This review is about the volunteer program with Wildlife ACT, a wildlife conservation organization in South Africa. When I was doing research looking for information about volunteer programs, I found there were not a lot of detailed reviews, so I hope this will help others because it is a big decision when you're thinking about spending 2 - 12 weeks or more living and working with an organization in another country. I spent 6 weeks with them, 2 weeks at each of 3 game reserves, in Nov 2014-Jan 2015. This review is long but believe me I could have written a lot more!
The Organization: The most important thing for me was to find a legitimate organization that did real conservation work that actually helped the animals. In my searches online I found a lot of organizations that called themselves "volunteer" organizations, that claimed to do great work, but most of them sounded to me like they were really just trying to make profits off of tourists by inventing "conservation projects" and convincing people they were doing something helpful. Many of these fake volunteer organizations put their "volunteers" up in luxury safari lodges and serve them gourmet food and that kind of thing. Some let the volunteers play with baby animals like lion cubs and claim it is getting them ready to be introduced back into the wild. After seeing the documentary "Blood Lions" which exposes these fraudulent organizations, I'm so glad I listened to my instincts about those. Anyway, I picked the right place. Wildlife ACT is a legitimate organization that exists for the right reasons and does good work protecting endangered species. It existed before it had a volunteer program, but they had a hard time finding funding to pay for their work. They provide their services free to many of the public and private game reserves in KwaZulu Natal, and the game reserves all want them there and are thrilled to have their services, but do not have the ability to pay for the services. So Wildlife ACT came up with a way to get funds and get some help at the same time by starting their volunteer program. They will honestly admit that the main purpose of volunteers is to fund their work, and I'm fine with that. It is not expensive and it is an experience of a lifetime that is more than worth the roughly $200 a week I paid to participate. Wildlife ACT is very well organized. Bronwen was the point person for the reservation process and she was very helpful and answered all of my questions. The actual program is also very well run. Their every-other Mondays are quite the organizational feat, picking up volunteers, taking others back to the airport, and the mass transfer of numerous volunteers to the different camps makes for quite a day. They have some last minute changes in assignments at times, but they seem to always make it work out in the end. They try to honor any requests, as many volunteers are "regulars" and have their favorite reserves. And they put a lot of thought and effort into trying to make groups that will be happy together- like they would try not to put a 50 year old with four 20 year olds, or one woman with 4 men. They would make sure everyone had something in common with someone else. The monitors were all fantastic. Very dedicated people who do the work for the love of it (obviously not for the money, as they make very little). They have to actually live at the camp 24 hours a day with us, which must not be easy and they have almost no private time to themselves and generally got very little sleep. Most were quite young, since you have to have a lot of energy to do that job. They were all extremely knowledgeable and I learned a ton from all of them.
The work you do: This is the main reason I deducted one star from an otherwise stellar program. I wish I could have felt like I was contributing more. There are normally 5 volunteers and one monitor at each game reserve. We mostly drove around looking for animals and took some notes about where they were, what they were doing, etc. We had to get up EXTREMELY early in the morning- I’m talking about getting up at 3 am and on the truck and leaving camp by 3:30 (this was in our winter/their summer, late Nov - Jan and the days were long) as we needed to find certain animals before sunrise between 4 and 4:30, because after the sun comes up, they're on the move and very difficult to find and follow after that. We would come back to camp anywhere between about 9 - 11 am, and have until about 4pm free, then go out again from about 4 - 8ish or so in the evening. I am a person who needs my regular sleep and usually can't nap during the day, and was pretty worried about this schedule, but it didn't take long to get used to sleeping in two shifts- one from about 10pm to 3am and another nap in the middle of the day. While out, the monitor drove and one volunteer would usually sit up front with him/her in the cab and the other 4 would sit in the back on what were essentially benches across the bed of the pick up. We drove around, periodically stopping to use the radio telemetry system to see if we could get a signal from one of the animals that had a radio collar on. Then keep driving toward that direction. Which animals were our priority depended on which game reserve I was working on (more on that later). Most of the sites focused on the African Wild Dogs. Wild dogs are very endangered and are still being killed by poachers, farmers, snares, etc. Wildlife ACT introduces packs of wild dogs and goes through the appropriate process of introducing the dogs to each other and then monitoring them every day to make sure they are safe as well as studying their behavior and effect on other species. We would find them in the morning at sunrise, watch them hunt as long as we could keep up with them, try to find out where they settled down in mid day to rest, and then return in the late afternoon to watch them get up and hunt again, and hopefully see where they settle down for the night, and do it all over again the next day. Sometimes it was a crazy wild goose chase trying to find or keep up with them. Some days we never found them. Other days we watched them for hours and saw amazing things like when the pack made a kill, which I got to witness twice from close range ( gruesome but that's nature and it was something few people ever get to see). So, much of our day was spent just driving around and looking for animals, which didn't feel much like volunteer work. One person would be assigned to be the note keeper for the day and record information. Another would be the one using the telemetry system that day. The others would mostly just be taking photos with their own cameras (and sometimes would give copies of their pictures to the monitor for identification logs etc). Sometimes we would sit for long periods waiting for the dogs to come out of the woods, and it would be frustrating because we would rather be looking for rhinos or something else. Sometimes we would set up camera traps, or go around collecting the memory cards out of the cameras and putting in new ones. During the time off in the middle of the day, we would sleep, cook, eat, shower, and if there was time maybe do some work helping the monitor with a project like transferring data into the computer or labeling pictures from the camera traps. But it wasn't a lot of work. I was unlucky in that during my stay I never got to see any animals darted or moved or have any hands-on interaction. I did see a lot of natural behavior though. And thousands of animals.
The accommodations: Wildlife ACT does not have a lot of money. They are non-profit and have to function on very little. That is apparent when you see the accommodations. You will be semi-roughing it, and living with nature, some places more than others. Every camp is different. I started at Tembe, which was my favorite in terms of the camp. It had little cabins in the woods that had 2 single beds, a few shelves, electricity, and even a/c units (which we never used in November). Then there was a separate concrete building that had the kitchen, living area, shower, and toilet. The kitchen was pretty basic. It had a refrigerator, stove (Tembe actually had two- an electric stove and a gas stove, which was nice the night that the electricity went out ) a tea kettle, and Tembe was considered the "luxury" camp partly because it had a microwave, ac in the rooms, and a washing machine. (washing machine was in another building). Most camps didn't have any of those things. There was another building with more toilets and another with an "office". The shower looked disgusting, but I scrubbed it and found it was actually pretty clean, just stained black so it looked moldy when it wasn't. And the shower curtain was stained and falling apart. The main toilet leaked, so the floor was often wet, but didn't smell terrible so I'm not sure it was sewage leaking. We had to walk outside to get from our rooms to the bathroom which was a little creepy at night. The camp was *sort of* fenced off to keep large animals out --but the gate was usually left open. We had monkeys climbing all over the roof all the time, which was awesome and cute at first but got old when they kept us awake when we needed to sleep during the day. There was a picnic table and fire pit out front of the kitchen where we gathered. My second camp was Somkhanda. It was actually across the street from the reserve rather than inside it. It consisted of several small brick buildings, and the volunteer's quarters were in a house,so the bathroom was just down the hall. Again, the kitchen was very basic (no microwave). My bed was falling apart and pretty lumpy and pathetic. The frame had collapsed the prior week and my monitor attempted to prop it back up with some boards but it was pretty bad. There were panes of glass missing from windows and no screens, so we taped pieces of cardboard over them to try to keep the bugs out and I slept with a mosquito net even though I was inside a house. My room was off the kitchen, so I never would have survived without ear plugs. The toilet didn't flush right. They just didn't have the money to fix a lot of things, but the important things were there. We could walk and go for little hikes at Somkhanda, because there were no lions or elephants in the camp area. So that was the only camp where I could get any exercise. My third camp was Imfolozi. This had bedrooms, kitchen, and bathrooms in separate bulidings clustered close together, around a deck area with tables and chairs. The showers were essentially outdoor, with aluminum walls. The water came from the river, so it was sometimes very brown. We had bottled water to drink. There was a little trail from camp to a spectacular overlook with fantastic views of the park. Sometimes we could see rhinos or other animals down below (far away). There were no screens on the windows and way too hot and muggy to close the windows, so a mosquito net was a must. In my various rooms I saw mice, scorpions, and lots of spiders as well as various other bugs and beetles. If that kind of thing freaks you out, this may not be a good fit for you. I did not see any snakes but one of my roommates did. (outside). We had to keep suitcases zipped to keep mice out of them. I expected very basic accommodations, and for the most part they were adequate. There are a few cheap things they could provide that would have made it much more comfortable though- screens (so we could sleep with windows open without being mobbed by bugs), top sheets on the beds for a light cover (all they supplied were comforters with duvets which were hot- I always took the duvet off the comforter), and a few more shelves and hooks for storage would have made a big difference.
The Volunteers: Ages ranged from about 17 to at least 60's, but most were probably in their 20s. I am in my 40s and was never the oldest or the youngest in my group. There are more women than men. Most volunteers are European- many German, Dutch, French, and British and some Scandenavian. A few Americans, Canadians and Australians too. Many were there for the second, third, or 4th time- the return rate says a lot about the organization and that people like it. One of my biggest worries about doing this was having a roommate. Being in my 40s and single, I have lived alone a long time, so I thought sharing a room with a stranger was going to challenge myself. It ended up being fine, as we were generally only in the room to sleep and were so tired that that usually wasn't that hard to do. Although I did have one roommate who fumigated the room with bug spray every night, which I didn't like too much. It was actually more difficult for me to share the kitchen. I have some dietary restrictions and didn't have enough to eat if I just had what the monitors bought; therefore always went to the store with the monitor and bought a lot of my own food and cooked for myself, when the rest of the volunteers often cooked together. Sharing the small kitchen space, shelves and refrigerator space, dishes and cooking utensils etc was sometimes a challenge. I'm vegetarian and someone dripped raw chicken juice all over my lettuce and fresh vegetables in the refrigerator. I found other people often barely rinsed the dishes, or washed them with soap and didn't rinse at all, and so I always ended up washing all the dishes again, and things like that. And I'm not a neat freak or a germaphobe. The floors were always dirty and sticky and ants and mice were a common occurrance. I also had problems at one camp because almost every one else there smoked and they were not very considerate about giving me distance, so I ended up just leaving and going to my room alone while they all hung out and smoked and talked. But for the most part I enjoyed all of the other volunteers, except for the smoking part. It was fun getting to know people from all over the world and I made some friends I still keep in touch with.
The reserves: In addition to the camps all being different, the reserves are all different. Tembe had lions, dogs, elephants, rhinos, tons of various antelope, and leopards (we never saw one). It had very few zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, or baboons and no cheetah. It was sandy and had thick forests and relatively little wide open spaces. It was pretty flat. Somkhanda had dogs, rhino, lots of giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, and warthogs and antelope. They did not have lions or cheetah or elephants. Again, leopards supposedly existed but we never saw any (we did see tracks). Somkhanda was very hilly with rough terrain (very bumpy to drive over and we sometimes took quite a beating bouncing around in the back of the truck on drives, even causing back pain for one volunteer) and had some spectacular viewpoints. I got the most amazing sunrise and sunset photos there. Imfolozi had pretty much all the animals, but it also had tourists. Tembe and Somkhanda had very few tourists and we usually had the place to ourselves and it felt more wild. Imfolozi has much more tourist traffic, and they sometimes scared away animals we were trying to study. The tourists still weren't that numerous compared to a lot of places I've been though. Imfolozi was also fairly hilly.
I definitely would recommend trying to go for at least 4-6 weeks if at all possible, because if you only see one reserve/camp, you don't really get a good feel for the variety. And I would definitely consider some of the reserves better than others, because like I said, some didn't have any of the "best" animals. And some camps felt like they were really camps- quaint cabins out in nature- whereas others seemed more like crappy little houses.
Overall it was a fantastic experience that I may try to do again if I can ever take enough time off work. I got to see a fair bit of South African culture in addition to the wildlife part as well. Trips to the grocery store were almost a cultural event, and watching the anti-poaching guys skinning and gutting a wildebeest that they were going to divvy up and take the meat home to their families was quite a sight. We got to have a Christmas party for local school children and watch them sing and dance their traditional Zulu dance for us, which was magical. Lots of little experiences like that that I cherish. And I have great respect and admiration for Wildlife ACT, as it is a very dedicated and hard working group of people really trying to make a difference for the endangered animals of South Africa.