I told some of my friends and family that during this wildlife volunteering experience I would probably have to get up by 4am. I was wrong. We actually had to be in the truck and ready to go even earlier than that. But it is so worth it.
First up is a short drive to the beacon: a tower which we climb to check which animals are around. We use telemetry to check the whereabouts of the collared animals that are a priority. At uMkhuze Game Reserve, that would be Lion, Cheetah and Wild Dog.
Once done, we head down to the Wild Dog den (about a 50 minute drive from camp). Hence the reason why we have to get up so early as we want to ‘catch’ the dogs before they leave their den.
Just before we reach the den, we check again to see if they are still around. They were, but on the move. Before we continued, we did stop by the den. You can feel the adrenaline rush going through your body whilst searching for their whereabouts. Every so often we stop to check using telemetry: 3 ‘o clock, 4 ‘o clock etc. Love it.
After searching for the dogs we finally saw them crossing the road in front of us. Goosebumps!! And it wasn’t because of the cold and wind this time around. (Yeah, even though it was spring time in South Africa, 4am is COLD, especially on the back of the truck).
After being on the road out in the cold (and of course out of bed that early), we stopped for a second morning coffee and the famous South African RUSKS. You don’t find those anywhere else in the world. You’d come to visit even just for that.
What do you think happened next? We were just about to head out again and there the dogs were – running past us! So a quick gulp of coffee and we begin to follow them. This is not an easy job for the person handling the telemetry. She/he has to keep it up in the air whilst we’re driving, and also check and listen to the receiver to hear where the collared dog is. You can only track one dog (or other animal) at a time. Our adrenaline was pumping! The two other ladies in our group have been to other Wildlife ACT projects, so they know how to use it. Soon it’ll be my turn.
Catching just a glimpse of the dogs is truly enough to see what magnificent, intriguing animals they are. On our way back to camp we always do a few more telemetric searches of some of the other collared animals. That day we also had to change batteries and SD cards on the camera traps. Wihan (one of our monitors) explained step by step what had to be done. Everything that is recorded that morning (and on every monitoring session) is also written down on a data sheet.
Around noon we all got together and had our briefing and Q&A with Wihan and Anel (the second monitor). It was nice to all sit around outside and hear all about Wildlife ACT’s past and present goals and achievements. I was even more convinced that I came to the right place.
During this session we also got our lesson in how to use and work with the telemetric antenna and receiver. To practice more of a hands-on feeling, Wihan let us search for an unused collar. That was so great to do as it gives you a feeling of what needs to happen when you are out in the field. I was able to use my newly-obtained skills the day after.
We left for the afternoon session at 3:30pm in search for MCF16. Let me explain this:
M = uMkhuze Game Reserve
C = Species (Cheetah, Lion, Wild Dog)
F = Sex
16 = Their given number
All the numbers are in the receiver, so it is easy enough to switch from one animal to the next. Because all the data is collected for research, and we need information about that specific animal’s whereabouts and physical condition, we will only search for that particular animal. Of course, if we do come across another one, we will record all the data needed.
In this case, our search was unfruitful. This female Cheetah was nowhere to be seen. Stopping after multiple searches, we decided to look for the Lions as well. We were very lucky to track a Lioness with cubs. We knew she was close, yet we could not get a visual. After searching for some of the other animals, we decided to go back to the Lioness’ location and wait. Wait, check the exact whereabouts, wait.
But the wait wasn’t in vain. By that time the clouds had finally started to disappear and the most breathtaking night sky opened up above us. And there she was – the Milky Way – an absolutely amazing sight. It makes us humans seem so futile. Anyways, after about an hour we decided to call it a night. Our Lioness wasn’t going to pleasure us with her presence, so we went back to camp.
What will tomorrow bring?
Article by Wildlife ACT Volunteer Sylvie Van den Bossche
Wildlife ACT offers award-winning, Fair Trade Tourism certified volunteer participation projects in 5 protected areas across KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Volunteers from around the world have been helping to support and fund these projects projects for more than 10 years. We are forever grateful for their support.