May 2, 2013

Volunteering with Wildlife ACT: Zululand, not Disneyland!

“This is Zululand, not Disneyland” were the words my fellow volunteers and I were greeted with on arriving in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) to volunteer with Wildlife ACT.  And truer words could not have been spoken.  From power failures, grass cutting, afternoon thunderstorms and getting trapped by elephants after dark to watching White Rhinos just a few metres from our vehicle, baby zebra grazing in the camp and endless blue sky that seems to trail into infinity, this was an experience worth a hundred Disneyland trips.

In January this year I was incredibly fortunate to get to spend a week doing conservation work with Wildlife ACT in Zululand (Thank you Getaway Magazine & Wildlife ACT!) Before I get on to my adventures, here’s some background information about the organisation.

Wildlife ACT runs critical endangered and priority conservation projects in Zululand and provides endangered species monitoring free of charge to game reserves that cannot afford, or manage, to do so on their own. They are the only conservation volunteer programme in Africa that is supported by the WWF. They have projects on 4 game reserves: Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Mkhuze Game Reserve, Thanda Private Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Park. They monitor animals such as the Cheetah, African Wild Dog, Rhino, Lion, Elephant and Leopard.

I was based in the Hluhluwe section of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park - one of the oldest game reserves in Africa. Initially HiP was two separate parks but joined together in 1989. The Reserve is home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, wildlife (including the famous “Big 5”) and birdlife. Due to the immense size of the area, the Park is still divided into 2 management sections. Wildllife ACT thus has a project in each section – one in the northern Hluhluwe section and the other in the southern iMfolozi section. 

The endless sky and valleys in the northern Hluhluwe section of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

The main focus of Wildlife ACT in the Hluhluwe section is the monitoring of the African Wild Dog and camera trapping surveys of Cheetah and Leopard – I was lucky enough to be involved in both the African Wild Dog and Leopard projects.  

The Hluhluwe volunteers stay in the research camp accommodation, near the Hilltops Resort. The Hilltops Resort is situated high up on a forested slope with amazing views over the hills and valleys of Zululand.  There is a curio and snack shop, restaurant and swimming pool there which we were allowed to use. Needless to say, a swim after a long and hot day working in the bush = bliss!

The camp accommodation is quite basic but has everything you would need – beds, kitchen (volunteers prepare their own food) and bathroom. We even had electricity (when there weren't power failures) and warm water for showers (lucky us! The iMfolozi volunteers had no electricity at their camp). Regardless, fancy accommodation is not what you are there for – you are there to experience conservation in Africa - it’s Zululand, not Disneyland!

Volunteering with Wildlife ACT means that you ACTIVELY get to contribute towards and gain insight into real conservation work, unlike many other initiatives. They are the only volunteer organisation to work on national game reserves and only accept a maximum of 5 volunteers at a time.  It was ‘girls week’ at Hluhluwe when I was there- I was joined by 3 awesome ladies from the UK, Brazil and the USA, and along with our really, really awesome wildlife monitor, Kathy, we had a blast! But more on that next time…

Our Wildlife ACT monitor, Kathy, with this gorgeous chameleon. What a specimen!

Face to face with a White Rhino and her calf.

Watch your head - spot the spider!

Surveying the landscape looking for suitable spots to place leopard camera traps.

Zebra in the research camp.

When the zebra have young, they come into the camp at night to sleep, feeling safer closer to the humans. The predators generally won't venture too far into the unfenced camp.

Next up in Part 2 of ‘Volunteering with Wildlife ACT’:  Machete wielding grass cutting and elusive wild dogs…

It all began when a 16-year-old Jenna got on a plane for the first time and headed to L√ľneburg, Germany, for 2 weeks. Returning well and truly bitten by the travel bug, after finishing school she hopped on a plane and headed off to London. Since then, she has eaten her way through Eastern Europe, dozed in a hammock on a tiny island dotted in Lake Malawi, tracked Wild Dogs through the hills of Zululand, and explored the major sights of her first love – Europe.


Great blog post Jenna, and what a wonderful inexperience!

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