My experiences volunteering with a South African University for free, from handling a potentially new world record length Mozambique spitting cobra to encountering an elephant on foot.
How I ended up in South Africa
Ever since my older sister did a gap year in 2013, I knew I wanted my turn. This promise of travel helped me remain optimistic and motivated during my final year of high school.
When it came time to plan my gap year, I quickly realised that affordable experience in wildlife conservation is not easy to find. People are willing to pay a lot of money for the honour of working with wildlife. Beginner zoologists are expected to have more and more field experience, while conservation tourism and gap-year schemes are attracting all sorts of people with no intention of pursuing a career in the field. Various companies and organisations have stepped in to satisfy this demand, with the result that “volunteering” no longer means working for no pay, but paying to work for no pay. The rising expectations of recruiters and these growing prices play a major role in the struggles zoology students face to find paid work early in their careers.
Having had no luck finding free, publicly advertised volunteering opportunities, I started asking around and sending emails everywhere. I didn’t know anyone working in this field, but thought that if I asked enough people, I was bound to find someone who did. Many rejections later and with a lot of luck, I hit the jackpot! A friend of the brother-in-law of a close family friend’s friend had connections in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa… I wrote to them all, and a couple more rejections later, I got a very nice surprise from the life sciences department of the University of KwaZulu-Natal: an opportunity to assist postgraduate students with their fieldwork in reserves all around KwaZulu-Natal, with no fee! I never would have thought of contacting universities for this and yet it makes so much sense. The students need extra hands in the field and with tedious office tasks that are very educational for people like me. The professor helped me with my visa application and answered all of my questions, such as the availability of student accommodation and the cost of living in Pietermaritzburg. It felt like high school took forever to be out of the way but finally, here I was, 18 years old and heading alone for six months to South Africa, followed by three months in Kenya, then back to South Africa. How exciting!
I arrived in Pietermaritzburg in September 2017 and was picked up from the airport by a PhD student from the university’s life science department, Cormac Price. Having only heard of my arrival/existence that morning, he had just a couple hours to find me a place to stay. I ended up renting a spare room from a very helpful and welcoming family, right next to the university. I was made very welcome by the university and invited out that same evening by some of the students. They invited me to leave with them early the next morning to go hiking in the Drakensberg. We went to the amphitheatre area and spent a night in the Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge. It was a great first glance of just how much natural beauty there is in South Africa and how diverse it can be. It got me even more excited and motivated to start!
The fun starts
I was included on the department’s WhatsApp group, so that anyone who needed an extra pair of hands could call on me. For my first project, I was invited to join a team attaching telemetry tags to yellow fish in Albert Falls Dam. These tags collect temperature, depth, activity and signal-strength readings from the fish until the battery dies. A mix of water and anaesthetic had to be pumped through the fish’s gills during surgery to implant the tag. My job was to ensure that the flow was right and the mix would fall back into the bucket the pump was in. This may sound boring to some; holding a tube… but it wasn’t at all! I was so thrilled to finally participate and eager to learn more about these fascinating practices that I had never even heard about!
My next trip was even more exciting. A week in Ndumo Game Reserve on the Mozambique border, chasing after serrated hinged terrapins, a type of freshwater turtle, in the mud. I was assisting Cormac Price, who is doing his PhD on them. We were camping in the reserve inside the research accommodation centre. We had to catch the terrapins, measure, weigh and mark them with harmless drill holes in case of recapture, and take a photo, pure samples of stink gland secretions if possible, and a small tissue sample for genetic analysis before releasing them where they were caught. The animals’ safety is prioritised during the process, and they are therefore handled with the utmost care and consideration for their well-being.
Ndumo is the reserve with the highest density of crocodiles and hippos in South Africa per square kilometre. This was quite inconvenient for catching these semi-aquatic creatures. We used fyke nets, and simple wire cages to trap them, hoping crocodiles and hippos would leave our traps alone, which wasn’t always the case. We were also opportunistically running after basking or walking turtles, after making sure there were no dangerous animals in sight. Sadly, but luckily for us, Ndumo is too small to support lions or elephants. They have many buffalos though, which like to hang out in rushes near pans, where they are totally hidden and surprisingly hard to hear.
Why I don’t like elephants anymore
It was quite hard for me to get used to the dangers here. Spending all my free time growing up in the garrigue shrubland of southern France, hunters and maybe wild boars and aspic vipers were the only dangers on my mind, so I didn’t learn to be on guard in the way you have to in South Africa.
I was careful nonetheless, always listening and looking around but underestimated how quiet these animals are and how easily hidden they are. My lesson was learned though by encountering on foot a big bull elephant in musth…
This was another time, in a big 5 reserve, also looking for terrapins. All the precautions had been taken to avoid this situation. We had driven all around the pan, looking in every direction and turning off the engine to listen carefully before getting out of the vehicle and only doing very short distances. Cormac, a game driver and I went to check and re-bait a trap, with the vehicle parked as close by as possible. We took no more than three minutes but then turned around and a lone elephant was about four metres in front of the car, looking agitated. He could not see us yet, as his view was obscured by trees. Being at ground level with an elephant is so much more impressive than in a vehicle! He was missing one of his tusks, probably from fighting with other bulls. The game driver stayed very calm and ran towards the vehicle saying “Stay where you are and do as I say”. From then on, the whole thing felt like a film. As soon as the elephant saw her, he started chasing her in the vehicle as she drove off. She acted quickly telling us to follow her as fast as we could, keeping trees between us and the elephant, to stay hidden. At this point, the elephant had seen us all and was zigzagging between the car and us. He was surprisingly slow and did not trumpet once but was very persistent. After following us about 200 metres, which felt like miles, there was just enough distance between him and the car for it to stop and give us 2 seconds to jump in. What an experience! We drove away as fast as we could and he eventually gave up. As exciting as the adrenalin rush was, I do not recommend this type of encounter with an elephant… If he had wanted, he could have killed us. Luckily, he just wanted us away, not dead. Even when he was close to us, he didn’t make a sound. It made me realise that you cannot trust your ears. I don’t believe you can be fully safe in these places, especially with our only weapons being pepper spray and a blow horn (not the best defence against angry elephants) but it is part of the job at times in reserves. It was nobody’s fault. We did what we could to prevent it, but you cannot predict everything. I have certainly learned my lesson though.
Working with terrapins is a lot of fun but cannot be done in style
In 6 months, I have helped process around 80 terrapins. I can say that you never get used to the smell of the musk secretions… believe me, I have been thoroughly exposed; using my clothes as a pillow for a week with every day another set drenched in all kinds of terrapin secretions.
On my second trip to Ndumo, we stayed for 8 days. We wanted to treat ourselves to actual beds this time, as it was a long trip. Unfortunately, the room had been double-booked so we got moved to an abandoned building in the reserve for the week. We had no lights in the kitchen, a broken fridge, no chairs or tables, bullet shells everywhere, a shower that didn’t drain so had a black puddle full of mosquitoes where we found a TV remote, a mobile phone, batteries, newspaper, clothes and other unidentifiable things soaking. My “quilt” was an old curtain with the rings still attached. We systematically woke up feeling itchy. Every day we came back sunburnt, sweaty, with wet feet and covered in a mixture of mud and terrapin stink gland secretion. Then we’d cook tins of chakalaka (a local vegetable stew) with just a head torch for lighting, which we’d eat sitting on the floor in a dark empty room. I am in no way complaining, my Ndumo trips were my favourites! I loved every minute and couldn’t stop smiling the whole time. Being able to spend so long in such an amazing reserve is a privilege that was well worth the not-so-glamorous lifestyle that came with it.
We then went straight from Ndumo to Phinda for 6 days. We were helping out one of Cormac’s friends who was doing a 3-month herpetofauna survey using many funnel traps, each consisting of four buckets, twelve funnel traps and three 10-metre-long drift fences. This was my first big 5 reserve in South Africa; I was thrilled!
The work was intense, with 5 am starts to avoid the heat, a 30-minute breakfast break, a 45-minute lunch break and finishing at 6 pm. We did this for 6 days but they did it for 3 months including Christmas and New Year’s Day. Such dedication! We were emptying the traps daily, catching mostly crickets but occasionally small mammals, snakes and frogs. My favourite catches were Phinda rainfrogs, a rubber bandit frog, a Schlegel’s blind snake, file snakes, a stiletto snake and a thread snake.
If we saw a terrapin, we would process it, but that was not our priority.
On that trip, I got the chance to join a game-catching unit one afternoon. The aim was to catch 100 female nyalas to send to another reserve, a practice done to ensure healthy genetic diversity within a reserve. Nets of about 2 metres in height were stretched over a distance of 1 kilometre, downwind from the area believed to contain nyalas, so that they couldn’t smell us. Some short nets were added, perpendicular to the main net, to avoid the animals running along the net and therefore increase our chances of catching them. Once it was all set up, we were driven in large numbers upwind and dropped in small groups over the 1-kilometre stretch. We then formed a line and started making our way towards the trap, making as much noise as possible: some by repeatedly hitting empty water bottles against our wrist and shouting, others by clapping and shouting. It was impressive how loud we were!
Unfortunately, we did not get any nyalas in that attempt, but a big warthog got tangled up. The situation was considered too dangerous for me to help but it was very impressive to see how strong these animals are.
Cormac’s enthusiasm for reptiles and amphibians truly grew on me!
I had the privilege of joining the Durban snake catcher Nick Evans from KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian and Reptile Conservation on some of his captures and releases. The first time was to release two Mozambique spitting cobras he had recently rescued from people’s houses. One was a juvenile and to our delight, the other one was possibly a new world record size for the species, a female measuring 1.81 metres! She was tired after being photographed and measured, which meant she was deemed safe for me to hold up with a snake hook and eye protection (in case she spat venom). Since that day I have been fascinated by snakes. I also got to join several black mamba releases and a boomslang capture as well as frogging evenings. I was hoping my gap year would give me a better idea of what sector of zoology I am most interested in and so far, nothing has thrilled me more than finding a snake, tortoise, terrapin, croc, lizard or frog… herpetology seems to be my thing!
Other projects at the University of KwaZulu-Natal
I can’t describe all my experiences in a single article, but I also joined a frog survey, did some hippo camera trap analysis, caught eels with traps and an electrofisher in the Tugela river, Yellowfish tagging in Midmar Dam, had more trips to Phinda, caught terrapins in Bonamanzi Game Reserve, assisted on a marsh terrapin telemetry project in Tala Reserve, investigated a long crested eagle nest with a drone, retrieved a camera trap from a long crested eagle nest, tagged a juvenile crowned eagle, helped on a fish survey in Albert Falls, promoted World Fish Migration Day at the famous Dusi Canoe Marathon, and took videos and photos at several rural high schools with LWAZI, a community outreach project to encourage students to continue their education through to university. There were so many amazing projects, I’m sure I’ve left some out, as well as many non-work-related adventures I haven’t included.
A spot of tourism
I couldn’t imagine ever experiencing this much freedom again and wanted to make the most of it, not only by trying my best to be productive but also by having fun! I treated myself to 10 days alone in Cape Town on my way from Pietermaritzburg to Kenya. I was there during the drought that is still ongoing as I write this. It was worrying but fascinating to see. Water was rationed to 50 litres per person per day. The tap water was not drinkable. Water in the showers had to be caught in buckets to reuse. Besides this, Cape Town was an absolutely stunning place! I am usually not so fond of cities but this one I love, especially as it has kept so much natural beauty. My favourite day by far was spent walking from the Sunflower Stop backpackers’ hostel, across Lion’s Head to the Pipe Track up Table Mountain. I did it twice without meeting another soul (I had to abort my first attempt as I had left too late and would have missed the cable car down). Cape Town was well worth having dirty clothes for 10 days!
Famous view from Lion’s Head
Ascending Table Mountain
On to Kenya
I am currently continuing my gap year in Kenya with the same struggles to find affordable opportunities, but less success. I volunteered for a while, for a small daily fee, in the herpetology department of the Nairobi National Museum, but the journey into work was long and expensive, especially because of the heavy rains, and there was little for me to do there. I received an offer to volunteer for free at the University of Maasai Mara and the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association in Narok. I visited and was made very welcome, but there were no herpetology projects. I tried my best to work at the Bio-Ken snake farm in Watamu that milk venomous snakes for antivenom research and production but I have not succeeded as well as I did in South Africa, but my efforts continue.
I gather that wildlife management in Kenya is very different from that in South Africa (for example, reserves in Kenya are mostly unfenced and culling is strictly forbidden). I was keen to learn about and understand the differences, and regret not yet having had the opportunity to do so. Still, I am finding some very cool chameleons!
Male and female Mt. Kilimanjaro two-blade chameleons and a male Jackson’s
Von Höhnel’s, female flap-neck and captive male flap-neck chameleons
I am so thankful to everyone who made this experience possible for me. It has been a life-changing experience so far and has affected me to a degree I had never imagined.
I highly recommend gap years to anyone lucky enough to have the opportunity to do so. Don’t be discouraged by high prices quoted by companies that sell conservation “volunteering” to tourists and gap year students. There are other ways. Even a few weeks can give you irreplaceable insight into whatever field you wish to work in.