A week in the life of a Conservation Careers Intern in the Limpopo

Conservation Careers has teamed up with an awesome team of people across the world who are passionate experts in their chosen field and will make your experience a truly unforgettable one (in a good way). Their award-winning projects receive over 2,000 participants every year, and we’re proud to say that the vast majority of them describe their experience with them as ‘life changing’.

To see what it’s all about, Conservation Careers Blogger Emma Ackerley recently spent a week at the Karongwe Private Game Reserve in Limpopo, South Africa. Here she explains exactly what it’s like living on the base and the types of skills, experiences and contacts you can gain from volunteering there…

If you’ve ever been to South Africa before, you’ll understand when I say this place, the people (and especially the wildlife) gets under your skin.

I’ve personally volunteered for many different internationally based field projects with various conservation organisations, and to be honest, the Conservation Careers Internship is one of the best I have come across by far. Read on for a more detailed insight into the day to day life of a volunteer there.

Day 1

As with all field based projects, an early start is expected. So, waking up at 4:30am was no surprise. It also never really feels like work when within the hour, you’re driving through Kruger National Park sighting White-Faced Scops Owls in the road. By 9am we had arrived at Letaba Camp to meet Rhianna, the Education Officer at SAN Parks, whom gave us an insightful talk on rhino conservation and community work within the park.

Although the total number of rhino carcasses found in Kruger in 2016 was 662, compared to 826 in 2015, representing a reduction of 19.85%. Rhianna said this is most likely not due to a decrease in poaching exactly, but that because the population has decreased so much, poachers are finding it harder to locate the animals, as well as a step up in management interventions from park rangers to protect the rhinos.

When I asked Rhianna about how she got into rhino conservation she said “I studied a Nature Conservation Diploma at Tshwane University in Pretoria for two years before coming to do my practical year. I also completed my FGASA (Field Guiding Association of Southern Africa) training to become a guide. This was my ticket into the park to be honest, as within my practical year I studied my FGASA and was passed by an internal assessor here.

“Luckily after my practical year one of the field guides left, and I was therefore able to be appointed as a field guide. I then did my shooting qualifications within the park and then the lady that did the environmental education left so I could take her place.

“I think having two languages has helped in aspects, but I only speak English and Afrikaans, and speaking one of the tribal languages such as Shangaan would have been more beneficial. Especially working with some of the younger children as they don’t speak English. So, I rely on the teachers to translate, but we do try and teach them songs about rhino conservation that they may understand later in life. We hope this will help them to remember that rhinos are worth more alive than dead”.

Credit: Bryony Davison.

Day 2

The second day involved meeting up with a researcher from Elephants Alive, helping her with some field tasks for the human-wildlife conflict research they are conducting. We were led into the experimental field area, which is testing whether honey bee hives are effective in deterrent elephants from destroying Marula trees.

So far, the research is looking compelling, as most of the Marula trees have not been touched since 2015. Elephants notoriously hate bees, as they get into their trunks sting the inside, causing massive swelling and difficulties in breathing for the elephants. This is the theory behind why the elephants will be deterred from trees with bee hives.

In winter, there isn’t enough food for the honey bees, so we spent the morning trekking through the bush and topping up the bees feeding stations with sugar water and putting pollen baths out.

She said “It’s more of a management tool to use in certain areas with trees you desperately want to protect. We have around 50 different Marula trees that have bee hives attached to the branches. It seems to protect the whole tree, and is definitely stopping the elephants from destroying the trees”.

We finished off the afternoon off watching a lovely group of African wild dogs and their five puppies, chilling out underneath a tree. What a treat.

We came back to the base, and completed our PM drive with the gang. The volunteers conduct daily AM and PM drives for a few hours each day, they collect various data on sightings of important rare game or endangered species they are monitoring such as cheetahs. Daily game drives mean you can enhance your species identification on a regular basis.

Credit: Bryony Davison.

Day 3

We spent the morning on an AM drive looking out for the cheetahs on the reserve. Game drives in the morning start around 5am and end out about 10am. Others may be on base duties, which might involve cooking, cleaning or entering data.

This is all part of the volunteer experience, and helps the group bond together. Volunteering is not a holiday and should never be entered expecting that you are going to sit around all day in the sun. It can be tough at times, but you come away with an exceptional once in a life time experience and a new family. This is what Conservation Careers offers!

Although we didn’t find the female with her new kittens, we did find Kwa, Zulu and Natal, the three cheetah brothers on the reserve. The volunteers learn how to use telemetry and tracking techniques to locate the animals on the reserve.

The afternoon consisted of some important practical work of digging a new drainage ditch inside the camp. This was to ensure future rainwater would be directed away from the camp and into the bush to prevent heavy erosion of the roads.

That evening we spent on a PM drive, with some spectacular sightings of white rhino, black backed jackle, lizzard buzards and more…finishing off the evening with a monthly braai (barbecue for others), and party to see off the four week rotation volunteers that were leaving us.

Credit: Bryony Davison.

Day 4

Learning how to cook for large amounts of people is a skill you learn at volunteering camps. We spent the morning cooking a huge brunch for all the volunteers. This happens once a month here as a reward for the volunteers. I must have made around 50 pancakes, and it was worth every second when we all set around the table together and tucked in!

The afternoon consisted of an herbivore transect count and tracking spoor (signs of animals). Learning about the different habitat types throughout the savanna, the class and age system for herbivores and again, different species identification. We saw lots of kudu, nyala, bushbuck, impala and giraffe before turning in for the night.

Credit: Bryony Davison.

Day 5

Our last day consisted of a magnificent game drive in which we located a pride of lions. Unfortunately for a local game driver he managed to get his game viewer stuck in the sand and required our driver to tow him out. You’ve got to be ready for anything in the bush, as well as being ready to help others out of sticky situations. Who knows what he would have done if we weren’t there, as the lions were getting more and more intrigued by the minute whilst bodies were outside vehicles. This taught us the practical side of understanding your vehicles’ limits and learning about how to respect wildlife’s space, as well as the need for good communications with base.

All in all, we finished up with seeing 99 birds and 40 mammal species in our time in South Africa. The GVI volunteers are all an exceptional group of people, especially the staff. It’s not an easy life having to continuously make and lose friends and requires a lot of commitment and qualifications to work there. However, if you are wanting to gain experience in terrestrial conservation, and you’ve never been to South Africa before. This is the way to do it.

Emma was visiting our ‘Wildlife Conservation – 24 week Internship in South Africa’ Conservation Careers Internship. to find out more about this please click here. To see all our internship opportunities around the globe, please click here.

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