Group of ACE volunteers relaxing around the campfire

I was fortunate enough to travel through African Conservation Experience (ACE) for six weeks at four amazing projects: Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, The Vikela Kruger Conservation Experience, Care for Wild Africa Rhino Sanctuary,  and Phinda Wildlife Research Project. Being an 18-year-old who had just graduated from high school, I was slightly intimidated to travel on my own for as long as I did.

As soon as I reached Johannesburg airport any nerves I had instantly vanished because of how welcoming and friendly the in-country team from ACE was. 

There ended up being about six ACE volunteers who sat in the lovely Mugg & Bean restaurant at Johannesburg airport and had a complimentary breakfast. It gave us some time to get to know one another and ask any questions to the ACE staff. We also got to hear a very insightful talk from the ACE team that prepared us for some of the realities that we would face when dealing with conservation in South Africa. Some of the other volunteers I met in the airport I later reunited with, which was so cool!

Volunteer tip: I recommend trading social media details at the airport with the other ACE volunteers, to keep up-to-date with the cool things they are doing at the other projects!

The first project I visited was Moholoholo. I spent two weeks there and fell in love with all of the animals. I was in the group that was responsible for taking care of three eagles, three spotted eagle owls, and two servals. Later I was put in charge of two nyala and helped out with many other animals.

The work wasn't easy and the days could feel long, but I loved every second of it because the animals and staff were amazing.

Each week new volunteers came through, including a group of 18 university students the first week, and so I found it really special getting to meet so many new people. There were multiple presentations that I got to listen to, including a conservation talk from vet Dr. Peter Rogers.

There was also a talk about the terrible poisonings that are threatening many of Africa’s vulture populations by Dr. Lindy Thompson, who works with the Endangered Wildlife Trust. 

I was privileged to be a part of Moholoholo’s release of 10 vultures, including the cape vulture (vulnerable), lappet-faced vulture (endangered), white-backed vulture (critically endangered), and hooded vulture (critically endangered). Another volunteer and I got to spend the whole morning helping the staff, Dr. Lindy Thompson, and her partner prepare the vultures for release by taking measurements of each one and attaching GPS trackers or tags to them.

This was an incredible experience. Leaving Moholoholo was not easy, but fortunately, my next location was amazing as well.

I spent one week at the Vikela Kruger Project and was accompanied by one other volunteer. The project staff here are experts at what they do and are accompanied by their beautiful working dog Letta. They taught the other volunteer and I so much about tracking wildlife by foot, and one day we spent six hours tracking the critically endangered black rhino in the Kruger, and were able to observe their natural behaviours.

Right after we spotted some black rhinos and started to collect vital data on them, we encountered a wild dog, a very endangered species - how amazing!

We spent every morning and evening driving around the Kruger National Park, monitoring the species that we encountered, and some days we could work on projects such as bush removal and road repairs. We saw a huge variety of animals, including the 'Big 5', giraffes, hyenas, hippos, many different types of antelope, mongoose, and so many more. The Vikela Kruger Project is an amazing experience that opened my eyes to the importance of saving Africa’s wild animals. 

My third location was Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary. I only spent six days here, but I wish that I had stayed for longer. Care For Wild is an incredible sanctuary that is home to many orphaned rhinos who are in the process of being rehabilitated and released. Tasks at Care For Wild included preparing bottles and fish cakes for baby rhinos, preparing feed for the older rhinos, and cleaning enclosures. Care For Wild does so much for their community, such as their Lomshyio Community Farming Project and their Junior Ranger Program!

I was so impressed by Care For Wild's exceptional treatment of the animals in their care and their commitment to the betterment of their local community.

All of the staff at Care For Wild were incredibly kind and welcoming, and even though I only spent six days there, I fell in love with the animals and organisation, and would definitely love to go back in the future.

My final destination was Phinda Private Game Reserve, where I spent my last two weeks. Phinda is a beautiful reserve that is home to a large diversity of species, both plants and animals.

At Phinda, much of our time was spent locating elephants with telemetry, observing them, and collecting data. I loved this as I got to know many of the herds' different personalities and distinguishing features. 

We spent so much of our time with the elephants because there was a long-term study on the effects of the contraception used on their elephants.

I was also fortunate enough to participate in the horn trimming of one of their black rhinos, which is an effective anti-poaching method employed to protect South Africa's rhino population. It was amazing to see this technique in action as I learned a lot about the severe effects of poaching on rhinos and other species. I even got to watch the amputation of an injured cheetah’s toe and got to observe it throughout the beginning of its recovery, (see the photos I caught of this treatment!)

My highlight of the management work at Phinda I got to be involved in, was the multiple elephant captures for relocations and checkups. This was an incredible experience to learn about.

While at Phinda I saw so many beautiful animals and landscapes. I was glad that my last location was spent with such amazing staff and volunteers. 

ACE is a great company that I would highly recommend travelling with.

I loved my experience in South Africa and am already wanting to plan my next trip. All four of the locations I volunteered at were eye-opening in different ways and taught me so much about wildlife conservation, research, and rehabilitation. 

All of the locations that I went to were very accommodating to my vegan diet and had great food. I felt safe at every project and made friendships with staff members and other volunteers that have lasted until this day. I would highly recommend volunteering through ACE at these locations!