I was studying to be a veterinary assistant in the Netherlands before joining this experience. My plan was to then go onto university and become a vet, which unfortunately did not work out so I decided to do a volunteer experience with African wildlife. I wanted an eye opening experience where I could learn about Africa, the people, and their culture and see how it is different from my own experience in Europe.
When I found ACE they were extremely supportive. They gave me a lot of information on the projects so I could choose a project that fit my own interests. The team were happy to speak to my parents as well to address their concerns. To fundraise for my trip I worked a lot of odd jobs and as I learned more about what I would be doing in Africa it really gave me a sense of purpose and drive to keep working and saving!
I had some amazing experiences during my stay. One which really stands out for me was when I took part in a rhino dehorning. During that day we dehorned 3 rhinos in total, and I learnt a lot about how the process worked. We had to set off very early in the morning, grab all of the equipment, and drive into the Greater Kruger National Park. One of the rhinos we worked on had a young calf with her, which unfortunately had been orphaned and didn’t belong to the rhino we were dehorning. This calf was in very bad shape so the team sedated him and called the park authorities. The rhino calf was then carried away by a helicopter using a cable that hung below it. It was a very sad situation that made the team and I quite emotional, but if we had not intervened, the calf would not have survived and so we gave it the best chance of survival. Seeing how the vets are still affected emotionally by what they see really brought home how important their work is and how passionate they are about wildlife.
It was incredible to experience how the teams work together towards one common goal. Just finding and darting a rhino takes a lot of communication. They had one team up in the helicopter searching for the rhino and directing the team on the ground who would have to closely follow instructions. When we would find the rhinos it would take a lot of work to dart and stabilise the animal. Being a part of this process was mind-blowing and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Another experience that stood out to me was when a female pangolin was brought into the practice by the anti poaching K9 unit. The pangolin had been held by poachers and was severely malnourished. She was incredibly lucky to have been found by the anti-poaching team. When the vets sedated her and performed an ultrasound we found out she was pregnant and I was able to hear the tiny heartbeat! The vets gave her a mixture of different foods to give her the right balance of nutrition and to get her energy levels back up. Interestingly, the food we gave her also included a lot of sand as they would naturally eat a lot of sand anyway. The vets allowed me to carry the pangolin to its isolation box where she could wake up in a quiet and calm place. Being able to carry her was amazing and definitely something most people will never get to do. These animals do not deserve to be treated the way they are by poachers.
Being in the Kruger is like nothing I have ever experienced before. I learnt how important wildlife vets are and how complex it really is to work in this field. Even simple things such as changing the animal’s position when they are sedated are extremely important. I really got a feel for how to care for an animal whilst the vets performed procedures on them.
I’m really going to miss the host family and especially their cooking. She could open her own restaurant and it would be packed every night! The family is really kind and they would not let me lift a finger around the home even though I offered to help. It was great getting to know them and hear their stories about travelling in Botswana. The beds are also really comfortable with mosquito nets and fans if you get too hot. I even had my own ensuite bathroom with a shower. You really get a feeling of being in Africa when you stay with them because you experience the culture, the people, and the food! Even having breakfast in the morning would bring something completely different, such as giraffes walking through the backyard whilst I was eating. I was able to enjoy being surrounded by wildlife.
This is a real vet experience where you will see the raw reality of being a wildlife vet. It is not for the fainthearted! I was right there next to the vet as he treated animals for wounds if they had been caught in a snare and when a dog had been attacked by monkeys. It is not a fairytale but the real thing and you will see things on a daily basis that you wouldn’t normally see. It was a real eye-opening experience where I learnt about the different drugs the vets use and the treatment for different animals. This experience has really changed me as a person. I am much more conscious about what is going on in regards to the conservation of different animals, especially rhinos and I am looking forward to going home and raising awareness! Overall, I had an amazing, confronting, and emotional experience. I enjoyed every minute of my trip to South Africa.