Volunteering in a distant land

by Geetha Ortac, 6th September 2015
Volunteering in a distant land

Have you ever dreamt about going abroad and participating in a worthy volunteer experience? I did too and I finally had the chance to make it happen last year after thinking about it for so long.  I was curious, keen, and I wanted to learn more conservation work overseas. It took over eight months of intense planning before it all fell into place. It involved hours of internet search, endless investigations into the background of the organisations, and many discussions on the best option to select.

When I first started the research for the perfect opportunity, I was overwhelmed by the number of options and the costs involved. I found it very hard to track down a placement where I could contribute free meaningful labour. Well it is for a good cause right, saving species and rehabilitating landscapes. So many sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime. This was why going the extra mile and engaging in some true detective work was crucial to make the right decision. It was very important that my money was used for the right reasons. I emailed, researched, asked for Skype chats and asked many questions to many organisations before I finally made up my mind.

All the effort paid off and I secured myself two volunteer opportunities. One was with the Singapore Zoo as a volunteer keeper for five weeks and the other was a wildlife conservation internship at UmPhafa private nature reserve in South Africa for ten weeks. UmPhafa private nature reserve had a clear outline of their research goals and the type of work you would be doing when you get there. In other words, they had a genuine reason for wanting funds and the need for volunteers. During our Skype chat, the coordinator could clearly explain how the money was being used for conservation and outlined how the work done was contributing to the bigger picture.

Sweat and Dung at Singapore Zoo

This opportunity almost never happened. After my initial application, I did not hear back for months. But I did not give up! I kept making international phone calls and chased up with many emails…again. Finally, it kicked off. I managed to land myself a Volunteer Zookeeper position at the Singapore Zoo. A few weeks before my start, I received a very comprehensive volunteer handbook. Two things were very obvious to me. I was not to take any photos while volunteering there and secondly, I cannot discuss my time as a volunteer here. I cannot deny it, I was feeling a little nervous even writing this section  L Anyway, I remembered feeling a teeny bit uncomfortable about this whole thing before I started my work there. Why so many restrictions? What are they HIDING? Was there something to worry about? The reason why I wanted to volunteer as a keeper was my way of giving something back to the animals in captivity. I had my first encounter with animals in the zoo and I have always felt this sense of appreciation for them. I can never forget the first time I laid eyes on an Asian elephant, the big moment of absolute awe and love. So, it was paramount to me that they were treated in a good way.

When I started my work at the zoo, every single shred of doubt I had was blown away. The keepers there took such excellent care of the animals. The zoo ensured the animals were provided with the very best food and care as they should have. I got right into it. I worked as hard as the keepers and they loved it! The harder I worked, the more I gained. No poo was too smelly or gooey for me!  I earned the keepers respect and, in turn, was welcomed into the team with open arms. I was very lucky to be rotated to three different sections during my five weeks there: South East Asian mammals, Amazon mammals and finally the aquatic section which included Manatees (my favourite!). I cannot believe how much I learnt in these short five weeks. I got hands on training with animal husbandry for such a diverse group of animals, did a few animal behaviour observations, and developed a better understanding of dietary needs of captive animals. It was incredible.

Through this volunteer opportunity, I also had the great pleasure of networking with many other amazing individuals in the conservation and research industry in Singapore. I got invited to an illegal wildlife trade campaign launch and a community information evening about Pangolins. This helped me increase my understanding about the conservation scene in Singapore and parts of Asia. One thing quickly became obvious to me. The conservation effort in this part of the world was still very constrained due to a lack of expert manpower, government support and avenues for funding. I also did not get a good sense of the presence of sound campaign and advocacy for conservation work. Having started my conservation journey in Australia, I almost took it for granted that the level of exposure and expertise we have here would be present elsewhere too.  

One of my most memorable encounters was with this young French lady, Anais, who works in Indonesia. She was a guest speaker at the campaign launch. During her presentation, she described this incident when over 90% of several highly endangered bird species were stolen from their not for profit breeding centre. The 10% left behind were not reproductively viable. The theft took away six years of blood and sweat of so many passionate staff and volunteers. She described how this broke their spirits and dampened their motivations. But they did not give up. After a number of desperate search and recovery attempts, and thanks to a horrible lack of government support, the birds were never recovered leaving them to start all over again. At the end of her presentation, I saw tears in so many people’s eyes. Finally, one man stood up and asked two critical questions. Why wasn’t the media here to cover the campaign launch? Shouldn’t people be more aware of such issues? That is the point, why wasn’t the media there?

Needless to say, there ARE genuine efforts in place but I can’t help but feel that the general public are still very distant from conservation efforts or know what is in their own backyard. I hope this will change dramatically in time to come as the committed individuals continue to make waves in the conservation realm in Asia. Overall, this was a very different and a great learning experience for me.

Next stop South Africa, and along came my hubby for this big adventure!

For weeks, I had been freaking out silently in my heart about my ability to handle the work conditions at the nature reserve. It was stated clearly in the application form that interns needed a reasonable level of fitness to undertake the work in the nature reserve. Hours of hard work under very humid conditions in the zoo, definitely gave me the best physical preparation for the work in South Africa. In this sense, the volunteer work at the zoo became even more beneficial than I expected smile

Onwards to South Africa!!

After many hours of flying from Singapore, we arrived in Durban and waited for almost over four hours before we got picked up by the reserve’s volunteer coordinator. Three and a half hours later, we finally arrived at the doorsteps of the reserve. It was insane. The gate opened and we were immediately greeted by impalas (antelope species), kudus (antelope species), warthogs and baby black backed jackals. Yes, it was all happening and I was super thrilled. One of the first things that captured my heart was the landscape. The landscape was very different from how I imagined Africa to be. It was lush and green with a beauty words cannot describe. In fact, I feel that the photos I have included and the words I have written here does not do it justice.

The view from the house when you step out onto the porch. Yes, this was the view that I enjoyed for ten incredible weeks smile

The front view of the house and the surrounding area in the early morning light. The area with the cut logs on the ground was our ‘Braai’ paradise. South African style of bbq

There were three other interns from the UK (Lizzy, Ryan and Harry) at the reserve when we arrived. They were extremely cool and awesome work buddies. We felt so welcomed from the moment of arrival. First week was like a mini holiday smile The reserve managers Jandre and Sarah were a hubby and wifey duo. They briefed us on critical safety rules, house rules, and some information on what to expect for the coming weeks. Every week, the work schedule was printed out and pinned on the office wall. This gave everyone a good understanding of how each week looked and prepared us physically and mentally.

The reserve is approximately 4500 hectares. Private reserves do not allow tourist entries and I loved that. The land was previously used for agriculture purposes and got severely damaged as a result. Colchester Zoo in the UK bought the land in 2007 and has since invested a lot of energy, time and money rehabilitating it to its natural state. The whole reserve has a fenced boundary keeping away the poachers and trespassers from the neighbouring villages. People from the surrounding villages sometimes jump the fences to collect firewood from the reserve or put up snares to trap antelope species. In fact, on our second day we had to investigate a Kudu which had been caught in a snare. The Kudu looked like it had been killed a day ago with the internal organs removed. I found out that the internal organs were just as valuable as the bush meat and the hide. In a hunger stricken environment, every bit of the animal is consumed and considered valuable. Nothing ever goes to a waste. The hide of the animal can either be used for warmth in winter or sold in the markets for cash. Even though it was a difficult sight to see a poor animal hunted in this manner, I could understand that the villagers were only doing this to feed their family.  These places were not easy to access and yet, people were willing to put their lives at risks to poach antelopes for food.

One of the many beautiful landscapes on the reserve

A lone Ostrich going about its business in front of the house.

Four female Kudus looking on as we were checking them out for the weekly game counts carried out at the back of the cruiser.

Game counting style! It was always exciting trying to look through your binoculars, spot the animals while surviving a very bumpy drive. But seriously, it was really fun. Like really fun! (Please note that all people in this photo are real interns engaged in real work and were not posing to look busy)

These were only some of the difficult issues faced by the reserve on a daily basis. Of course, we could argue that the people in the villagers did this to feed themselves and their families. On the other hand when activities such as these continue frequently, it would deplete the overall number of animals stocked on the reserve.  

I had read about poaching all the time before I left for South Africa. The true reality of its severity daunts on you when you are actually there. Everyone got on high alert whenever a helicopter flew past and frequent fence patrolling was mandatory at the nature reserve. Poachers used helicopters to fly over nature reserves to survey for the presence of rhinos and elephants. The other method was to search the internet and use geotagged photos from social media sites to find the rhinos for poaching. Once, the interns were brought to another much larger nature reserve for a safari drive as a fun activity. First thing on our arrival, we were advised not to take any photos of the rhinos in the reserve. They informed us that two rhinos (mum and bub) were poached on their reserve just weeks ago and were left to die. It was heart breaking to hear such news but it was reality.

Working on the reserve.

Another thing became incredibly obvious to me. All the work done on this reserve was directly contributing to achieving the reserve’s long term goals. This gave me a million dollar feeling. I felt very relieved that all the effort put into the planning and selection process was well worth it. I could see how the money was being used, how the data collected was critical for decision making and how each and every contribution I made as an intern mattered somehow.

The type of tasks varies according to the seasons. I was there during the African summer and it was brutal at times. Summer was also the time for babies. It was exciting to gradually see the presence of the young ones popping up everywhere in different animal groups. I personally thought the warthog and zebra babies were the cutest! As for fieldwork, we did grass surveys (which was actually very fun), small mammal trapping, pitfall trapping, camera trapping, fence patrols, bird surveys, lots of game counts (e.g. lambing counts – counting the number of babies in each animal group; sex ratio counts – number of male and female in each group), insect identification, ethograms (animal behaviour study), alien plant control, erosion control, and other reserve maintenance work. Other reserve maintenance work included things like washing vehicles, gardening, cleaning the house, cleaning field equipment and so on. We also had eight African wild dogs in an enclosure awaiting translocation to another reserve. This gave us the opportunity to undertake some cool animal husbandry work too.

The group of African wild dogs kept in an enclosure awaiting translocation to another reserve.


The interns out on a fence patrol around the reserve. This particular one turned quite crazy. It ended up being a 24 km hike on a very hot day, depleted water supply and left me with severe heat exhaustion

Off to find a good spot to put up the camera trap to find the elusive Leopards on the reserve.

Did you know that a group of Zebras are called a zeal?

One of the many beauties on the reserve. You cannot help but fall in love with this wonderful creature. We had to do ethograms (behaviour study) on them as part of the work.

The work was hard and sometimes went on for long hours. I never once complained and I loved it (except when we had to collect firewood for the weekly braai session!). Firewood was collected from fallen or dead trees only. Braai or barbeque as we know it was a big part of the South African culture. Every Friday evening, we prepared the braai and grilled our favourite food on it to celebrate our week’s hard work. Preparing the braai was very interesting. You get a fire going in a pit about a metre deep with stone lined wall. You wait until the firewood was burned out to glowing coals. The waiting time was well used with storytelling, some cold beer and games.  Then when the coals were ready, it was shovelled onto the barbeque pit for some more happy times.

Every single day, I always discovered something new or felt like I was seeing it for the first time. I never got bored of this place or the work. The work was varied and not one day was the same. I learnt much more than I ever imagined. I learnt all these field work techniques during my studies in Australia and to use it in Africa with slight variations to suit the landscape was a big learning curve.

Right: A typical day out doing grass surveys. Left: A majestic male Kudu spotted during the game count.

A big highlight of my internship was the involvement with the wild dog translocation process with an organisation called ‘Wildlife ACT’(a conservation organisation). The wild dogs were being transported to the reserve owned by Wildlife ACT. The wild dogs were part of a special breeding and reintroduction to the wild program. Wild dogs were another species suffering severe population declines from human impacts. The translocation was a complicated process and definitely a long delicate procedure. Expert darters, vets, wildlife experts, game guards and other reserve staff were part of the team.  The expert darters were responsible to tranquillise the wild dogs and prepare them for safe transport to the other reserve. The darting took the longest time and the effects of the tranquilliser lasted only for a limited time. After the first two dogs got darted, you could see the lightning speed learning that occurred in the pack. The others figured out that something bad was happening.  So they started running up and down the enclosure making it very challenging for the darters. So, it was a race agains time to safely dart the wild dogs, carry them out of the enclosure, transport them to the bottom of the hill, and getting them into the wooden boxes to load them at the back of the vehicles. You cannot believe how quickly we had to work. This whole experience made me feel lucky beyond words. It was unreal. Safety of the team and the wild dogs was treated with utmost importance at all times.

We had to collect rocks around the area and fill in eroding roads (due to heavy rains) used frequently in the reserve. This picture was taken after two hours of continuously hand collecting the rocks and dropping them into the holes for filling. The work prevented the eroding roads from completely collasping.

The end product of our work!

During my time at the reserve, I came across something very interesting. I often heard the reserve managers mentioning about the prices of a certain antelope going up or down. It never made sense to me. After weeks of working on the reserve, I finally approached the reserve manager and asked about this. The reply was definitely eye opening. The animals on the reserve (except the leopards), including many other reserves, were stocked with wildlife bought from breeders and auctions. Yes, auctions people! I was under the impression that fences were put around areas to protect the wildlife currently existing there, definitely not the other way around.  After my question and answer session with the manager, I was given a magazine to flip through. The pages were filled with advertisements from the various breeders and auction houses, each promoting their game, excellent breeding standards and auction dates for people to come along and purchase them. You can exchange, sell or buy your wildlife. Truly natural areas were extremely limited and Kruger National Park was one of them. There you go! How crazy is that?

Of course, it is not as simple as buying and letting the animals loose on the reserve. The science of stocking the natural areas with the right numbers, species and ensuring a good flow of interactions between the species is an art. This process required the reserve managers to know their surroundings inside out, and possess a sound understanding of each and every species they plan to put on the reserve. From my work at the reserve, I can 100% say that this is not an easy task.

After ten hard blissful weeks at the reserve, we moved on for an 18 days visit to Madagascar. Another story for another day J It has been months since I have returned to Sydney and I am still missing South Africa very much. This was my life changing moment. If I could do this all over again, I will do it in a heartbeat. My decision to undertake this internship opportunity will always remain special and an incredible journey. A moment I hope many of you will take the chance and experience it one day too.

Follow Geetha's regular blog here: Conservation for the Wild