Life as a Kariega volunteer – Part 2 of 2

Plan My Gap Year’s newest project, the Big 5 Wildlife Experience at Kariega Game Reserve, gives you the opportunity to experience the world of conservation management working in one of South Africa’s stunning game reserves. As described in Part 1, there are many varied roles that make up your experience and will leave a lasting impression on you for years to come. This post highlights the learning experience that comes with volunteering here, both in the care of the land of the reserve and of the animals who reside there.

The true story of Thandi the rhino

It is a sad and well documented fact that poaching is still a blight on 21st Century game parks across the African continent. With demand for rhino horn from countries such as Vietnam for medicinal purposes unwavering, game reserves face a daily challenge of ensuring these majestic animals have as close to normal a lifestyle as possible whilst protecting them from the well-equipped and often well-armed gangs of poachers intent on stealing this prized commodity irrespective of animal or, in some cases, human lives.

Author’s note: Kariega Game Reserve publicly acknowledges that it is home to rhinos and views these as a key draw for visitors and an integral part of their conservation management plan. For safety and security purposes, they do not divulge the species, numbers or locations of their rhinos nor the measures they employ to protect them. We respect and fully support this approach.

Thandi the rhino
Thandi the rhino

In 2012, Kariega was targeted by poachers during a nighttime raid with devastating consequences. The poachers entered the park without detection and tracked the location of three rhinos living in a social group: two males and a female, Thandi. They used a drug called M99 to disable the rhinos, a controlled drug that can only be obtained from vets (suggesting an awful collusion with a vet in this animal attack crime). Once immobilised, the poachers went to work, removing the horn in the dark from the defenceless animals. So as not to draw attention, the usual chainsaw was substituted by a machete which was used to hack the horn off the face of the three rhinos, right down to their nose and with no regard for the wellbeing of the animals themselves.

The next morning the animals were found in an awful condition: all three had been mutilated on their faces; one of the males was dead already and the other two in very poor condition. Giant open wounds on their faces and the trauma of the attack to these wild animals proved too much for the other male who succumbed to his injuries shortly after, leaving Thandi as the sole survivor. She herself went through years of infections and reopening of her wounds, with game rangers fearing the worst on multiple occasions.

A Kariega rhino
A Kariega rhino

Fast forward to 2016 and the story is much different – Thandi is now a mother and a symbol for rhino suffering across the world. She has been used in campaigns to raise awareness of rhino poaching and was even viewed by Prince Harry at the end of 2015 during a visit to Kariega.

As a volunteer, you will be involved in various projects associated with the rhino population at Kariega – the specific details of these are confidential and will be disclosed to volunteers on arrival.

Our search for the lonely lioness

Lions sunbathing
Lions sunbathing

One of the main roles of volunteers is the collection of data in support of the conservation management role of rangers on the reserve. Many of these data collection activities are part of wider studies being undertaken by academic institutions across South Africa. The data collected contributes to both national policy on protecting species and also to the management of Kariega itself. As the top predators, the lion pride is one the research areas, looking at their movement and feeding patterns to understand more about the observed behaviour as they move around the reserve.

Kariega’s lion population currently operates in two groups – a dominant male with a sibling pair (male/female) and a second female lioness who lives and operates alone. It is believed that the sibling female forced her out of the group and acts overly aggressively towards her whenever she is encountered by them.

The lonely lioness from a distance
The lonely lioness from a distance

With four lions and thousands of hectares of reserve, these can be an elusive species to find but you’re sure to be in for a treat when you do manage to find them. During our two weeks at Kariega, we had three encounters: one at night with the larger group prowling along one of the tracks (eerie to see them come out of the darkness); the second occasion when the siblings were sunbathing just around the corner from the volunteer house; and the third when the single lioness was spotted resting on a grass verge. We managed to get within metres of these kings of the reserve on each occasion and observe their habitual behaviours in realtime – a real treat for any safari lover!

‘Wattle we do with it?!’

Conservation management is a key part of the volunteer role in the reserve which extends beyond the animals to include the vegetation that grows across it. Whilst there is a great variety of species across the reserve, there are a number that shouldn’t be there. These invasive species such as Black Wattle, native of Australia, can quickly outgrow indigenous species and risk damaging the delicate balance that the animals rely upon.

Clearing vegetation
Clearing vegetation

To help limit the damage caused by these invasive species, volunteers are regularly involved in species-specific clearances. In those areas where high concentrations have been detected volunteers, armed with machetes and trimmers, set about removing them – roots and all – to reduce their ability to grow back and give the native species a chance to recover.

Counting game

Zebras on the game count
Zebras on the game count

As a private reserve, Kariega derives its income from two primary sources: tourists on safari and game stock sales. The latter involves selling of animals to other game reserves that Kariega has in abundance and, normally, purchasing species that it has less of or is trying to expand further.

Giraffes on the road
Giraffes on the road

In order to be able to sell stock, any business needs to know exactly how many it has and in what types/forms. Volunteers therefore will carry out surveys and counts of specific species (such as zebra, giraffe and antelope), breaking down by gender and if they are adult or juvenile. Given that these are wild animals and not content to stand still, this isn’t as easy as it may sound! A good pair of binoculars and a great deal of patience go a long way to help with completing this long but rewarding task.

If you’re interested in trying out this amazing addition to Plan My Gap Year’s project portfolio, head over to their website for more information. If you do decide to go, you’ll have an amazing time and the only thing you’ll regret is not going for longer!

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