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2013-07-20 11:00

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Love the bush? Want to help save animals? Wildlife voluntourism means you don’t need to be a game ranger or scientist to do just that.

You pay for the pleasure – and work during your hard-earned holidays. That’s the idea behind voluntourism.

So what’s the pay-off? Working alongside conservationists, in close proximity to animals, guarantees you a more personal, intense experience than seeing them from a 4x4 or shoreline.

While the concept has gained traction overseas, locals are still sceptical (‘You work and pay for your holiday?!’). These four programmes in conservation zones around the country may change minds.

Wildlife ACT volunteers track and monitor all kinds of animals in various KZN reserves, including wild dogs, cheetahs and rhinos. Below, left to right: Hluhluwe’s rolling hills, cruising down a river in Phinda, passing on the passion to the next generation at Phinda, an African wild dog.

Walk on the wild side

Wildlife ACT

Who are they? Wildlife ACT runs projects for game reserves that don’t have the capacity or funding to do this themselves. They track and monitor endangered species and those that have high ecological impacts. The data gathered allows the reserve to make informed conservation decisions.

Where? In four KwaZulu-Natal game reserves: Mkhuze Game Reserve, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Thanda Private Game Reserve and Tembe National Elephant Park.

Who are they affiliated with? World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Endangered Wildlife Trust, the international wild cat conservation group Panthera, Wildlands Conservation Trust and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

What do volunteers do? There are currently five main projects, focused on monitoring the African wild dog, cheetahs, black rhinos and vultures. Up to five volunteers help a Wildlife ACT monitor track and observe animals, and may also participate in other reserve activities, such as the capture and relocation of animals.

Cost? R8 650 for South Africnas for the first two weeks, including meals and accommodation. 

To the sea

Ocean Research Conservation Africa

Who are they? The educational arm of Ocean Blue Adventures, an eco-tourism company in Plettenberg Bay, Orca was started in 2000 when the owners noticed that dolphins were disappearing from Robberg Bay due to overfishing of their food source.

Orca formed a partnership with Cape Nature to police the area. It also has a big focus on conservation education.

Where? Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route.

Who are they affiliated with? The Centre for Dolphin Studies, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and Unisa.

What do volunteers do? Sea-based projects include fin profiling, tagging, marine debris clean-ups, whale and dolphin watching. Volunteers help collect data, samples and images for the various research projects, but can also include marine education with preschool children in the area and cleaning the aquarium.

Cost? from R3 500 perweek for South Africans, includng all meals and accommodation.

Game plan

African Conservation Experience

Who are they? African Conservation Experience runs a volunteer project in Phinda Private Game Reserve, which recently won the World Tourism for Tomorrow Award in the conservation category.

Where? Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Who are they affiliated with? WWF, Endangered Wildlife Trust, local universities.

What do volunteers do? Teams of volunteers work with researchers to monitor black and white rhinos, do behavioural studies on predators, monitor elephant populations and big cat movements, and research spotted hyena ecology.

Cost? From R21 960 for two weeks, includsing accommodation and meals.

Mountain high, Lajuma Research Centre

Who are they? A private research station in the Luvhondo Nature Reserve, founded by respected conservationist Ian Gaigher and his late wife, Retha. The centre gathers data on biodiversity and ecology, focusing on the conflict between humans and wildlife, which is shared with researchers around the world. They run their own research programme, as well as a programme with Earthwatch Institute.

Where do they work? In the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve in the Soutpansberg area of Limpopo, near Makhado. It’s also home to a number of rare or endangered species.

Who are they affiliated with? The international Earthwatch Institute has links to Durham University in the UK and the University of Illinois in the US.

What do volunteers do? Volunteers can expect to follow the animals on foot, work with camera traps, process and upload information or analyse droppings. Teams are small – four people maximum – and Earthwatch sponsors volunteers from previously disadvantaged communities.

Cost? R3 500 per motnh (self-catering) fot the Lajuma Research programme and R24 000 for 12 days (fully catered) for the Earhtwatch programme.,

Is an operation authentic?

Is it a conservation organisation that uses volunteering to fund its work, or is it a volunteer organisation trying to get into conservation to make money?

While there are volunteer organisations that are scrupulous when choosing ethical conservation projects, it’s safer to look at conservation organisations that use volunteers as manpower to achieve their research goals.

Is the organisation linked to reputable organisations?

It’s difficult to know if your chosen programme’s research is valid if you don’t have a conservation background. But if it’s registered with reputable organisations with a proven track record, it’s a safer bet.

Does it showcase work being done via the media?

There should be evidence of research progress – in academic papers, online or on social media.

How many volunteers work on a project at one time?

Five per research team should be the maximum, says Wildlife ACT. Beyond that, it’s questionable how much each volunteer is really contributing.

Danger alert!

A young Canadian volunteer was recently attacked by a lion at the Moholoholo rehabilitation centre in Hoedspruit, Mpumalanga. So remember, always respect wild animals and follow the instructions of the guides.

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