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Namibia desert

From the Field

Volunteering in Africa: Conservation and Wildlife Research in Namibia

January 25th 2017

Tagged: Africa, Namibia, Volunteering Abroad, Wildlife

Previous volunteer, David Booth describes first-hand his experiences of working as a conservation volunteer in Africa, as well as providing some great photos from his travels. Over the past few years, David has volunteered at a range of game reserves throughout Africa, including at our Kariega Game Reserve Conservation Volunteer Programme in South Africa and our Wildlife Conservation & San Bushmen Community Project in Namibia. And if you are interested in reading David’s photo books about his experiences, please click here.

Volunteering in Namibia

Since 2012 I have spent a month each winter involved in volunteering on a game reserve. It has been a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone of life in the Western world. I would recommend the experience to all people of all ages. Whilst I have focussed very much on conservation and wildlife research, there are a wide variety of projects all over the World, which may be of more appeal to you personally.

Why do I choose to give my time?

To live in a game reserve in basic but comfortable facilities is a huge contrast to my life in Central London. I meet fascinating people of all ages from all over the World with a shared interest; the conservation of the wild. Volunteers can be school leavers on a gap year before college, university students exploring before they start work, working people on holiday, working people between jobs, and even retired people like me.

I leave each project with special memories and experiences.

With Working Abroad, I have undertaken 2 special and contrasting trips; in March 2015 I spent 4 weeks at the Kariega Game Reserve, South Africa, and in January/February 2016, a month in Namibia initially for a short induction at the Wildlife Sanctuary, near Windhoek, and then in the Kanaan Desert Retreat in the Sossusvlei region.

Kariega was a private game reserve of 10,000 hectares of pristine African wilderness incorporating the Kariega and Bushmans rivers. It is 15km inland from Kenton-on-sea and 150km North-East of Port Elizabeth. March is the end of the wet season and temperatures are very comfortable. The reserve was well stocked with a wide variety of animals including the Big 5.

Kanaan in contrast is a harsh desert environment where temperatures in January regularly meet the mid-forties. Obtaining an understanding of how the plant life and animals survived was an eye-opener. The scenery was breath taking particularly at sunrise and sunset.

Thoughts on my trip to Kanaan

I flew out from London Heathrow to Johannesburg for a transfer to Windhoek. I was met at the airport by a courier who took me through the local countryside to the N/a’an ku se wildlife sanctuary. The sanctuary is at 6,000 ft. A lot cooler than Kanaan and wetter as it was the wet season.

I was taken to my room in a building with shared showers and washroom – not a tent which accommodated quite a few volunteers. My room-mate was a German about 30 who had stayed a week at the sanctuary and was travelling to Neuras on the Saturday. I spent the afternoon exploring the sanctuary with volunteers involved with the feeding of the animals taking me round. At 1700 hrs we went out on a jeep to help feed the wild dogs always an entertaining moment as at the sanctuary.

The evening meal was buffet style and quite acceptable. Drinks could be bought from the bar. There were around 30-35 volunteers along with the co-ordinators. There were very few men and most people were European and gap year students. Friday morning was spent receiving induction into the projects along with 6 other starters. This included presentations about the sanctuary, a tour of the facilities, and presentations on the other projects at Neuras and Kanaan.

There were a wide variety of animals at the sanctuary including baboons, a cape vulture, cheetah, wild dogs, leopard, mongoose, meerkats, hartebeest, duiker, oryx, vervet monkeys, geese, turkeys, peacocks, and porcupine. Most were orphaned and injured animals, or previously household pets. In the afternoon we were assigned to a project group, including food preparation and feeding, enclosure cleaning, baboon walks, cheetah walks etc. I was assigned to food prep.

Saturday is transfer day leaving the sanctuary by 0715 hrs for a 4 hour drive to Neuras. We had lunch at Neuras, the wine estate and then transferred onto the jeep that was taking us onto Kanaan. It had travelled up from Kanaan that morning. We had another 3.5 hour drive to Kanaan with one stop. Apart from the first hour or so travel was on gravel roads; well-constructed but dusty – speed limit 50mph. Four of us made the trip from the sanctuary to Kanaan and we arrived in the late afternoon.

The drive was through stunning countryside with a mixture of farms and game reserves. We followed a thunderstorm which was localised. As we turned into the main gate at the Kanaan reserve we were greeted with a stream of water running down the road after the storm had passed over Kanaan. By the time we reached the farmhouse, 8 km further, we were told that they had no rain.


Kanaan Desert

We are staying in the old farmhouse which is very comfortable. The food has been exceptionally good and we have eaten at the desert retreat at least once a week when they have had visitors. Visitors are generally German; there has been one Norwegian couple and one English couple.

There has been a high turnover of volunteers as many only stay a week at Kanaan and split their other weeks over the sanctuary or Neuras.

Our guide, Karl, was only around for 3 weeks as he left for a holiday on the Okavango river for my last week. He is Namibian, qualified at college in America at West Michigan and then spent some time in American National Parks. He is being replaced by a co-ordinator from the sanctuary for the last week. Liz is from Delaware and has been working at the foundation for 3 years after an initial period as a volunteer.

Only one volunteer is at Kanaan for the 4 weeks that I am there: a Brazilian girl who is qualified as a biologist and has spent nearly 3 months at Kanaan in 2 trips. She is doing some extra research into the predators.

In the first week there were 4 other volunteers; a middle aged Northern Ireland couple – he is a plumber and she cares for her mother who has cirosis of the liver; a male post graduate from Hereford who starts teaching at a college in Wiltshire in February; and a Danish girl who is waiting to go to college. In the second week there were 4 other volunteers: 3 German girl school leavers and a post graduate man from Derby. In the third week there was only one other volunteer; a middle aged American lady from Utah who now lives in New York and works in finance for the Museum of Natural History.

For my final week there are 4 new volunteers: a New Yorker who is on a gap year before he goes to college in Maryland, a male park ranger from Banff who originates from Hawaii, a retired teacher from Cambridge whose husband is a lecturer in veterinary medicine at the university, a police officer from Cheltenham – she is on a year’s sabbatical from the police looking at a new career in wildlife and animal conservation. An interesting group.

One evening, Rudie van Vuuren, a director of the charity along with his wife, flew down from Windhoek and stayed at the retreat with 2 agents to whom he was promoting the desert retreat. We spent a very enjoyable evening in his company hearing about the project.

A typical week:

Generally we go out at 0630 hrs after breakfast at 0600 hrs. The sun is rising now at around 0655 hrs; when I arrived it was about 0620 hrs.

Sunday: an introduction to the reserve for newcomers involving resetting trap cages which are closed down for the transfer day, collecting data from camera traps, and touring south of farm. One week we closed down one cage and moved it alongside the hyena trap cage, another week we reconstructed the cheetah cage. As we have been unsuccessful in capturing any animal, we have to try out different looks.

Monday: the morning is spent exploring an area for hyena and other predator spoor. We are trying to locate hyena dens in particular. One week we followed hyena spoor for over 10 km.

Tuesday: a game count in one half of the reserve, and collecting camera traps.

Wednesday: save an oryx day, by removing fencing within the reserve. They believe removing 50 yards of fencing saves one oryx. We usually remove about 2-300 metres each time. All materials are recycled and are stored in a scrap area.

Thursday: a game count in the other half of the reserve, collecting camera traps, and clearing the cheetah boma of bones and poo.

Friday: breakfast watching the sun come up on the dunes, further exploration, clean the jeep,

Saturday: transfer day.

Lunch is at 1200 hrs. We have only had one packed lunch as it is too hot to stay out in the middle of the day. Temperatures have consistently been mid-forties – I have managed the heat quite well. 2 were really troubled by the heat in my second week. Skies have been virtually cloudless apart from one afternoon when we had a thunderstorm for about 90 mins providing 10mm of much needed rain. Activities were not disrupted by the rain.

Each day we have to check trap cages; there are 2 trap cages – one for hyena and the other for a cheetah. We will also visit camera traps around the reserve as we pass them – some are checked weekly, others every other week. We download the data onto a PC checking for activity. Oryx, springbok, ostrich, jackal are regular visitors. We are particularly interested in hyena, leopard, cheetah, and caracal which have all appeared somewhere during my time here.

Early afternoons are spent at rest and then carrying out data collection (if there is no other project work) from the camera traps or inputting results from the game counts. Project work during my time involved building a hay shelter for the horses from materials taken from the reserve such as fencing etc. Note, 2 years ago the reserve was a sheep and cattle farm.

Once a week we have a night drive, another night we sleep out under the stars in a concrete dam, Sunday evening is sundowner, Friday morning we watch the sunrise over the dunes and evening we have a braai.

Sunday to Friday, we feed and water the 4 cheetahs (2 male, 2 female around 3-4 years) in the 4 hectare boma. Saturday is a day of fast for them. They will never be fully released in the wild as they could not support themselves. We can get within a few feet of them.

Every other day we visit the 3 young meerkats (one male and 2 females around one year old) that have been introduced to the reserve after spending their early days in the sanctuary. They are now very settled but we have to boost their water source to help them. They have been in the wild about 2 months and we no longer jump out the jeep to play with them. It is noticeable how independent they have become and we don’t always see them as their territory is a river bed of around 600 metres.

All the game are wild and very wary of vehicles. The main road runs through the middle of the reserve. As a result getting good animal photos is very difficult. For example I have only long distance photos of springbok, and ostrich. The scenery is fabulous so a lot of landscape photos and sunrise + sunset. It is a harsh environment but most interesting.

About the Author

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