In May, my friends and I left our air-conditioned rooms in Hong Kong to have a visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site — Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, in which the rainforests house many endangered species, to have a hands-on experience of the actual interaction between animals and humans with our bare feet. We do not want to just come and go, instead, we also hope to contribute to nature conservation and local communities there with the assistance from IVHQ and its local partner Nakavango Consevation program.
David Livingstone, who is the Scottish missionary and explorer, is considered to be the first European to view the falls and name it as ‘Victoria Falls’ in honor of his Queen, but the native name of ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ , which means the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ is also famous. Although it is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall round the globe, it is thought to be the largest with a width of 1,708 metres and height of 108 metres.
The Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Reserve where we work in is a 2,500 hectare privately-managed piece of primitive land which is the only “Big Five” area surrounding Victoria Falls, due to the presence of the rarely seen Black Rhinoceros, apart from lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo.
The reserve was fenced in 2000 as an Intensive Protection Zone for Black Rhino in the area. As a result, an intensive Black Rhino monitoring programme is now in progress , aiming to increase the black rhino population in the area, as opposed to the non-stop poaching activity of rhinoceros in Southern Africa. As a result, one of the key focus of our trip is to understand the rhino poaching issue. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of animals at risk of extinction, black rhinos are listed as “critically endangered”, which is on the verge of being disappeared on the Earth.
Because of the above-mentioned geographical features in this area, the focal point of activity at the reserve is preservation and conservation through non-consumptive activity in order to sustain and support the various ecosystems. We took part in the Wildlife Conservation project in the game reserve and surrounding areas within Victoria Falls, which includes:
Alien vegetation removal, such as the lantana
Fence patrols to ensure no escape of rhinos and entry of poachers
Bush walks with International Anti-Poaching Foundation
Game, predator and bird monitoring, tracking and counting
Reserve clean-up operations
Camping out on the reserve
Watching Rhino supplement feeding
Playing with local children
School vegetable garden and tree nursery maintenance with the scholars
These hands-on experiences allow us to experience the wildlife which is now difficult to be found in the rapidly developing world, especially in Hong Kong, which is called the ‘Concrete Jungle’. Apart from understanding more about wild ecosystems, at the same time we can also appreciate the relationships between animals and humans. On one hand, some people try to take advantages from other species via poaching or massive deforestation. But on the other hand, there are also different organizations trying to help those vulnerable wild species via conservation. Those anti-poaching team members we visit can even risk their our lives to protect those susceptible rhinos as poachers always hold rifles in their hands. Therefore, it is always meaningful to appreciate how the relationships between animals and humans have evolved as we all understand that human activities have already exploited many animals due to the fiercely growing global populations. As a result, finding a way for sustainable development seems to be a great challenge for our generations.
In addition, we also had the chance to engage in the local community via primary school visits and small-scale vegetable gardening. Therefore, we hope that apart from catching a glimpse of the natural beauty there, we can also help to benefit the local community. During the process, we also experience the local life and have interactions with the natives. And this undoubtedly widen our horizons and allow us to truly understand that we are only a small part of the world.
During the volunteer program, we definitely benefit a lot as we can get in touch with the nature face to face, such as having game drives with elephants or giraffes rambling only meters away from our open game viewing vehicle, let alone having exciting bush walks and tracking on the grassland in Africa to stalk elephants fighting with their tusks. Yet the life there is never that simple as we all encounter an uphill battle — doing manual labor. Living in a well developed metropolis and leading a sedentary lifestyle, I am not accustomed to carrying a heavy sickle and shovel to participate in farming and weeding. However, in my stay there, not only do we need to work as farmers to plow the field, we also need to construct a road in the bush plentiful of spikes and thorns with slashers, and even uprooting a whole bunch of enormous lantana which requires herculean effort to pull it out. But after all, when we finished our work and saw what we had done, the sense of achievement is unparallel and would motivate us to work harder on the next day. Very often, if we just confine ourselves in our comfort zone, in no way can we imagine how far we can reach and how much we can do even if we have the ability to go further.
Victoria Falls is a gorgeous place that has left me so many great memories and "first times", not only because of the picturesque scenaries, but also the lovely people I met there.
During our stay, we were so glad to have the chance to visit the Masuwe Primary School and play with the kids there. The kids there are so adorable and playful that they would share their snacks with me and come to grab my glasses and ask me to take a picture for them. The hyperinflation in Zimbabwe is so severe that the government there even has to adopt the US dollar as the main currency. The high unemployment rate is also worrying, as across the country over 90% of adults are jobless. While schooling is not free (or even expensive) , having their kids studying in formal school (even though it is already a formal school, Masuwe Primary School only has 4 classrooms, so some students have to sit on the floor), the families have to squeeze their pockets which are already shivelled. What is more shocking is that among the 128 million school-aged children in Africa, 17 million will never attend school, which is more than 10% of the children population. Therefore, when I saw the proverb, “Knowledge is power”, painted on the wall of the school, I can truly feel the sorrow but also the hope the teachers there want to bring to the children. Education issues should never be taken lightly as they can affect the entire life of our next generation.
Another fascinating activity I have there is camping on the grassland which are open to all the wildlife, including the hyenas and lions. In Hong Kong, at most we can only go camping in the country park’s designated areas, but in Zimbabwe, I have the precious chance to even construct the road to our campsite. During the campfire party, volunteers from different countries, including the US, Britain and Germany, all played and chatted with each other, and exchanged our own culture. Some volunteers from Germany taught us how to make the “Stick Bread” and on the other day our team from Hong Kong in return also taught them how to make Chinese spring rolls. The sky full of twinkling stars and the faces of those friendly people we spent only a couple of week with have already been imprinted on my mind which I will never forget.
Apart from the people, the animals I met in the jorney are also amazing. In the program, I have the chance to have bush walk with a male adult male cheetah, whose name is Sylvester. In 2010, two days after the birthday of Sylvester, his mother and four of her cubs were killed by a male lion. Being the sole survivor having his umbilical cord attached and unopened eyes, he was rescued by a game scout. Lacking the maternal care for the initial 22 months of his life, he cannot survive in the wild as he does not know how to hunt. Since then, Sylvester is kept in the sanctuary that has large areas of open vleis, and he is now leading a healthy life with vigor and vitality, and even takes up the role of an ambassador cheetah to spread awareness of cheetah conservation in Zimbabwe. Similar to all other species on the brink of extinction, the problems complicating the survival of cheetah are multifactorial, including habitat loss and degradation, human-wildlife conflict and illegal wildlife trade. Due to these challenges, number of wild cheetahs in Africa drops to 9,000 to 12,000 recently, compared to 100,000 cheetahs across their historic range in 1900, therefore, they are the most endangered big cat in the birthplace of humanity.
Although in many peoeple’s mind cheetah is a powerful and fierce creature, it can also live under the risk of extinction. On the other hand, humans are not born with any lethal weapons on our body, but the destruction we have on the nature and the Earth is far more massive. And this can be further illustrated by another activity we did in Zimbabwe, which is to clean up the reserve area. This is such a “memeorable” experience as that day we have to clean up a mountain of household rubbish rife with used diapers and condoms. Although there is a public landfill not far away from the “crime scene”, those people lack of social morality just dumped their own wastes at the entrance of the private reserve.
During the adventure in Victoria Falls, what I learnt and experienced is far more fruitful than what I have written here. The program coordinators and staff there are all kind and friendly which make me feel like home. I would always recommend this program to my friends, because for me, this is such a once-in-a-lifetime experience that make my university life much more memorable.