23 Feb 2017
All our volunteers are incredibly valuable and we appreciate each volunteer’s help enormously to achieve our daily conservation goals. There are times, however, when a volunteer goes above and beyond the norm and makes a significant impact to our organization. We’d like to share some of their stories and efforts with you.
Helen Reilly (AUS)
Wildlife ACT conservation volunteer 2013
Following my dream
What feels like a lifetime ago now, but probably in reality is only about 18 months, I chose to follow my dream. I had six months long service leave due and decided that now was the time to get up, get out and try to make a difference in the world somehow. My professional career has been mostly in environmental monitoring and medical research and that work has brought me into contact with many amazing, committed and wonderful people from all over the world and these are the people I went to for help in choosing the right path. The dream was of course Africa, but not the Africa most people see from game lodges and safari drives. What I wanted to do, in my own small way, was to become involved at grass roots level, to see and experience some of what my committed friends and professional contacts experience, to learn first hand of both the joys and the frustrations of trying to make a difference to wildlife conservation in Africa.
Finding the right volunteer organisation in Africa
In all of this one organisation, and the same names, kept recurring – Wildlife ACT. Nonetheless before I committed I did some incredibly thorough research on the organisation, its directors, staff, projects, and all the other organisations with which Wildlife ACT works. This information was easily available and simple to find (transparency is always encouraging) and I was impressed with what I found. So…I emailed Bronwen.
From this initial contact I arranged eight weeks across four different reserves – Mkhuze, Tembe, Hluhluwe and iMfolosi. Desperate to convince my husband to join me for at least some of the time I went back to Bronwen and asked what was happening anywhere during my proposed stay related to birds, my husband’s passion. The annual vulture chick tagging as part of the Zululand Vulture Project was due to begin around the the time of my visit, so my husband was duly booked in for two weeks at Mkhuze too. And thus started the “Vulture Fund’.
Raising funds for Vulture conservation
The ‘Vulture Fund’ came from the idea to raise some money for GPS tracking units for this year’s fledglings. Like most people I knew very little about the birds, although I did know that they are endangered, but the more I learnt the more important it seemed to try and do this. So with the words of my son who works for a car dealership ringing in my ears – ‘Mum if you can sell vultures there’s a job for you on the used car sales team’ – I set up a designated bank account and put the word out amongst friends and colleagues that I was fund raising, wanted just their spare change and by the way how much did they know about vultures? Fortunately, Wildlife ACT pretty much sold itself so my task was raising awareness.
My ‘Vulture Fund’
I set the target at ZAR 50,000. By the time I left for SA at the end of September I had been able to transfer half of that, which bought five GPS tracking devices now all fitted to this year’s fledglings, and courtesy of Wildlife ACT who went out of their way to ensure it happened, both my husband Stephen and myself were able to be involved first hand. The fund remains open and I hope we will be able to to ensure the purchase of further units for the 2014 chicks.
My experience with Wildlife ACT
Wildlife ACT is a first rate organisation and the experience it offers is also first rate. Its monitors on the ground have consistently continued to impress with their knowledge, patience, passion and commitment. My experience has been one of both pure pleasure and hard work and something special, outside of the regular monitoring work, has happened at each reserve I have been in. What I do need to stress for any potential volunteers however is what the experience actually is and what it is not. It is not a five star holiday safari, it is not a series of game drives through the reserves with sundowners, your accommodation though clean and comfortable is not a five star game lodge and the monitors are not there as your personal guide. It is a hands on close up experience of monitoring the wild dog populations in the various reserves (the main focus of the monitoring efforts), along with lion and elephant in Tembe, you will be expected to be ready to go at 4 am every morning rain, cold, wind or heat and then again in the afternoon. You will be expected to work, both on the telemetry and on anything else that needs doing, including odd jobs around camp and the weekly admin work. In return you will have had the privilege of getting up close and personal with some of Africa’s extraordinary wildlife and the satisfaction of making a difference, no matter how small.
As for me, I quit my job at 5 am one morning in iMfolozi, I extended my stay so I can spend some time on the last remaining of the five reserves in which Wildlife ACT works that I am yet to visit – Zimanga Private Game Reserve.
I’ve now been back home for three months or so. These days instead of spending my day indoors chained to a desk and computer I’m working with my local council helping to introduce kids to the wonders of the Australian bush and helping the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology with their wildlife population census work. I’m planning to be back in Zululand with Wildlife ACT towards the end of the year.