On the reserves our main duty was
to monitor the wild dogs which are an endangered species. There are only 350-450
of them left in South Africa and ¼ of that population are in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi
We went out in the 4x4 twice every day and used telemetry to track them, enabled
by the fact that some of the dogs have VHF collars on them. These collars are crucial
pieces of equipment in tracking but only last a couple of years before they need
replacing and you need at least one collar per pack of dogs. Preferably the alpha
pair plus one other dog in each pack would be collared but they are very expensive,
so a lot of fundraising has to be done for this ideal situation to become reality.
By volunteering, some of the money I paid to go on the project goes into the conservation
of these animals, e.g. towards collars.
Tracking can also be done using tracks on the ground which was best at Tembe where
there is soft sand everywhere so there are plenty of tracks to see. However, this
is very time-consuming, is far from an exact science (e.g. exact age of a track
is hard to predict and there are so many factors to consider) and is also a lot
of hard work! At the other parks where the roads were mainly tar or dirt the tracks
are less easy to spot or non-existent!
It is so important to monitor them, especially on a park like Mkhuze where they
a lot of problems with snares in which the dogs accidently get caught (the poachers
are generally aiming for antelope). If this is not picked up on quickly the poachers
may kill the dog for food whereas if the people from the project get there first
the dog can be
saved. It was truly heartbreaking to see a couple of dogs with only three legs.
They cope extremely well but they shouldn’t be put in this position! It is so hard
to stop poachers from entering, but there is only the one pack of dogs at Mkhuze
and in the last year it has decreased in size from 16 to 9, so if this pack is lost
they will not be able to restart it as it will be deemed too dangerous for the dogs.
The Project is responsible for moving dogs between some of the reserves as often
the reason for them trying to escape the confines of the reserve or for leaving
their pack and wandering into trouble is while looking for other dogs of the opposite
sex with which to form a new pack. It seems that life as a wild dog is never dull!
Only the Alpha female is supposed to get pregnant but we have had two other females
become pregnant in my time out there so now there is the issue of whether or not
the new Alpha will let these other pups survive as she will want all pups to be
hers. With species numbers low it is important that this does not happen but you
can’t just explain this to a wild dog!
The Project is currently campaigning to get the name ‘wild dog’ changed to ‘painted
dog’ as this will go some way in giving them a better reputation. Currently their
bad reputation is partly due to the way they kill as they eat their prey alive.
However, although it sounds more gruesome, it actually kills the animal quicker
than if killed by, say, a lion.
At Mkhuze we also monitored cheetah. Did you know that cheetah’s hunting success
rate is only about 10%? They may be the fastest land animal but they can only keep
this up for a very short amount of time so have to get very close to their prey
before ambushing it! Life is much harder for them than you first think!
Accommodation on the reserves was more civilised than I had expected and I even
a washing machine on two out of the three reserves, however, one of the ovens took
three times as long to cook anything as a normal oven! There were only between 3
and 5 volunteers on each reserve so it really felt as if you were part of the team!
As well as tracking the animals and writing notes about the sightings (location,
time, date and behaviour seen) we also pumped up the vehicle tyres, cleaned the
vehicle, fed an impala quarter to two wild dogs in the boma (an enclosure where
new dogs go when first at the park as an introductory step) at Hluhluwe, painted
a large food chute for the boma at Tembe, painted a kitchen floor in the new extension
at Mkhuze, cleaned up the new camp in iMfolozi, inputted the data we collected into
a database on the computer, tagged camera trap photos and created identity kits
for some of the puppies and their parents at Hluhluwe.
I really enjoyed all this work, especially making the ID kits as it really helped
me to learn how to distinguish each dog and getting a left and right side photo
of each dog (while making sure it is the same dog) is harder than it sounds!
I learnt a lot about all the animals plus you can’t beat the practical education
of observing how they interact with their own and other species in the wild. Other
animals I was lucky enough to see included leopard (a mother and two cubs in the
dark but was still an amazing sighting!), an aardvark, black rhino, hyena and a
steenbok (a small antelope which is fairly rare) plus the more ‘normal’ giraffe,
zebra, lion, elephant, white rhino, buffalo, impala, nyala, kudu, monkeys (vervet,
samango and baboons), wildebeest, warthog, vultures and countless birds!
I cannot describe to you just how incredible the sense of being there is, surrounded
by all the sounds of the bush, with the animals in their natural habitat! Mind blowing
doesn’t quite cover it! A highlight was seeing the wild dogs take on a hyena right
next to the vehicle! Thankfully no-one was injured, the dogs were just teasing him!
On the marine conservation week, I stayed in a volunteer house and when the weather
permitted we went out on the boat. This is a controversial area due to the increase
in shark attacks but the boat does not actually feed the sharks, it just puts fish
scents into the water to attract them. Also, the boat does not anchor near the beach
where people may be put at risk.
Every time we went out a record was kept of how many sharks we saw and whether they
had any distinguishing features plus an estimate of their size. Volunteers were
responsible for getting wetsuits ready and handing them out, looking after anyone
who felt seasick, helping people in and out of the cage, cleaning the boat and anything
else that needed doing!
This experience has been very rewarding and a great learning curve that I will never
forget. I have met people from all corners of the world (nearly!): Holland, Australia,
Germany, America, Canada, Ireland, France, Switzerland, England and, of course,
South Africa, and of all ages! I have gained so much confidence without even realising
it at the time and have never done as much cooking in my entire life as two of us
ended up cooking for 8 people when neither of us normally cook much at home!
It was my first time abroad on my own so I thought I would do it in style and have
become so much more independent and more sure of myself while out there!
I would definitely recommend this type of volunteer work to everyone out there and
will certainly be doing more in the future!