The land stretched out in front of us, bright green hills and valleys as far as the eye could see. Dots of tan, turquoise, yellow and pink–houses gathered in clumps hear and there–were the only thing that broke up the green. Zululand. We were riding through this North Eastern part of South Africa on the back of an open-bed truck with two other young volunteers–one French and one British–every bump on the road felt through our whole bodies and the wind whipping through our hair.
This two hour ride was our first glance at the area of South Africa originally occupied by the Bushmen, then by the Zulus, and then by the British and Afrikaners, on our way to our next volunteer job with Wildlife Africa Conservation Team or Wildlife ACT. The truck, driven by the leader (“monitor”) of our four person volunteer team, took us across this grand landscape, all the way to our tiny outpost of a camp deep in the heart of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, a government operated and World Wildlife Fund protected big five game reserve.
Our very basic camp high on a hillside consisted of a kitchen, two outdoor showers, 3 simple dorm style rooms, a deck with a fantastic breeze from the valleys below and BBQ pit, locally called a “braai pit”.
We were set to stay for two weeks. If you are wondering (I was) why the reserve is called a “big five” reserve, it’s because they are home to the five most dangerous animals to hunt in the wild: elephants, leopards, buffalo, rhinos and lions. The organization we were with, Wildlife ACT, is a professional monitoring company. In other words, they are an NGO brought into the game reserve to help keep track of which animals are where and doing what, a job too difficult for reserve managers to do themselves. Given this, our biggest task for the duration of our stay was to keep track of the wild dog packs that call this park home.
These wild dogs are critically endangered. There are less than 450 of them left in South Africa, making them the most endangered large carnivores in this country. Hluhluwe-iMfoloze park has at least five packs of them.
We learned that much goes into managing the populations of animals on reserves. It’s actually pretty amazing! For example, because of mating habits and animal group structures, many species require significant monitoring and management so that their numbers do not become too many, too few, or in animals such as lions, so that the genetic diversity of the species is not compromised by too much inbreeding.
In the case of the wild dogs, only the Alfa male of the pack can breed. When other young dogs wish to breed they break off from the pack to search for another group of the opposite sex who have done the same. If they find one they form their own pack. This can sometimes cause issues. The dogs may leave the park in search of mates and end up in the surrounding communities gorging on the local farmers’ goats. If there are no suitable mates in the park, the searching dogs may need to be moved to other reserves in order to ensure that the population continues to grow. This can be a difficult task since not all reserves are open to, or able to have these animals.
Each species has its own set of needs and challenges. Wildlife ACT does the monitoring and works in conjunction with Ezemvelo Kzn Wildlife, a larger, local organization that helps maintain sustainable biodiversity in the parks, doing things like the actual moving of animals.
During our time with Wildlife ACT, our days consisted of waking at 3:30am to drive around the reserve in the back of the truck using arial telemetry to search for signals from collared animals. Each pack of wild dogs had one or two members who had previously been given a collar that could be tracked. When we got a signal, we recorded it and tried to find them. In addition to the dogs, we also kept track of eight elephant herds and a few lions.
At about 10:00am we would head back to the camp to relax, eat lunch, and to enter information we had found on our tracking session into the computer. We would head back out to monitor the animals again in the evening.
The awesome thing about this job was that each day was like a safari. While driving around we were amazed to see giraffes, buffalo, impala, warthogs, elephants, lions, wildebeest, zebra, monkeys and tons and tons of beautiful birds almost every day! We were encouraged to take pictures of them. Pictures were used as essential data for identifying the animals and recording their movement/behavior.
Aside from taking our own pictures, we also helped maintain several “camera traps”, spots in the bush where cameras were set up to take pictures of passing animals for monitoring purposes. We spent two days changing the batteries and SD cards on these, a task which required us to leave the truck and walk a short way through the bush.
Although we tried to make sure no animals were around while changing camera traps, had lookouts, and were with our trained monitor each time, twice while Mo and I were out we had close encounters with both an elephant and two lions!
The lions did what we would expect and ran away from us, but their presence nearby (only 50 feet away!!) caused us to abort our camera trap mission and retreat to the truck as quickly and quietly as possible. When we came back the next day to complete the mission, a nosy elephant (which can actually be quite dangerous in the wild) got wind of it and came over to check us out. This time we actually completed the camera trap tasks super, SUPER quickly (we were almost done anyways) and literally ran back to the truck!!
Elephants will often give a “mock charge” coming towards you flapping their ears and trumpeting. Generally they will stop if they see that they have scared you off. This one was just doing a dance for the camera ;)
When we came here we were looking for adventure and I think we found it! It was so cool learning little bits about each animal while watching them in person in their natural habitat. Overall this was a FANTASTIC volunteer experience. We have so, SO many more pictures to share, but I will leave those for the next post. :)