Alumni Spotlight: Gale Smith

Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with Wildlife Act in South Africa?

Gale: I had always wanted to visit S. Africa, primarily to see the environment and animals. I like unconventional travel experiences and feeling like I'm more than a casual observer/tourist. Partly because of that, I found I would be making the trip alone. For myself and my family/friends back home, I needed to find an opportunity that would provide some structure, was affordable and put me up close and personal with the animals. About 10 yrs ago I volunteered abroad and decided to check on working with a conservation project in Southern Africa. After much research and comparisons, I selected Wildlife Act based on the type of project (wildlife monitoring in 4 reserves), location (transportation, health concerns, safety), review of their website & Facebook for information on mission, goals, stability, affiliations, volunteer program and recommendations. After contacting them with some additional questions, I was confident it was the right choice for me.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Gale: I spent two weeks at the Thanda Reserve where we used radio equipment to monitor black rhino, cheetah and Wild African Dogs. During my stay, the focus was on the African Dog pack. The very first day included an informal yet conscientious discussion about what we would be doing, expectations, how to use equipment and safety.

Each day we conducted morning and evening drives (0500 or so in the AM and 1630 or so in the PM - I was there in April). Just as it sounds, we drove areas of the reserve doing radio monitoring and observations. The first day we encountered a herd of rhino which we photographed, identified with a reserve field guide to the specific rhinos on Thanda, took GPS coordinates, generally watched and enjoyed. The Wildlife Act Monitor, Michelle, was very knowledgeable about the animals and the bush environment, so she was able to explain what we saw and did as well.

We also had responsibilities in the camp and did small jobs as needed. I watered the garden and planted a few things as well as repaired a small window pane in the kitchen that had fallen out or been removed by monkeys (they took the bananas and apples one afternoon) and a gate among other things. Finally, we all pitched in on afternoon and evening meals. I was lucky as the guys in my group liked cooking. A couple of evenings we went to a small pub for dinner. We enjoyed our evenings together, but knew the alarm would be going off at 0415!

How has this experience impacted your future?

Gale: This trip reignited my passion for working in not-for-profit. My job situation was changing and I have decided to leave the corporate world, spend some time traveling (back to S. Africa with Wildlife Act in late March). I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease about 6 yrs ago, but had pretty much been in denial about it. This trip helped me come to terms with my diagnosis and future. So much so that my goal is to encourage and facilitate volunteer travel for people in the early stages of a diagnosis, especially Parkinsons, MS, ALS, etc. It helps give perspective, makes you stretch and gain a sense of purpose and strength. I'm not sure exactly how, but I want others to feel energized and empowered as I did upon my return.