Volunteer Diaries
May 23, 2014

10 Things I learned as a conservation volunteer in Zululand

Marsea Nelson shares what she discovered during her two weeks as a conservation volunteer in South Africa with Wildlife ACT at uMkhuze Game Reserve in February 2014.

1. The value of a complimentary sleep mask. When mornings begin at 3:30am, naps aren’t optional, at least not for me. And with the help of the eye mask I received courtesy of my airline, I had no trouble catching up on sleep in the middle of the afternoon.2. Wild dogs are resilient.The pack at uMkhuze is vulnerable to snares, which poachers set to catch game. As a result, two of the reserve’s dogs are each missing a leg—one has been snared an astounding six times. The statistics are sobering but also show the importance of Wildlife ACT’s work.3. You make fast friends in the bush. When you spend 24/7 with the other volunteers, it doesn’t take long before you feel like you’ve known them your entire life. I honestly don’t think I’ve laughed so much in the span of two weeks. The people you’re with make all the difference.4. The surest way to see an animal is to stop trying.I’d said from day one that I really wanted to see a cheetah. Other volunteers saw them throughout the fortnight, but I was always on the truck that didn’t. Finally, on the second-to-last day, I’d come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t meant to be. Whadda ya know, the next morning I saw four of them!5. Volunteers are crucial to Wildlife ACT’s work.Wildlife monitors wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the help of volunteers. At home, I’ve volunteered with organisations and realised I wasn’t really making an impact; it felt good to know my presence at uMkhuze made a difference.6. It’s Zululand, not Disneyland.This is one of Wildlife ACT’s main warnings to potential volunteers, and it’s true. There’s no guarantee you’ll see an animal even if it has a radio collar—there were times we’d spend hours trying to spot them but had to settle for triangulation instead.7. It’s Zululand, not Disneyland, but … Sometimes it sure felt like a safari. Our focus, of course, was always on the animals we were tracking, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t see plenty of other wildlife—elephants, giraffe, and hippo among them—along the way.8. Passion is infectious.Our wildlife monitor Cole Du Plessis is fiercely committed to uMkhuze’s wild dogs. He knows their personalities, their dynamics as a pack, and he’s saved them from snares on more than one occasion. When you’re with someone who cares that deeply, you can’t help but become completely invested too.9. Never underestimate the versatility of a rubbish bag.I was excited to try out my fancy new waterproof pants when it rained one afternoon, but one of my fellow volunteers had to improvise with a bin liner around her waist. When we arrived back at camp, my bum was soaked and hers was bone dry. Rubbish bag for the win.10. There’s a reason so many Wildlife ACT volunteers return.I’ve yet to visit so many places in the world, and hence I’ve never felt the need to retrace my steps. But with Zululand, I know it’s not a matter of if I’ll return, but when. I simply cannot imagine otherwise.