For 6 weeks in the summer of 2019, I volunteered with the Wildlife Act in South Africa. This post is all my own words and thoughts, I just want to share my experience and encourage people to try and help!
What is Wildlife Act?
Wildlife Act is a conservation charity that is based in KZN area of South Africa (shown on the map below) and it thrives off volunteers and donations.
While volunteering with Wildlife Act, you spend your days tracking and observing animals, predominantly wild dogs, lions, cheetahs, vultures, rhinos and elephants, although it varies on the park you’re staying at. You also do game counts in the winter months, and you may have the opportunity to help relocate animals but this is not guaranteed.
What Parks Do Wildlife Act Work With?
There are 5 parks that you can work on while volunteering with Wildlife Act:
- Hluhluwe Park (4)
- iMfolozi Park (3)
- uMkhuze Park (5)
- Tembe Elephant Park (6)
- Leopard Survey (2)
- Manyoni Private Reserve
The map above shows the main areas of KZN that you visit, depending on the length of your stay and what park you decide to visit.
Some things to be aware of before booking your trip with Wildlife Act:
- There’s no WiFi, unless you’re going into town or buy a SIM card which is what a lot of people did
- The hot water and electricity is temperamental, it is the African bush after all
- Some camps offer you a trip to spend 2 nights in Saint Lucia village which I highly recommend! It’s a beautiful village and you can spend your days there doing whatever you want
- You don’t have to go out every single day on every trip! You are not obliged to go, but they do ask for at least 2 volunteers every time so you can rotate lie ins if you want to. I definitely had my share of lie ins.
- They always put your safety first
- They care greatly about the ethical implications of what they do, especially when it comes to injured animals and transporting, it is meticulously planned.
- You can request what camps you go to when you book in!
On your journey into South Africa, you fly into Johannesburg and then change to a domestic flight to Richards Bay (circled in red).
Richards Bay is a beautiful place, with 2 different islands and a seafront. When booking with the Wildlife Act, they recommend you B&Bs to stay in should you arrive the day, or a couple of days, before which also provide you with discounted rates and free airport transfers.
I decided to stay at Zulu Lodge which was run by an incredibly friendly man who took me, and another volunteer staying there, on a tour around the area.
You then get collected at Richards Bay Airport at 12pm as there is a very complex system for moving around volunteers. After 2 weeks at one park, you get moved to another one.
I spent my first 2 weeks in South Africa working with the Leopard Survey in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, near the village of St Lucia which is a very touristy area. One thing to note about Leopard Survey, is that they move parks every couple of months, so it’s not guaranteed that you would be on the Wetland Park.
Leopard Survey is different from other projects because you’re not actively tracking the animals, instead your working with camera traps. You spend your days changing the traps, identifying the animals and putting together identification kits for the leopards.
The days on this project aren’t as long in comparison to others so it is a good starting place to get used to long days and climate.
Luckily, my team and I got to work with a whale monitoring team (you can see the work they conducted here) so we had a training session and were able to watch from the towers, although it was incredibly windy the day we went up so the most exciting thing we saw was a pod of dolphins!
On our time off, we typically went to the beach or into town, but due to the cost of fuel, this was typically only once a week when we did our food shop.
We also teamed up with the whale survey students and did a beach clean, which was incredibly satisfying. The beaches near where we were staying are considered to be very clean beaches, but we still managed to get a lot of micro plastics.
Although some consider this project a little boring, we got up to so many exciting things, including wild boar coming to our braii (South African BBQ) and bush fires that could damage the camera traps and terrifying snakes (I have a phobia)!
So what are the bad points?
Well, it is a boring project in comparison to others, but it’s also a good one to start off with as you can get used to the work and equipment and climate.
Depending on where you’re staying, the accommodation was not the best! St Lucia was a hut, basically, but you got used to it after a couple of days. Also while at St Lucia, there weren’t many ‘exciting’ animals, as the only predators were leopards which were a very rare sighting.
Pronounce Shlush-loo-way, this park is in conjunction with iMfolozi, but they work separately to each other.
While at this park, we got to use telemetry equipment which was incredibly fun. Typically, people rotate jobs daily so one person is scanning using the equipment, one person is a scribe and the remaining and the eyes of the car.
The days were reasonably long at this park, but we got to see some incredible animals, such as wild dogs, lions, lots of elephants! We got to witness a lioness hunt, and had to count over 150 elephants on the same mountain.
One of the most exciting things about this park is the boma. A boma is like a quarantine area that injured predators are kept in. While I was there, a pack of female wild dogs were in there as they were being transported to an area with males so they could potentially breed (you can read about their story on the Wildlife Act Facebook page). We got to feed and check up on these dogs every day we were there until they were moved, and then we were able to assist in darting and transporting the dogs.
We also conducted game counts while here, which basically means we counted, sexed and aged every hoofed mammal we could see. It was very tiring but it also meant I got some awesome pictures of these animals we would not otherwise stop to see.
Accommodation wise, we stayed in rooms of 2 people which was lush after living in the same room as 5 other people while at Leopard Survey. Mosquitos aren’t very prominent around here, and the camp also had other ecologists and animal monitors that worked directly for the park so we had lots of social nights and games.
The bad parts
This is where my scariest experiences happened!
In comparison to Leopard Survey, we barely got any time to ourselves, but we got to do some incredible work which makes it worth it.
Personally, I struggled the most with this project as I didn’t get on great with the other volunteers, but I did become close friends with some of the workers, so much so that I’m still in contact with them.
Out of the 3 parks I visited, this one was the toughest. While at Hluhluwe, we were starting our days at about 5:30, 6 if it was game drive, but uMkhuze started at 4am!
As poaching is such a serious problem at this park, the wild dogs need to be checked on every morning, and sometimes afternoon depending on how good the morning sighting was. Therefore, it was understandable that we had to be up and about early, and it also got us some awesome views of lions and hyaenas as there were no tourists about.
To be honest, this park was not very touristy at all which was quite refreshing, and many of the animals were in areas that the general public couldn’t access so it was very peaceful.
One of my favourite moments of uMhkuze was when we got to see my favourite animal, a cheetah! I had requested to go to a park where I was most likely to see cheetahs, and this was the second place that cheetah viewings were common.
I did find that we had a lot of spare time at this camp, mainly because we started so early. The other volunteers and I would play card games and go to the little tourist camp that was only a minute away, or we would nap mainly!
So what are the bad points?
Honestly, the only thing I struggled with in this camp, other than the early mornings, was the isolation. We didn’t share the camp with another else, and there weren’t any other projects going on nearby so it felt a little isolated but I loved my group so it wasn’t bad at all.
The Camps I Didn’t Volunteer At
Tembe Elephant Park: I was told that this park is very suitable for those who wouldn’t be able to cope with the long, bumpy journeys and incredibly early mornings.
Manyoni Private Reserve: I don’t know much about this park except from the fact there is an animal sanctuary here with rhinos and elephants which you get to visit.
iMfolozi Park: I did get to visit this park, as it boarders Hluhluwe and we got to meet up with the volunteers, a couple of which I knew from my previous camp. This park is incredible for animal sightings. My friends saw so many cheetahs and leopards, I was incredibly jealous!
“I’d say 99% of all volunteers thoroughly enjoy the experience and education you get with Wildlife ACT. And many are returning volunteers. Of course, if you fail to thoroughly read and research what you’re signing up for you might be disappointed; it’s not a luxury safari to entertain people. This is work, real work that makes a difference in conservation efforts of endangered wildlife and their habitat. They run their programs and organization based on donations and volunteers. And the work they/you/we do there is imperative and is making a difference. If you ask questions, are willing to help, and do a little research, you can learn a lot. Look at the wishlists and bring small items that can help each camp to improve. We were in comfortable & clean accommodations, well fed, well rested, and our professional monitors ALWAYS put our safety first in every situation. I cannot applaud Wildlife Act enough! And I know there are hundreds and hundreds of fellow volunteers that agree with me.” Kelly Patri, a precious WACT volunteer.