Review of Wildlife ACT - Volunteer in South Africa, Mkhuze Reserve – Feb 2013
My friend and I (both female, mid 30’s to mid 40’s) spent two weeks volunteering with Wildlife ACT in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. What an amazing adventure we had! We were on a very tight budget, hoping to spend under $2,000 (USD) per person, for the project placement and all of our time on the ground (not including flight cost), which we accomplished easily. I spent no less than 40 hours of researching many different groups that offer wildlife and conservation volunteer trips. I considered their ethics and motives, their research validity, conservation plans, past accomplishments, focus species, safety and support system, reviews from past volunteers on TA and other places, and of course, cost, among other things. After sorting through a mountain of info, and discounting many programs that had questionable or non-sustainable objectives, places that could (or would) not provide information on their research/accomplishments, and places that seemed to invent things for their “voluntourists” to do, I came up with a short list, and finally decided on Wildlife ACT.
Over the course of 2 weeks, I learned so much and was truly inspired by the work they’re doing. The focus at their Mkhuze Reserve program is the critically endangered African Wild Dog (Painted Hunting Dog/Lycaon Pictus), the Cheetah, Black Rhino, Lappet Faced Vulture and Elephant. I’m so grateful to have been able to make a tangible contribution and share so much valuable time with the Wild Dogs, Cheetahs, and other wildlife at Mkhuze.
The team at Wildlife ACT are a truly dedicated, passionate group of conservationists. They run a well-organized volunteer program that is broken into small groups so each volunteer gets to experience as much as they want to, and make a real contribution to the work. They only take 4 volunteers per reserve at a time, so you can choose to get involved and get your hands dirty in each task, or choose those tasks that you most enjoy. Of course, some things require the help of all volunteers available, like when we built a “rhino-guard” fence around the vulture hide, since the local rhinos had way too much fun playing with our man-made structure! Normally, you can choose the level of physical activity you participate in, and there’s not a lot of hiking or manual labor required, so people of reasonable fitness of any age can contribute to various aspects of the work. Whether it’s getting out of the truck and doing the dirty work, maintaining the camp, cooking/preparing food, or helping with gathering and logging data, there’s a task suitable for everyone.
Orientation is a short presentation, as is safety protocol, and everything else is learn-as-you-go. So there’s not a bunch of time spent sitting around listening to someone talk, you’re out driving and working from day one. Volunteer groups are hand-picked by the Volunteer Coordinator whenever possible, and our group was awesome and worked very well together. Some of us became great friends and still keep in touch.
Some exciting things we were involved in include: bringing food to, and cleaning the water for the cheetah that was awaiting release in the boma, learning the use of Radio Telemetry for tracking collared animals, learning the use of GPS location of collared animals using Triangulation, spoor (footprint) tracking, the use of camera traps for capturing data on elusive animals, spending each amazing dawn and dusk locating and checking on the health of the critically endangered Wild Dog pack on the reserve, putting out carcasses at the newly constructed Vulture Hide, and probably the most awesome experience was being involved in the darting and removal of a poacher’s snare from one of the Wild Dogs. I was also very interested in the research side of things and was able to learn to take useful data on focus species each day, and enter that data into a computer program for current and future research studies. It’s not like a luxury photo safari, but you’ll see lots of different species and landscapes as you go about your work.
Every day was different and always held a surprise. We got to see so many important species, including tracking and getting to see the resident Elephant herd with a new calf, a couple endangered Black Rhino, several White Rhino, many Giraffe including a few babies, lots of Zebra, Baboons and Vervet monkeys, Kudu, Wildebeest, Buffalo, Hyena, a Black Mamba, a Hippo, Duikers, so many Impala and Nyala we practically had them coming out our ears, and we even got to see a pride of Lions feeding on the other side of the South fence. There were also some awesome birds like a Bateleur, a Secretary Bird, a Steppe Buzzard, lots of interesting smaller species, and many huge vultures like Whitebacks and the endangered Lappet Faced Vulture.
The camp at Mkhuze is comfortable and basic. Food available is simple but adequate, so if you want or need something special, you should get it before you get to camp, or you can request it or go on the weekly shopping trip. There’s also a little shop a couple minutes walk from camp that has a few supplies like some food staples, bottled water, sodas, batteries, post cards, tee-shirts, maps, beer/wine, and of course a selection of ice-creams. There’s a small bird hide there, and a bit further down the path there’s a pool with a nice sitting area that was very relaxing. There’s also a little café in the area that serves lunch and dinner. We got to experience a South African braai (barbeque) at camp one evening, and sample some of the local foods, which was a real treat.
Be prepared to deal with a good many bugs and a few other interesting visitors like frogs, scorpions, geckos, bush babies, baboons, impala and nyala at camp. Most of which are harmless, and keeping your room door closed will keep most everyone out. You’ll probably get bitten by some mosquitos while there, but bug spray helps that a great deal and it’s a low-risk malarial area. Most of the volunteers didn’t take malaria drugs, got bitten a good amount, but had no ill effects. (I’m not advocating you forgo those or any other medication – follow the advice of your physician, I’m just relaying our experience). We also got a few tick bites, none of which caused any issues. Speaking as a person with a *strong* desire to avoid bugs/spiders touching me (I admit to being fairly arachnophobic) I found that I actually got used to most of the bugs and got better about the spiders. I brought a mosquito net for over my bed, though! All the volunteers got a number of assorted bug bites, but no one had any real problems with them. Be sure you have one, preferably 2, good torches for walking around camp at night, as you wouldn’t want to step on any little creatures roaming around, and it will help to scare off any unwanted animal visitors. We had no issues with even the scary baboons that hung around beyond the camp yard, and the monkeys that came in the kitchen when no one was around were easily shoo’d away.
It seems that Trip Advisor wants reviews to contain “what you disliked” so I will strain to give you examples of the only minor issues we found. Our only complaints about the camp would be that my friend said her bed was a bit uncomfortable but we folded a comforter in the low spot and she said it was fine from then on, and my bed was great. Also the coffee is powdered, as is normal in much of Africa, and although we whined at first, we got quite used to it and even liked it by the end. One of the other volunteers eventually found a coffee press hidden away in a cupboard and used it to make coffee that she had brought. And finally, my friend and I are Horse Trainers and very active in our normal life, and found it a bit difficult to adapt to a less physically active schedule. There are, of course, periods of potential hard work and activity spaced irregularly throughout the days, but we found taking a daily walk (sometimes two) to be the only other form of regular exercise. We actually resorted to silly push-up and pull-up contests, but that was short-lived, as the other volunteers were fine with the level of activity. All very minor points, but they may help someone figure what extras to pack. ;)
The work schedule at Mkhuze revolves around checking on the Wild Dogs each dawn and dusk as a primary objective, so we were up early and consequently got to bed fairly early. There’s usually a midday time for lunch and relaxation/nap/socializing/pool or catching up with camp duties. They do have a maid that comes every week and she can do your laundry, with the exception of intimates which you can hand-wash yourself. There’s no washing machine. The shower has hot water, but we found it to be not quite enough for all of us. Most of the time it is very warm out and taking a cool shower was no problem for any of us. The internet is slow and not terribly reliable, being out in the bush, but we were all able to check our emails at least every few days, which was just enough to stay in touch but leave civilization blissfully behind. Most of our cell phones had fair service at camp and around the reserve and I was able to send and receive texts every day.
The Wildlife ACT team is a close-knit group and key members were always there to help with anything out of the ordinary we encountered. Our Mkhuze Wildlife Monitor, Cole, was a wealth of knowledge, dedicated, passionate and adaptable. Safety protocols are taught to volunteers, but our Wildlife Monitor was always watching out for us. On several occasions we were involved in projects that required the help of other staff members and in each case, we were impressed by their professional, yet friendly attitude and by their dedication and expertise. Bronwen, the Volunteer Coordinator was amazingly helpful for everything pre-departure and even when we got to SA and Delta lost our luggage, she completely took care of getting it back to us, on the reserve.
The monitoring done by Wildlife ACT, and similar groups, is an essential conservation and protection measure, as poaching is rampant in many areas, and wildlife and humans are coming into greater conflict all the time. The tracking, monitoring and observation of critical species provides physical security to the animals, as the sheer presence of monitors deters poachers. Animals that roam outside the protected areas can be tracked, identified and brought back safely. Additionally, each individual animal’s well-being is also monitored, and vet assistance and relocation services are provided or assisted by Wildlife ACT, at no cost to the reserve. The data collected by Wildlife ACT helps to inform conservation decisions in the region and contributes to important research, in order to protect critical species and their future in Africa.
Overall, I feel I was able to make a real contribution to the program through the physical work I put in and the small volunteer fee. Also, with the skills I was able to learn and practice, I will be more of an asset to conservation work in the future. There are also some specific projects that need to be done around camp and in the field, where volunteers with special skills may be utilized to assist with planning and execution. This is a small, but passionate group and there’s a lot of work to be done and many projects slated for the future of conservation in each of the reserves they work on. Being able to experience the bush and South Africa’s amazing wildlife with such a great team, doing real, front-line conservation was truly inspirational. With all the heartbreaking atrocities going on with our wildlife and ecosystems today, this program is a bright light in the fight to save them.
Please feel free to contact me or ask any other questions you may have regarding our trip or Wildlife ACT in general, as you may have noticed, I love talking about it. ;) I can’t wait to go back and would highly recommend this program to anyone interested in contributing to real conservation while having a great bush adventure at the same time!