My Most Memorable Moment: I celebrated my 25th birthday at the Park. I started the day with a lion walk, taking three 9 month old cubs out in the bush for a 2 hour walk before breakfast. After 2 weeks I had started to form a bond with the cubs and was getting morning cuddles from the male cub, Tonga. After breakfast, a group of us went to the boys Orphanage, which is supported by the Project, and spent the rest of the morning playing games with the inspiring kids there. When I retuned to the Park, I was presented with a birthday cake from the amazing group of friends I had made and was later thrown in to the swimming pool (a birthday tradition). This was the best birthday I have ever had and meant so much to me, especially since I had travelled to [the Project] alone.
My Biggest Achievement: I was worried about making friends since I was travelling out to Zim on my own. I was worried that all the volunteers would be 18 year olds on their gap year, which did not appeal to me as a 25 year old career breaker. However, I was pleasantly surprised that there was a big range in ages (from 18 to 50) of the volunteers and I made an amazing group of friends. I read a lot of cliches before going to Zim about "making friends for life" and did not buy in to it. But I have actually returned home with some of those.
What was your biggest Positive Impact on the Project? On the lion project, everything you do directly impacts on the lions. From cleaning their enclosures, to feeding them, to making toys for them, to sweeping the park for snares: everything you do betters their captive life. I was also lucky enough to visit AP after they had released their lions in to stage 2 (releasing a pride of lions in to a semi-wild environment with no human interference) and whilst they were putting plans in place for Stage 3 (releasing the female cubs born in Stage 2 in to a national park). Therefore, I spent a lot of time on research, observing the pride in the release site and taking data. I loved being able to observe the lions in their natural habitat and felt like I was really helping the conversation project.
The staff at [the Project] are fantastic and always explain why you are doing the tasks you've been asked to do and how it benefits the animals/park/community.
As a lion project volunteer, you also have the option to spend some days with the community volunteers in the community. One of my friends loved it so much he swapped on to the community project and extended for an extra 2 weeks. The staff at [the Project] are very flexible and this was not a problem at all. (Likewise, community vols get to spend time with the lions or at the stables at the weekends).
Every Saturday we went to the boys Orphanage, which was supported by [the Project]. We took games and food to the orphanage and spent quality time with the boys. They were always so excited to see what games we had for them and to play with us and show off their dance moves. One Saturday, we spent the whole morning dancing with the kids, it was incredible. I also spent one day at Julena school teaching a class English grammar and how to tell the time. The community project is very special, as you get to experience real life in Zimbabwe and see the direct impact of the work the park does on the communities.
Charlotte Whitehead, who was my point of contact at Travellers Worldwide, was fantastic. All of the information she gave me was great, she was extremely friendly and she was very supportive before heading off. I booked my placement very late and she helped to get everything organised in time and responded to my emails very quickly. I also spoke to one of your reps on online chat before I booked the placement, as I was unsure whether to go to Gweru or to Vic Falls. The lady who I spoke to online was also really helpful, answering all of my many questions in full. She gave me the confidence to book the experience then and there.
I did find that the information in the brochures was a little outdated. For example, you do not have to pay for laundry and they will wash all clothes (including underwear). However, we did not get towels at the accommodation. This is all very minor and did not deter from the amazing experience ...
Now turning to the project itself.
The Lion Conservation Project focuses on breeding lions that can be released in to the wild, as the number of lions in Africa is dwindling.
Phase 1: Lion cubs are born and, after a few weeks with their mum, they are raised by handlers. This is controversial, however the cubs cannot learn the skills they need from their captive mothers. Therefore, when they are old enough, they are walked 2-3 times a day in the African bush with experienced handlers and eager volunteers. Walking through the bush allows them to familiarise themselves with their natural environment and to develop their natural instincts. There is free-roaming game on the reserve and this enables the cubs to learn to hunt and, eventually, feed themselves.
The cubs are walked daily until they are around 18 months old, at which point they are too unpredictable to walk alongside a human. Therefore, handlers will take them out at night to hunt (the handlers will drive in a truck around the reserve instead of being on foot). Volunteers can also go along for the ride, which is very exciting!
Phase 2: A pride of lions are released in to the release site: a semi-wild environment. Here, the lions act as a normal pride would. Living in the African bush and hunting for themselves, with little human interference. The lions live within a large fenced area (fenced to keep them safe from poachers and local communities safe from lions). Researchers come in to the site daily to observe the pride and take essential research data. The pride has cubs in the release site, who have never had any human interaction.
Phase 3: Once these cubs have fully matured, around 5 years, they are released in to the wild, such as a national park.
[The Project] is currently at Phase 2, and are looking to complete Phase 3 early next year. Once the lions in Phase 3 have cubs of their own, the project is deemed to be a success. This is a model, which, if successful, can be applied to other endangered species.
They also do a lot of work with the community. Unemployment is at a staggering 95% in Zimbabwe, which is one of the word’s poorest countries. As a result, poaching is a huge issue. AP invest some of the money generated through the safari lodge and volunteer programme in the community: building and supporting schools, clinics, orphanages, drop in centres etc. This gives the community a tangible benefit to keeping the animals around and gets them on board with the work the park are doing.
Volunteers play a huge role at the Park, funding the Conversation project and providing the manpower to keep the projects running. At AP there are lion volunteers, stable volunteers, medical volunteers and community volunteers. The great thing about this Park is the flexibility. I was a lion volunteer, but was still able to spend days out in the community.
I will start with my experience in the community. The community volunteers spend time teaching classes at local schools, preparing meals at the drop-in centre for homeless children, playing games at the local orphanage etc. Every Saturday, volunteers from the Park visit the local boys orphanage, taking games to play with the kids. It is truly rewarding seeing how excited the boys are when you arrive to see what games you have brought them. I spent a couple of very happy Saturdays getting to know these amazing children. One Saturday we spent the entire morning dancing, which is something I will remember forever! I also spent one day teaching children at Julena School English grammar and how to tell the time.
Now, turning to the lions.
The reason I ventured out to Zim in the first place. Most days started with a 2 hour lion walk before breakfast, starting at 6am. It was bitterly cold in the mornings during dry season but so worth it to go out in the bush with three 9 month old cubs. I was slightly nervous around them at first, but soon began to read their every facial expression. Over the few weeks I was there, I also got to witness them developing their hunting skills, starting to flank and stalk their prey. As they were young, they were very playful and loving too. Ruva would often push her luck, giving you an ankle tap or stalking you. And Tonga was very needy, often making lots of noise and falling at your feet for cuddles. It was incredible getting to know their very distinct personalities and watching them develop, even over that short time. There isn't anywhere else in the world where you can get so close to these creatures.
After breakfast comes the hard work. Either cleaning the enclosures (lots of bones and nasty smelling meats), feeding the lions, fixing enclosures, doing manual labour on the park, sweeping the park for snares etc. This is definitely not for the work shy or extremely squeamish. However, it is all worth it in the afternoon as you get to walk with the lions again, make toys for the lions and observe how they react, or head out in to the release site to observe the Ngamo pride.
Volunteer life at the park is very sociable. The accommodation blocks are built around a fire pit in the "volunteer village" so there are always people around and you make friends easily. The park has a lot of volunteers so there is normally a good range of ages and people. The staff are extremely friendly and the facilities on site are good. Every night is spent sat in the bar or around one of the camp fires.
There are also a range of other activities you can take part in. The Park has 4 orphaned African elephants they took in, so you can spend the day with the elephants if you want to. You can also go on horse safaris, bare back riding, overnight camping, play Polocrosse, go on trips such as Rhino treks, to the great ruins, or to Victoria Falls.
On the whole, this is a once in a lifetime experience (although I am already planning to go back next year!). If you are thinking about volunteering, I really recommend both Travellers Worldwide and this Project!