Ever since I found out about National Geographic and after watching all the series of Planet Earth narrated by the legendary David Attenborough, I wanted to go to Africa. Like most tourists, I also wanted to go there to spot the Big 5, but I was mainly concerned and intrigued by the struggles it takes to conserve the wildlife Africa still has. So I decided to take a gap year after my bachelors degree in Biology and see with my own eyes what is going on in the national parks of South Africa.
Image: African Wild Dogs. Photo by Hayden Rattray
After some research I came in contact with an organization called Wildlife ACT. They started in 2008 in order to provide monitoring support to protected areas that have limited resources, and in order to help protect and conserve the most endangered carnivore of southern Africa, the African Wild Dog. Their main focus is saving this species from direct threats and collect data about the packs to help the national parks in making reasoned decisions. Monitoring of this species is essential because of serious threats like snaring, prosecution by farmers and disease. The only way to make sure they are safe is monitoring them every day.
To make this possible, Wildlife ACT created a volunteer model wherein small groups of volunteers work together with professional wildlife monitors. These teams work in episodes of two weeks together in the reserves to monitor the endangered species. Besides the Wild Dogs they also monitor other priority species such as Lions, Cheetahs, Rhinos, Leopards and Elephants. Those volunteering wit Wildlife ACT help ensure that there are enough eyes and hands to achieve all the work that needs to be done.
Image: Collared Cheetah. Photo by Chantelle Melzer
Volunteering with Wildlife ACT
At the end of January I landed in the very small airport of Richards bay in KwaZulu-Natal. The next day I was picked up together with the other new volunteers at the airport by Wildlife ACT. Based on age and preference, we were divided in groups of 2-5 and sent to 5 different nature reserves in Zululand. From that day forward I lived and worked for 8 weeks in the wonderful nature of Africa. Under the guidance of the wildlife monitors, we helped with set-ups and take-downs of camera traps, used telemetry and GPS to monitor priority species, did game counts, observed animal behaviour, sorted through data and performed general maintenance of our camp.
Image: Map of the wildlife reserves Wildlife ACT is working for in Zululand. Bottom-right shows the map of South Africa and the location of KwaZulu-Natal.
For example, in the first two weeks of my stay, we set up 30 camera trap sites in a 30,000 hectare game reserve to investigate leopard density. Since leopards are nocturnal and very elusive, it is hard to tell something about their presence. To obtain an accurate estimate of the leopard density, a camera trap site contains 2 different cameras on both sides of a path. When a leopard walks by, it is photographed from both sides. Due to their unique rosette patterns, different individuals can be identified. After the set-up we returned to the camera trap sites every other day to download all the pictures and sort through them. Besides the photo captures of leopards, we also photographed other wildlife such as Aardvark, Brown Hyena, Serval and Aardwolf. Those volunteering with Wildlife ACT help sort through all those pictures for the reserve management so they have more insight into their fauna diversity.
Image: Camera trap photo of a Leopard. Photo property of Panthera
The other 6 weeks I mainly had to help with the monitoring of Wild Dogs. The monitoring was done by the use of a telemetry device. This telemetry device can receive different radio frequency signals which are transmitted by the radio collars fitted to the animals. The angle in which the telemetry receives the signal tells you something about the direction an animal is located.
As a conservation volunteer, you are responsible for scanning with the telemetry and telling the monitor where the signal is coming from. If we could find the animals we had to write down the GPS coordinates, record their behaviour and do a general health check. Typically we had to search for some Wild Dog packs, but sometimes certain Lions or Cheetahs had the priority. We started almost every day at 04:00 in the morning to make sure we found the animals before they started moving. After the morning session, we sorted through the data and had some time to rest before we started the afternoon session at 15:30.
Image: Wildlife ACT volunteers using telemetry.
What have you learned from volunteering with Wildlife ACT?
Over the weeks I have seen and learned so much about the challenges that African wildlife conservation is facing. To give an example, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve loses on average one Rhino every three days, and in uMkhuze Game Reserve, they have lost so many Wild Dogs because of snares set up by poachers… On top of the poaching incidents, one of the biggest challenges for these animals is dealing with the fragmentation of their habitat.
Although a lot of places are protected by the South African government, these places are not big enough to sustain a constant, genetically healthy population of Lions, Dogs or Cheetah. Wildlife ACT is doing a very important job with their assistance of gathering behavioural and demographic data so the reserves can make well thought-out decisions about reintroducing and relocating individuals. This is essential for improving gene pools and increasing numbers.
Wildlife ACT has proven their value with the work that they do. Since they started, the amount of Wild Dog packs has increased from 5 to 14 in Zululand. This is just one example of what they have achieved, which is already amazing. On their website you can see everything they do for endangered and priority African wildlife species, and provide information on how you can begin volunteering with Wildlife ACT.
Image: Bram van Schaffelaar at Maletsunyane Falls in Lesotho.
I had an intense but absolutely great experience in South Africa and its amazing wildlife. If you think after reading this that Wildlife ACT is an organisation you want to work with as well, feel free to contact me: email@example.com
– Written by Bram van Schaffelaar