At the end of March I left London and started working on a conservation research program at the Kwantu Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth in South Africa. My role, as part of multinational team of volunteers, involved a wide range of nature and wildlife conservation tasks.
Fence-clearing, patrolling for tracks, and maintaining the roads
One of my key responsibilities involved fence-clearing and patrolling, during which we needed to make sure that the animals on the reserve wouldn’t get injured by wires or other sharp objects.
During our patrols, we looked for animal tracks, as some animals are almost never seen on game drives. For example, there was a leopard on the reserve that hasn’t been seen in three years but we were able to tell that it is alive and healthy because we had seen its tracks quite frequently.
I was also involved in helping maintain roads and capturing snakes that went through the fence outside the reserve. On my second week, we caught a puff adder near the volunteer headquarters and put it back in the reserve.
Vegetation rehabilitation and eradication of invasive plants
Vegetation rehabilitation and the eradication of invasive plant species formed another major part of my work there. The main invasive plant found at Kwantu was the black wattle. On an interesting note, the reserve used to be a farm. A botanist used to live there in the late 1800s. He planted a wide variety of alien species during his stay, which can be found in the reserve today.
Another interesting part of my work there included game counting. This involved checking the zebra and blesbol population in the reserve as their overpopulation would result in overgrazing of the land, which in turn will affect other animals and also damage the soil.
Tiger conservation, the elephant sanctuary and rhino patrols
The reserve also has a conservation program for breeding tiger cubs, and so far they have been very successful. One of the cubs born on the reserve is going to another conservation program in China this year. Meanwhile, one of the tigers that was pregnant during my stay gave birth one week after I left Kwantu at the end of May.
We also went to the elephant sanctuary once a week to feed the elephants and make their beds in the boma (animal enclosure). We also got to ride them in order to help them get more used to human interaction.
As poachers are a major threat to conservation in South Africa, we also went on weekly rhino patrols to ensure the rhinos were well-hidden in the reserve. In 2010, poachers got into the reserve and killed a female rhino that had a young calf still dependent on her for food. Poachers have killed almost 200 rhinos in South Africa during the first half of 2012.
Feeding the animals at the predator camp and at a farm
We fed animals at the predator camp, which have enclosures that hold lions, tigers, and cheetahs. Due to their substantial appetite, feeding these animals was quite a lot of work as, for example, lions can eat up 30kg of meat in one sitting. They were fed once or twice a week, depending on how much they eat during the first feeding.
The meat that they are fed comes from a nearby farm. The farm supplies the reserve with all cows died of natural causes.
I also had plenty of work at Touch Farm where I had to feed two springboks named Pete and Graham, and a black wildebeest named Diego. Diego was abandoned by his mother on the reserve and was found in a very weak state. He is now at a healthy weight but is unfortunately deaf so he cannot go back to the reserve, as he would be too easy a prey for the predators. Once he gets older, he will be released into the elephant sanctuary as he will be safer there.
Pete and Graham were also abandoned and found on the reserve but after a couple of months of taking care of them and giving them their daily baby bottles, they will be big enough to go back and join a bachelor herd on the reserve.
The best thing about being a volunteer on a game reserve is that you get to go on daily game drives. After 58 days I’ve grown quite attached to all the animals on the reserve. My favorite moments on the game drives were mostly with Zulu (the male lion on the reserve) and with the elephant bull. The teenage elephant was really used to seeing us and got the habit of following our Land Rover. Like most teenagers he had a lot of mood swings – most days he would be happy to see us; however, on some occasions, he would try to intimidate us by flopping his ears and getting too close to the car. On my last game drive, he almost charged at us. Then, as our ranger raised his hand and told him to stop, he bowed to the Land Rover and walked away. It was truly an amazing sight.