Thicktailed bushbabies are the most confident and playful of their species and a great favorite with the volunteers. At the wildlife rehabilitation centre, Silvia helped raise several bushbabies by hand. Martin Bornman
By Ellen Sziede of African Conservation Experience (ACE) together with
Silvia Russenberger, an ACE conservation volunteer (her reports in italics).
Southern Africa has an amazing range of indigenous wildlife; in fact, South Africa has the highest biodiversity of all African countries. Protecting this natural treasure requires vast efforts and takes many forms, from nursing injured and orphaned wildlife in care centers to managing wildlife reserves or conducting field research. In this way, we can help build up the knowledge necessary to make the best provisions for nature conservation in future.
As public funding is limited for conservation initiatives in Africa, there are many opportunities for international volunteers to make a real difference and become actively involved. While students do make up the majority of volunteers, in recent years there has been increasing interest from more mature travelers (about 10%) and we hope to attract people like Swiss volunteer, Silvia Russenberger. In her mid-sixties, she travelled to Africa for one month to dedicate herself to different conservation projects.
Silvia’s first stop was a wildlife rehabilitation centre in South Africa. As human settlements increasingly encroach on the natural habitats, wildlife suffers in various ways. Antelopes and monkeys are frequently hit by cars and predators are caught in poachers’ snares. Other animals are poisoned by pesticides in agricultural areas. The most touching cases invariably involve orphaned wildlife, whose parents have been poached or hunted, or who have been abandoned. This is, sadly, a common occurrence when a mother animal is stressed or feels threatened.
Silvia particularly enjoyed bonding with five orphan lion cubs, taking them for walks and playing with them each day. Silvia Russenberger
Orphan lion cubs at the wildlife rehabilitation centre receive a second chance, thanks to the helping hands of international volunteers. Ellen Sziede
Fortunately, there are passionate conservationists who make it their mission to assist such animals. They take in any animal that needs help and do their utmost to nurse it until it is in a condition where it can hopefully live in its natural environment again. These wildlife care and rehabilitation centres could not function without the support of volunteers, and upon arrival Silvia jumped right in to nurture a variety of animals.
“My concerns that I would not be up to the task of volunteering soon vanished. I had such an incredibly nice welcome at the wildlife care centre and was comfortable from the start. I could therefore dedicate myself completely and with great enjoyment to looking after the animals.
“The experience of handling, feeding and looking after lions, young rhinos and many other wildlife species was unique! I was especially fond of the ﬁve lion cubs. Taking them for walks was a highlight of my life like no other. Another wonderful emotion was to see how the baby rhino was slowly recovering from the shock of losing its mother to poachers, and to play a small part in the effort to alleviate the suffering of orphaned and injured animals.
“Doing something like this, you also learn to understand nature and to grasp how everything interacts and impacts on each other, even if those realizations arenʼt always pleasant.”
Bobby, an orphaned rhino calf, arrives at Khulula, unfortunately a common case due to poaching of adult rhinos in South Africa. ACE
Tuli Conservation Project or Phinda Wildlife Research Project, and the choice usually coming down to their level of physical fitness and adventurousness.
If they seek a “bush experience” with complete immersion in nature and are quite happy to forgo some physical comforts, they love Tuli. If they feel they have less physical stamina or need the relative comforts of indoor accommodation, electricity and hot showers, I recommend Phinda.
The Khulula Wild Care Centre is popular because of the close wildlife encounters they give volunteers. It has recently made additional provisions for mature volunteers with a number of private en-suite rooms available for them. Volunteers are given more responsibility and less rigid timetabling at this project than at some other facilities which generally suits professionals and experienced travellers better.
To make sure that potential volunteers are fully informed of their choices, we always speak to them by phone to understand their needs and expectations before recommending the best placement.
After a few weeks, Silvia left the relative comforts of the centre and ventured into the vast, unfenced Tuli wilderness in Botswana, where she joined a team of experienced field rangers and assisted them in their long- term study of the region’s ecology.
Tuli elephants are the southernmost free roaming herd in Africa. As such, they are a fascinating focus for the ecology studies at the Tuli project. ACE
“The bush camp in Tuli delivered one highlight after another with so many events in one go! I couldnʼt really take it all in at once. At 7:45 am, a rumbling noise got closer and closer. Suddenly elephants emerged from the bush and crossed our path. Just a few at ﬁrst, and then more and more. I literally held my breath while a herd of 93 elephants migrated past us! Was I dreaming or did this really happen!? Did I really get to experience something this incredible? I felt such awe, my eyes welled up with tears.
“I was also privileged to witness how a mother cheetah stood guard over a freshly killed impala while her two young were licking each other peacefully. The mother constantly had to defend her prey against three jackals that were plaguing her.
“In the weeks from the 27 October to 11 November, I got to experience some truly rare wildlife sightings, even the staff at Tuli had not seen these animals in over five years. These included an aardwolf, an aardvark (three in one night!) and the fascinating act of a baboon being captured by an eagle. We saw a giant spectacle in the sky; even a meteorite hurled towards earth, a giant ﬁreball with an enormously long tail in all the colours of the rainbow. We were all speechless and could not grasp what was happening. Christmas had come early!
A cheetah kill is a rare and lucky sighting – even more so with the cheetah cubs watching! Sigrid Johnston
This orphan lion cub is making a gradual transition to meat, clearly enjoying the “upgrade” from bottles of milk. Ellen Sziede
“Back at camp, we came upon six elephants who were grazing peacefully amongst our huts. They stayed nearby for three days. And so the days passed one after another, with many surprises and incredible impressions.
“My time in South Africa and Botswana was, without exaggeration, the highlight of my already somewhat long life! My perception of life has been altered irrevocably. This experience has raised the question of just how important our stress and scramble for money really is, and whether, after all, nature isnʼt the treasure that makes life worth living.”
African Conservation Experience (ACE), www.conservationafrica.net, organizes volunteer placements at wildlife conservation projects throughout southern Africa. The supported projects range from wildlife research and monitoring projects, like the Tuli Conservation Project, to animal care at wildlife rehabilitation centres, marine conservation, wildlife veterinary work or conservation education.
Volunteers may participate in projects for 2-12 weeks. The United States is ACE’s fastest growing segment for attracting volunteers: In 2010, 19% of volunteers were from the US, compared to only 6% the year before. It is the second most common nationality after the UK. Knowledge-able contact representatives are in both the UK and the US.
When to go: There are volunteering opportunities all year round. Following the southern hemisphere seasons, the temperatures are most pleasant in the South African spring (September/October) and autumn (March/May). There is a dry winter from June to August and a hot, humid summer from November to February. For volunteers at the wildlife care and rehabilitation projects, November to February can be especially rewarding, as this is the baby and birthing season in South Africa. The centres are very busy with hand rearing infant wildlife at this time — sometimes around the clock — and appreciate extra hands for this rewarding task.
Silvia Russenberger is retired and living in Switzerland. Previously, she worked as a potter and pottery teacher and prior to that she was a wine merchant in the family business.
Based in the United Kingdom, Ellen Sziede is an African Conservation Experience International Development Executive, looking after international marketing and most international volunteers. Ellen says, “My love for African wildlife goes back to the unforgettable 3 1/2 years I spent in southern Africa, during which time I visited many national parks and reserves to observe the wonderful wildlife.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.