while watching television that fateful afternoon in April last year, and I’ve been hearing it get louder ever since.