Life as a Kariega volunteer – Part 1 of 2

For our final volunteering project in South Africa, we spent two weeks as conservation volunteers on the Kariega Game Reserve in Eastern Cape. Working under the guidance of Jarrett, our expert volunteer coordinator, we got the opportunity to experience life working on a game reserve, contributing to the conservation of the reserve and saw some amazing animals too!

As Plan My Gap Year’s (PMGY) newest project, we were extremely fortunate to be the first volunteers to participate in their programme. The project was so new, that PMGY hadn’t issued their volunteer handbook yet and so we were essentially entering the project with little detail about what would be involved. This was both exciting and a little unnerving!

Across our two weeks, we were involved in a number of different projects and activities – a highlight of these are provided below:

Living amongst predators

The Kariega reserve has been built up through the purchase and re-cultivation of former farmland along the Kariega and Bushman rivers. The site of some 16 000 hectares is divided by a main road into two sections: Kariega East (a.k.a. KE) and Kariega West (a.k.a. KW). Additionally, there is a newer development called Harvestvale which we also visited on occasion.

The elephant herd pays a visit to the volunteer compound in KW
The elephant herd pays a visit to the volunteer compound in KW

KW is the larger section of the reserve and home to the bigger animals (such as elephants) and the predator species (i.e. lions). Additionally, this is also the location of the volunteer house, situated in a small, fenced-in compound in the middle of KW. It takes about 15 minutes to drive from the main road to the volunteer house, adding to the feeling of isolation and freedom that living here brings.

The effect of elephant herds on the environment

With about 40 elephants in the herd, the impact of their movement across KW can be seen on a regular basis. They tend to move together and don’t worry about using roads – they simply plough through bushes, shrubs and trees as they see fit to get to their intended destination.

Elephants feeding on the grasslands
Elephants feeding on the grasslands

Along the way, they stop to feast on the local vegetation, often destroying the plant in the process. It is for this reason that volunteers make observations of their feeding patterns and impact. If this isn’t monitored and recorded, the herd could grow to a size that the reserve could not sustain and have a lasting detrimental impact on the delicate ecosystem that exists there.

Claire with the elephant herd feeding behind her
Claire with the elephant herd feeding behind her

Covering great distances across the reserve, it can be tricky at times to find them, making elephant tracking a popular activity amongst the volunteers. Sometimes, it isn’t necessary to go and find them as they come by the volunteer house looking for food instead!

Six-inch spikes

Acacia Karoo with nasty thorns
Acacia Karoo with nasty thorns

“Survival of the fittest” is never been more apt than when applied to a game reserve. With so many different animal species living together, the weakest are always the most vulnerable to natural predators. The same is true of plants too – if they don’t protect themselves, they risk being gobbled up by the herbivorous species and potentially wiped out.

The primary method of protection is through spikes, such as those found along the branches of the acacia karoo plant which is prevalent across Kariega. Whilst this doesn’t stop animals from eating them, it does limit how many leaves can be accessed by animals in a single feed, thus reducing the risk of irreparable damage being caused.

Claire recording the results of our sampling task
Claire recording the results of our sampling task

As part of our conservation management, we worked with game rangers to measure the availability of acacia karoo at multiple sites across KE, using this as part of an analysis to calculate the stock capacity of the reserve and prevent overloading from occurring. As science-minded people, we found this really interesting work collecting real-world data that will be applied to form tangible decisions in the future. Collecting the data was great fun too!

A head above the rest

Giraffes are found across KE and Harvestvale, tending to move in family groups led by dominant males. As they are regularly traded between different game reserves, monitoring the giraffe population is an important conservation management task.

A pair of giraffes wander across the road in Harvestvale
A pair of giraffes wander across the road in Harvestvale

We spent a day down in Harvestvale sexing giraffes in advance of forthcoming game sales. This involved checking out the colour of the giraffe’s fur – males have darker patches than the females which is visible even at a distance. Additionally, mature male giraffes have bald ossicles on their heads – females remain hairy.

A giraffe family group feeding
A giraffe family group feeding

Surprisingly, we learnt that giraffes don’t just eat plants at height – they are quite content to reach down and eat from lower plants too. To combat this, plants such as acacia karoo grow long and deadly-looking spikes to prevent their leaves being overeaten. This doesn’t stop the giraffes though whose long tongue and thick lips are perfectly adapted to strip virtually all plant life of their leaves to provide a succulent meal.

Delivering smiles and laughter

Claire & I with our finished cage
Claire & I with our finished cage
As part of the volunteering programme at Kariega, one day of each week is dedicated to helping the children of the local community. Mornings are spent supporting the Farmerfield School with either improvements to the school site and surroundings or providing English-speaking support within the classroom.

Whilst we were there, we helped to build fences around some newly-planted tree saplings, to prevent the local cattle from eating them up before they had time to mature. This required some creative use of wood and wire with only pick axes, shovels, saws and wire clippers to make use of – a whole lot of fun and a totally new experience for us.

Me being used as a human climbing frame
Me being used as a human climbing frame
In the afternoons following the school visit, volunteers help to run a soup kitchen in the nearby township, providing vulnerable children with what, for most, will be their only substantial meal of the day. Whilst some people prepare and serve the food, the rest of the volunteers entertain and play with the children, to mutual enjoyment. I had a great time, even though I was reduced to a human jungle gym for three or four small children at the same time!

A brief visit to ‘Paradise’

At the end of the working week, volunteers are rewarded for their endeavours with either a special game drive to seek an elusive animal species not encountered recently or through some unique experience across the Kariega Game Reserve. One such opportunity is to visit a remote corner of the reserve to swim in the clear waters of an undisturbed lake, christened ‘Paradise’ by long-term volunteers.

Claire & I in the water at Paradise
Claire & I in the water at Paradise

Equipped with swimming costumes, volunteers spend the sunny Friday afternoon jumping into the clear, cool waters and relaxing in the Sun – a perfect way to end a busy week!

A group shot of the volunteers at Paradise
A group shot of the volunteers at Paradise

This is just a snapshot of our experiences as Volunteers at the Kariega Game Reserve. Check out Part 2 of this post coming soon for more about our hunt for the lonely lioness and the true impact of illegal rhino poaching. Why not subscribe to alerts by email so that you never miss a post? Just enter your email address in the ‘Receive post updates’ to have them delivered to your inbox.

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