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Volunteering in South Africa

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Hello everybody!

My name is Giulia and I want to tell you about my experience in South Africa at Leo Africa, an amazing lion and black rhino volunteer monitoring programme. I think that reading about my experience could help people who are looking for a similar experience.

I had information about Leo thanks to my university in Milan that gave me the opportunity to do an internship there. It was my first time in Africa, so I decided to book for 40 days (from the end of November till the beginning of January). After a week in Leo Africa, I fell in love so much with the place and the work they do that I have already planned to come back in March 2015 for 3 weeks!

One of the most beautiful things of Leo is that it is located in a private game reserve where you don’t find commercial lodges: this gives you the opportunity to be the only visitors of the reserve, which means to live a really true and amazing African experience. You can understand this when you are on game drive and you find the lions, the leopards, the elephants etc there is only you and the animals, no cars, no tourists, no noise. You, nature and animals are a mix of energy and emotions that you’ll never forget!

During my games drive I could observe how the animals live, behave and they are not used to vehicles and people so you can really see them into their natural habitat and attitude. I remember when we found Matumi and Acacia, two wonderful lionesses, who were playing like two cubs!! It was so amazing because we were 20 metres from them and they just wanted to play with each other!
I really loved especially the lions, that we tracked every day, their characters and their behaviours. I couldn’t believe that there were lions more confident, others more curious and other that usually escape when they see a vehicle.
There is Mbhurri, the male dominant who is just unbelievably handsome. He’s so beautiful that I fell in love for him from the first time that “we met”! I remember one day when we we were looking for him (using the telemetry, as the lions have collars to be tracked easlily), we off roaded as the signal indicated he was pretty close to the road but not yet visible. After 2 minutes we found him under a tree! He was sleeping and posing for us at sunset, and we admired him for about 1 hour. I remember that, when Mbhurri was looking at the car, I was captured by his yellow eyes. It was awesome, no words can describe such emotions!!

I truly believe that the experience that you get at LEO you can’t live it anywhere else, as the majority of the reserves are commercial, full of lodges and cars, and the game drives are not active (I experienced both and I would choose the LEO experience without any hesitation! The other places don’t give you the same opportunities than a volunteer project like Leo. Of course, it depends on what you are looking for. If you want luxury, LEO is not the place. But if you want to do a real bush experience contributing directly into conservation, this is your place).
During the game drives the volunteers are active part of the research, you can have different roles, such as the telemetry that involves you completely in the research. You are responsible to find the animals, tracking them and log the data that is used to write weekly, monthly and annual reports to help the reserve taking the decisions for the management of the animals.
As a volunteer, I was not only tracking animals, but I also had the chance to contribute in some anti-poaching activities, do some farm works, participate in animal darting and also helping in some house duties.
For example, I remember that during my first game drive we built six bolsters which are very useful to avoid that the strong rainfall washes the road. It’s a hard work, but you feel satisfied because you are involved, you can feel that you’re important for the reserve and that you play an active role in conservation. We also cut some alien plants such as the queen of the night and we removed some trees from the middle of the road (elephants like to “have fun” and push down trees, no matter where!).

The programme main focus is to monitor specifically lions and black rhinos (since 2013 they started to monitor the black rhinos daily using a quad bike), but also white rhinos, elephants, leopards, hyenas, cheetah and some mammals and bird of interest.
Together with the drives, I really enjoyed the black rhino monitoring programme on the quad motorbike: basically you spend the entire day in the bush with a LEO guide to track and monitor the condition and movements of the Black Rhinos. This is the experience that I liked most because you can have the chance to see the rare black rhinos and you can have your “personal” guide who teaches you a lot and replies to your questions. During one of this trips, I was on the quad waiting for the guide (he was checking for the rhinos) and one rhino ran across the street and escaped into the bush. It lasted only a few seconds, but it was one of the most exciting experience in my life.
The most important thing of being out all the day, together with living the bush 100% is that this act as a deterrent against the poaching (it’s a cruel reality here, because hundreds of hundreds of Rhinos are poached every year without any reason and they export the horns in Vietnam and China where it is used for medicinal purposes – but it is scientifically proved it does NOT have any effect and the use is just related to a cultural belief).

One typical day at Leo Africa gives you lots of funny moments, but also many unforgettable memories. You usually wake up at 4.30 am to prepare everything needed for the first game drive (coffee, check the telemetry and the data box). During the game drive there are volunteers that are responsible for the different tasks, and other that are “free” and they can enjoy the bush and its wonderful views.
You come back from the game drive at around 11.00 am and after lunch you can take a break till 3.00 pm (because there is the second game drive) or help out in some tasks at base. Obviously you can also have free time, so if you are tired or you want to stay at the base you can do it!
While volunteering I also had a chance to take part in some different excursions organized by the programme. I went to the Kruger National Park and to the Blyde River Canyon!! Kruger was amazing because there are lots of animals and if you’re lucky you can see cheetahs, lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos and more in one day. But do not expect a quiet and private drive in Kruger as there are always a lot of vehicles around, but for sure you can see the animals closer, as they are really used to cars and see different species.

I will never forget the staff members because I’ve never met people like them! They are a family for me, it’s so strange, but in only few days I felt at home and they taught me so much about nature and conservation! They are so knowledgeable and you can feel their passion for what they do, for nature and for animals. I remember that I showed a picture of Mbhurri to Sabrina and she got emotional for saying: my beautiful Mbhurri!! (If she does not see the lions for a few days she already misses them hahah!). Her reaction demonstrate how these animals, the bush, can catch your feelings and give you every day new emotions.
I learned lots of new things at Leo, and I had the opportunity to do lots of new experiences: sleeping out under the stars, night drives for leopards, road maintenance and bush walks!
I want to thank especially Sabrina, who has been like a sister for me, Steven and Simon, who have been my favourite guides (they are so funny together!!)! And of course Koos, the director of LEO and ranger, who is sometimes re-named Mc Gyver because he can fix anything and he is a real master in the bush finding animals!

I think that everyone should do this experience, because it changes your life (literally). I was sure to continue my study in Holland, and now I can’t think something different from going back, and become a guide!!

I suggest this experience to everyone who is interested in African’s life, nature and animals, and want to have a real, simple African experience being directly involved in real conservation!!! If you would like to get more information about LEO you can write me (I am really happy to reply, it makes me live the dream again!) or you can check out their website www.leoafrica.org
Have a good trip, maybe we’ll catch up there!
Giulia

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