If you are looking for a wildlife conservation volunteer program in which you will be participating in the active conservation of threatened and/or endangered species for a decent price and not simply going on a safari, I would HIGHLY recommend Wildlife ACT. This organization works primarily in five different parks (Tembe, Hluhluwe, iMfolozi, uMkhuze, Manyoni) in Zululand, a region located in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. I am currently a student majoring in Wildlife Conservation and Management, and thus naturally wanted to do something related to the animals with which I will likely be working one day. It was also my first time in Africa overall, and I can only say this is easily one of the best decisions I’ve made thus far in my undergraduate career as it’s opened numerous other doors and given me contacts for potential future internships or research. The primary reasons I chose this program over others I looked at are as follows:
1) the description of the work they do appealed to me (see below)
2) the program is dedicated to avoiding any physical contact with wildlife; hence be assured you won’t be lured into one of those volunteer programs that mask as conservation but are actually associated with bad industries such as that of canned lion hunting or cub petting
3) the affiliates are well known (ex. such as Panthera; it’s my dream to work with big
cats one day so that was a big plus)
4) positive reviews online
5) it was one of the cheaper options
Also, if you want to see my list of pros and cons as opposed to reading through this whole review, scroll down.
I ended up working as an intern for four weeks in June, and participated in two of their projects. The first was the Endangered Species Conservation Project, and the second was the Leopard Conservation Census. The Endangered Species Conservation Project works on the five reserves previously stated; each reserve accepts a maximum of five volunteers at a given time, and groups rotate every two weeks between parks (thus you will also likely have a new group every two weeks). The Leopard Conservation Census works on said reserves in addition to the Eastern Shores section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park and several other areas. Nonetheless, they only perform their camera trap surveys at one location at a time, and then rotate every two months.
For my first two weeks with the Endangered Species Conservation Project, I was placed at Tembe Elephant Park. The landscape is mostly bush with some open savannah-type plains. The actual work itself consists of monitoring in the mornings and sometimes in the evenings that includes telemetry equipment (i.e. radio collars), camera traps, tracking/recording of data, and data entry and sorting once back at camp. Morning excursions typically last from ~5 am to about 10 or 12 in the afternoon; evening sessions are shorter and more varied in terms of time (I’d say the average was 2-3 hours). As for afternoons, we would also go on elephant monitoring sessions, though these excursions were more intended as a “break” for the volunteers since the park employee who took us on those did most of the work. After each long day, we were all typically in bed between 8 and 9 after finishing dinner. Overall, though, it depends on the day and the respective projects that monitors are working on when you’re there. If you’re fortunate enough like I was, you will also have the opportunity to participate in translocating an animal, radio collaring, or other activities that arise when needed. Keep in mind also that this is not intended to be a safari like what tourists experience, so getting up early (between ~4 and 5 every morning) will be the norm in addition to potentially having to leave camp unexpectedly at a moment’s notice. As an example, Tembe has two camps, one in the northern part of the park and one in the south. The southern camp is the main one, though at one point we had to leave for the northern camp for the weekend as the lions we were monitoring resided there. The day after we returned south, we awoke to a note from our monitor at 5:00 in the morning telling us to be ready within an hour to head back up north again. Not only did this require packing our bags the day after we had come back, but it also required packing up all the remaining food we had left. Though such situations can be slightly stressful, it is all highly worth it. As for accommodation, included are a full kitchen/dining area, living room area, cozy wooden cabins with comfortable and clean beds, showers with hot water, flushing toilets, and a “braai” (barbecue) area outside. There was also a local Zulu woman who did our laundry for a small price (merely 20 Rand, the equivalent of $1.50). Signal is amazing too, it’s a low-risk malaria area, and water is safe to drink from the tap. There were even fewer bugs and mosquitoes than I had thought would be present. Overall everything was much, much better than what I had expected. As for food, volunteers cook their own meals; quite a bit of creativity comes in with people from all over the world! Any dietary requirements you have will be taken into account as well. As for grocery shopping, monitors head to the closest town once a week every Monday to buy food and typically take one or two volunteers with them. They operate on a strict budget, so not included are “luxury” items like chocolate and candy; you’ll have to pay for these yourself (everything’s pretty cheap though). Moreover, we always had instant coffee, tea, and rusks (a traditional South African biscuit) during our breaks on morning monitoring sessions. Finally, be aware also that some work can be unpleasant (such as tying raw carcasses next to camera traps to lure animals in, or feeding animals in bomas), though if it makes you uncomfortable you won't be pressured into doing it.
During my second two weeks I worked on the Leopard Conservation Census sponsored by Panthera at Eastern Shores, iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The diversity of ecosystems here is incredible and far richer than at Tembe, ranging from savannah and Bornean-type forest, to marshland and the beach. This one was strictly focused on camera trapping. A typical day consisted of leaving camp at 7:00 am to check camera traps/collect the data and returning at around 11 or 12 in the afternoon. The rest of the day was then dedicated to sorting thousands of photos and identifying individual leopards. Approximately two days of the week were also dedicated to only working on data as opposed to heading out into the field. The food situation and accommodation were equally as nice as Tembe with the exception that we lived in one large house as opposed to a camp with separate cabins. There was also hardly any signal, laundry was done in town (St. Lucia) at a laundromat, and water from the tap wasn’t safe to drink; we had to buy it. Overall this project had far more free time and less diversity of activities; thus I enjoyed my time at Tembe more. Free time typically consisted of heading to the beach (5 minute drive away), and my volunteer group also spent a 3 day “mini vacation” in St. Lucia our second week. Thus, I would say that if you are interested in going into a career in wildlife conservation like I am, it might not be a bad idea to participate in both projects described above (again, especially considering the affiliates). However, if you simply want to volunteer because you’re passionate about conservation, I would only participate in the Endangered Species Conservation Project and not the Leopard Conservation Census simply given the larger diversity of experiences and less free-time in the former. Don’t be scared off too quickly from participating in the leopard census, though: this is, after all, the largest leopard camera trap survey in the world!
To conclude, it’s definitely worth giving a huge shout-out to the phenomenal monitors and staff of Wildlife ACT. There are only a total of 12 monitors, two per project (stationed at the five reserves of the Endangered Species Conservation Project in addition to the two working with the leopard census). Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon for one of the two monitors to be on leave, so you might have only one most of the time you’re there. Moreover, because of the small group sizes, you will get more individual attention from your supervisor(s). As an intern, for example, my monitors took the extra time to teach me and answer any additional questions I had since I want to go into wildlife conservation as a career. Overall, the entire experience was very well organized and stress-free from booking at the start to the final day when we were dropped back off at the airport. It also felt safe and secure; the monitors are well-trained on how to handle potentially dangerous situations in the bush, camps are fenced, and volunteers are trained on what to do in case of an emergency. Staff will additionally ensure you are moved safely from one project to another on transport days at the end of every two weeks, and also when you are in town to go grocery shopping. You will see some of the most beautiful landscapes, have some crazy stories to tell from your encounters with animals in the bush, help protect among the most majestic wildlife in the world, and work with some of the most amazing people. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!
- PHENOMENAL monitors that are well-trained, and amazing people you get to work with! Awesome getting to know individuals from so many different cultures
- Small group sizes mean you get more individual attention if you have a personal goal related to conservation work
- Gain valuable experience into what it looks like working in conservation. Along those lines, collect data and contribute to actual conservation, distinguishing you from a tourist
- For the Endangered Species Conservation Project, learn a variety of techniques used in conservation and experience a variety of reserves (depending on how long you stay)
- Amazing accommodations
- Well-known affiliates (WWF, Panthera, Project Rhino KZN, etc.)
- Well-organized and safe/secure, volunteers are taught what to do in an emergency
- Decent price for the experience you get ($1,417 for the first 2 weeks, an additional $1,012 for every 2 weeks thereafter. Note that’s excluding flights, though)
- Internships are not research-oriented, their primary purpose is to provide insight into what a day in the life of a conservationist might look like. The only thing distinguishing you from the other volunteers is that you need to write a 2-3 page report on any conservation topic of your choice
- Occasionally a little too much free-time I thought; this was primarily the Leopard Conservation Census though. While some was definitely nice, it might have been good to incorporate some afternoon sessions on ecology, animal behavior, etc.
- Less diversity of experiences on the Leopard Conservation Census