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Volunteer at the Lion Park in South Africa

Volunteer at a South African Game Preserve with Global Vision International

Getting Up Close to an African Safari by Giving of Yourself

Cheetahs at a Game Reserve in South Africa.
Cheetahs at a Game Reserve in South Africa.

It is five a.m. at the Karongwe Private Game Reserve. Still dark, but soon the sky will share both the sun and moon for lighting our way. Today we are hunting Ingala and Skankank—African Shangaan tribal names for lion and cheetah.

Cameras and binoculars—check. Water bottles and a mid-morning snack–check. Telemetry equipment and notebooks for recording data–double check—as these are even more important than the extra thermos of coffee.  Collecting data on the large predators and other wild animals is the main reason we are here, living and volunteering our time for ten weeks on a game reserve in South Africa’s rich and varied Limpopo Province. For those with a preference for learning about, studying, and viewing African animals up close, to the comfort of starred lodgings and spa treatments, this is an adventure sure to thrill.

Even at this early hour, the excitement of what we will see today is all around us—and it’s not just a caffeine buzz from the coffee. Dawn breaks quickly here in the bush as we startle a sleeping giraffe. “Sorry fella,” I whisper. Those tinker-toy legs take quite a while to untangle.

Our tools allow high tech bush tracking with telemetry—a safari guide’s dream. The principal study animals on the reserve (lion, cheetah, leopard, elephant, African wild dog, hyena, and jackal) wear collars equipped with a small radio device. The collar emits a particular frequency picked up as a beep on a hand-held device looking suspiciously like a television antenna. Held up over the head, the device continues to beep as we wind down the frequency while driving over the reserve, leading us directly to the animal.

While on the way to our cheetah, we stop the truck as an impala gingerly steps across our path, followed in quick succession by the thirty others in her herd bounding by. A pair of Kudu hides in the thicket. Several male zebra snort and stamp as we interrupt their roadside breakfast. Soft shadows and tall grass hide prey from ever-watchful eyes of the predator.

By six a.m., we’ve tracked down our first animal. Nyeleti (pronounced Enya-letti), Star in Shangaan, is a collared female cheetah with her three twelve-week old cubs. There she is—in front of us—lying in a clearing with her cubs safely under a nearby acacia bush. We park and wait. But not for long. The rambunctious cubs come romping out in a shot, chasing grasshoppers, tussling, and play-growling roughly with each other.  

After spending a half hour in the quiet morning watching the antics of the cubs, we snap pictures, gather data, and laugh a lot. Cute doesn’t begin to describe a fuzzy, active cheetah cub. Part of what we’ve learned in our studies on the expedition is how precarious the plight of the cheetah is in South Africa today. As the world’s fastest land animal, its status is listed as threatened and is now considered an Endangered Species. Their numbers are dwindling due to natural habitats becoming developed and conflict with humans. Having the ability to closely record the actions of this beautiful animal raises hope that we may somehow play a part in helping to increase their chance for survival.

A full week of training classes between game drives in subjects of animal identification, vehicle maintenance, and general management of the reserve ensures the group takes consistent records to be passed along to reserve management. Animal population control, feeding profiles, identification, genetic studies, and prey/predator relationships are just a few of the projects undertaken within each expedition.

The radio crackles, “Moudada Ingala, lalapanzi at Moonlight Dam”. This is the Shangaan safari guide code for “Male Lion, lying relaxed at Moonlight Dam”. We’re off! There is more data to collect while the morning is still cool. A bushbuck with a pair of hitchhiking Oxpecker birds on his back stalls us for a few moments as he goes off in search of tender grass. In a few minutes, we’re at the dam and there he is, doing what lions do best in the daylight hours—sleeping. A bonus—his mate is there also. Two lions, sleeping peacefully beside the road. We have time to note their appearance and rate how long it’s been since their last meal. All of this data will go into the computer once we return to base camp. If we are lucky we will see them…wait. They are both up and alert, from comatose to mach five in two seconds flat, tuned into a sound from the bush that we cannot hear and certainly could not see.

As one, they’re off, moving with a power and grace that belies the sleeping poses moments before. The white-ringed rump of a waterbuck flashes past, and the male lion follows, disappearing into the thick bush as quickly as lightening. Branches snap and leaves rustle. We wait with the female lion—who stayed behind because she is pregnant and has cubs due within thirty days—for what feels like an eternity. All human ears on our truck are as alert as the lioness. In minutes, the black-maned lion slinks back, panting and unfortunately for all observers, with no kill in sight.

It’s been a busy morning. As the African sun gets hot, it’s time to head back to camp. Sharing living space with fifteen volunteers and five staff members requires flexibility and cooperation. Each expedition member has their own daily responsibilities. The camp/base duty person is making lunch and dinner for the group. Today it is avocado and bacon salad for lunch and lasagna for dinner. It is a multi-national group and the varied menu reflects favorites from around the globe.

Global Vision International (GVI) provides the opportunity to get an up-close safari experience few will ever experience in their lifetime. For many, a safari is an expensive proposition. By giving of your time and efforts as a volunteer, for five or ten week stints, you receive training, daily safari outings, and most of all, time spent working closely with the animals—all for about $74 dollars a day.

GVI is a U.K.-based volunteer organization and has been working with the small reserves in the Limpopo Province in South Africa for the last six years. They assist the reserve managers by running the monitoring programs using the funding from the international volunteers that participate in the programs. The staff and volunteers collect data daily to identify the behavioral ecology and impact of large predators within a smaller, multi-predator reserve. The information gathered also helps aid in the responsible and effective reserve management and conservation. 

The on-going research provides important data for ecology of predators eating patterns, predator/prey relationships, prey density and distribution, and the core ranges of use for predators. There are typically several smaller projects going on to assist reserve managers as well that might include habituating the wildlife, feeding preferences, and darting and bringing new animals into the reserve balance. Volunteers learn about animal behavior and absorb the daily nuances of their lives. Within every five week segment, one week is spent in the mountain camps clearing trails, identifying indigenous small mammals and insects, taking measurements and hiking through spectacular canyons with breathtaking views. However, the total focus isn’t on wildlife. Weekly community involvement days bring volunteers into the local schools to teach basic computer skills and introduce young learners to the importance of good conservation practices.

Volunteers, called expedition members (EMs), range in age from 19 to 50. Within the group you’ll find just-out-of-school scientist wannabes, gap year students, burnt out corporate execs, and many just wanting to give something back to the conservation community. Definitely makes for interesting dinner conversation. Comments vary nightly from “Did you see that amazing fill-in-the-blank today?” to “This is so great—I feel like I am living a dream.”

On the expedition you will not find mini-bars or cushy duvets. Accommodations range from a tented safari camp to a dorm-style farmhouse, both located on game reserves. Bunk beds and mosquito nets provide a comfortable nest after a long day in the bush. Hot showers are hit or miss, but in the summer months, it is often so warm on drives the cool water is a welcome relief. Privacy is scarce, but the laughter and camaraderie shared in the evening while having a cold beer or glass of South African wine is plentiful.

The staff is well-trained and always willing to answer the myriad of questions from the volunteers.

“What kind of spider is this?”

“Is that a leopard or lion track?”

“Is this a tick bite or a mosquito?”

The backgrounds of staff guides and science officers range from former safari guides on large National Park reserves to former EM’s who loved what they were doing so much they continued their extensive training as a guide to share this excitement with others. After an initial ten weeks, internships are also available for those EM’s who find this way of life too difficult to leave. The cost of the expedition is covered in return for helping out around base and becoming an essential part of the staff team.

This is a South African safari experience that will spoil you for any organized safari ever again. If you are willing to give a little of yourself and your time, you will receive much in return: A chance to be a part of something larger than yourself, to see wild animals in proximity you would only have known before in books or television documentaries, and most importantly—the chance to be the envy of all your friends back home when bringing back that trophy photo of the black-maned lion to hang on your wall!

Tomorrow morning is elephant focus drive. Driving to the Makutsi riverbank, we’ll spend a few hours among the giant tuskers observing the breeding herd behavior up close. I wonder what we will see?  

For More Information

Volunteering opportunities in South Africa abound. Based on your particular interests there are many companies to choose from and lots of areas to explore. I chose GVI because of this expedition’s strong emphasis on animal research and their excellent customer service from both the U.S. and the U.K. offices. Their philosophy of promoting sustainable solutions for a rapidly changing world by matching the general public with international environmentalists, researchers, and pioneering educators matched my personal goals for visiting South Africa. 

Global Vision International for expedition itinerary and information, photo and video libraries, stories from the field, and life on the expedition. 

Costs: 5 week expedition $3,190, 10 week expedition $5,190. 
What’s included:

  • Pre-departure support and discounted services
  • Airport pick up and transfer to base
  • Food and accommodation
  • Training materials and science equipment
  • Telemetry tracking equipment
  • National Park fees and permits
  • Comprehensive training necessary for research techniques
  • Emergency First Aid course
  • 24 hour in country support
  • 24 hour emergency phone line in the UK
  • Free Careers Abroad field work placement and job vacancy service for all former Expedition Members (successful placements depend upon aptitude and attitude)

Other Opportunities to Volunteer in South Africa

For those interested in other volunteer experiences in the beautiful and richly varied country that is South Africa, here is a sampling of those available. 

Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme

  • Conservation Based Volunteering
  • Reserve Management
  • Prey/Predator Studies 
  • Private accommodations available for couples traveling together

Work and Travel South Africa

  • Cultural Initiatives
  • Orphanage Project
  • HIV/AIDS Education
  • Teaching English 

See Transitions Abroad's section on Volunteering in South Africa for a comprehensive listing of organizations.

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