My name is Tanya Stapleton, I volunteered at Care for Wild for 6 weeks in August/September 2019. I have previously volunteered in South Africa before and Zimbabwe. Even though I had an amazing time, neither of them felt completely right or that id made a difference. Care for Wild was a perfect fit right from the start.
My journey to Care for Wild really started back in November 2018. After a particularly nasty day at work, I returned home, looked at the application form on ACE which felt like it had been permanently sat on my laptop screen forever and with a deep breath pushed send. The next day I got an email from ACE requesting a phone call and it turned into the best phone call of my life. I got a sense that this was the right project for me, finally.
For the next nine months, I went through stages of being excited and terrified. I’d volunteered in Africa before, but there’s always the thoughts of what if I don’t make friends, what will the staff be like and what if I am terrible and become more of a hindrance than a help. I’ve always wanted to work with rhinos and despite having qualifications and experience with animals I found myself in a job that I had grown to hate that had nothing to do with animals. I took a crazy step and quit. Honestly, it wasn’t until the week before I flew to Africa that I realised how crazy and risky that was, but it felt like a long overdue step in the right direction… and it really was.
The biggest coincidence of the journey was that the plane had seated me next to another Care for Wild volunteer. Also, due to the flight buddies list provided by ACE, I had already met up with a fellow volunteer at Heathrow. The three of us made our way through customs and baggage and managed to find ACE in Joburg airport. There were lots of other volunteers there going to different projects, but despite being nervous I just like to throw myself in and try and chat to as many as I can. The journey to the project was uneventful but got chatting to a few other vols. Majority of the bus were sleeping, but I was just so pumped to be back in Africa that I was never going to close my eyes for a moment.
I arrived at Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary on August 5th, 2019 and very quickly discovered that I was the only person staying for six weeks. The longest anyone else was staying was 3 weeks. I was shocked. Every time I volunteered in Africa before, I stayed a minimum of a month. It was the norm for me. “You realise you get to work with rhinos, right?” I joked. Obviously, there are many different reasons to consider for everyone. I realise that it was a risk to commit to a long period of time somewhere that I might not have liked, but I had a feeling from the start that it was the right place for me to be. Right from the start I knew it was going to be difficult to leave.
The first week was spent getting to know the ropes and the other volunteers and of course, the staff. I must admit that I felt a bit intimidated by the staff at first because I can be quite quiet, but they were all lovely and you can see the passion and love they have for every rhino. It was a privilege to work alongside them all every day. Petronel Nieuwoudt is one of my heroes and she was always so keen for the volunteers to be involved in everything. It was an honour to meet and talk with her.
Most days involve tasks such as feeding the baby rhinos, cleaning out the bomas, putting together dry feeds, collecting hay bales for food or bedding and just general maintenance around the bomas. They also have a few other animals at Care for Wild. A couple of resident hippos and Lions as well as a herd of Nyala that you feed every day. Extra activities can be arranged. Staff are always keen to ask us what we want to do, and you are constantly told that you only need to do what you can. I had never had that before at any other volunteer program.
The work is very physically demanding, and you are out in the heat, but by working as a team and looking after each other, it was never a problem. I never wanted to take days off. I didn’t want to miss a second helping the rhinos. I went on a few sunset and night drives, bush walks, demonstration by canine unit, scorpion hunt and a full day out to Kruger National Park.
The greatest moment at Care for Wild for me was when the staff allowed me in with a six-month-old baby black rhino called Swazi. She was in quarantine with a goat for company and I was to be more company for her. Due to my long stay and just working hard and being there for the right reasons, I guess I qualified for this honour. Little Swazi left a permanent rhino sized footprint on my heart and I treasured every moment with her and miss her.
You feed the baby rhinos every day, but there are larger rhinos in the outer protection zone. Rhino orphans that have progressed to the “release” part of Care for Wild’s “Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release” motto. Under 24 hr guard, it is wonderful to see them. If anything, they are a true example to the amazing and successful work done at Care for Wild.
While I was there, I was lucky enough to witness de-horning of two black rhinos. It was probably one of the greatest days of my life.
There is one key element that always escapes me when I volunteer in Africa, mainly because I’m so rhino focused… it’s the other volunteers. I made some amazing lifelong friends at Care for Wild. My time there would never have been as much fun as it was without them. I’ve never laughed so hard or smiled so much than when I was in their company. So, if I haven’t thanked them yet then hopefully, they are reading this now and know how much I miss them and appreciate their friendship. Nothing bonds you quite like shovelling rhino poo together.
I think the most important thing to remember at Care for Wild is that you are there for the rhinos. It’s not a petting zoo or a photo shoot. You can touch them, and you can take photos, but you are there to help them. Some of the traumatic stories that these baby rhinos have will cause even the strongest person to well up. They are the survivors of scenes that you couldn’t imagine in your worst nightmares. Sometimes just watching them bond and play together will make every day there worthwhile.
I hope to return to Care for Wild as soon as I have the time and money to do so. Words cannot really describe how amazing this place is or how it made me feel, but I hope that this testimony is a good start. Thank you!