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Volunteers' Stories





Tembe Elephant Park Voluntary Conservation Project in Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa

This placement followed on beautifully from the Conservation Course I did in the Eastern Cape - I could put all the theoretical basics I learnt there into practice. The staff at Tembe also taught me how to behave around an elephant (Tembe elephants are semi-wild and are not used to humans at all so can behave very unpredictably) so as to be safe and also to respect the animal so that it would never feel threatened.

I also learnt a lot about elephant psychology! I loved the fact that the park is not a commercial park and that only five 4x4 vehicles are allowed there each day. The sandforest scenery is stunning and very tropical. I was interested in elephants anyway (main reason why I opted for this placement) but after a month of day-in-day-out observation of elephant behaviour, these animals fascinate me all the more and are now my favourite animals!

It was fantastic to observe their behaviour at the waterpans and from the comfort of the hides (nothing beats drinking coffee in the mornings looking out at twenty elephants play-fighting with each other in the water in front of you!). I learnt so much about the hierarchy too and the fact that the herd are very dependent upon the matriarch and follow her lead at all times.

I was lucky enough to be at Tembe in November and so I saw the first rains there and all the new-born antelope, warthog, buffalo, etc and I was also very fortunate to see baby elephants with their floppy trunks! So cute! I really miss seeing them on a daily basis. Also, the bushbabies - there are loads of them at Tembe - and it was wonderful to be playing cards on a night in the kitchen with the others, listening to the bushbabies crying in the trees - quite an eerie sound but one I really miss.

I would recommend this placement to anyone who loves elephants and would love to spend a lot of time each day watching them closely in the park. This park would not suit somebody who wants to see lions and leopards every day because that will not happen due to the sheer size of the park and the small numbers of those animals in that park. Also, people have to be prepared to spend long days out in the field tracking elephants and lions - not too great if it starts raining on you and you're sat in the back of the open bakkie.....

This placement would suit somebody who is happy to live in a remote park watching elephants interacting with each other for most of the day. This placement would not suit somebody who hates solitude and peace and quiet. Volunteers who haven't been on any other placements would get more out of Tembe (like me - Tembe was my first placement) rather than volunteers who have been to posh private game reserves - I think that for them, Tembe and it's remoteness could be a bit of a shock!

For me, it was wonderful to have an air-conditioned shed and cell phone reception - in Esingeni, I slept in a tent for two months and had to climb a hill where puff adders lurked to get any cell reception so Tembe was a luxury for me!

I loved my time at Tembe - I could easily have stayed much much longer (for me, a month wasn't enough time) and I found the staff there a real delight - especially Liz who I got along with brilliantly. The staff were very knowledgeable and friendly which really helped me have an excellent time at Tembe. One night, Liz, myself and another volunteer decided that we would camp out at Mahlasela Hide and so off we went in the bakkie with our mattresses and a bottle of wine and we sat there in the hide, drinking wine and watched two bull elephants drinking in the moonlight - this was news to Liz who thought that the elephants only went to the pans in the bright sunshine in the middle of the day.

Can you describe a typical day?

 A typical day would start at about 9am with tracking the elephants at the hides in the park as well as at the waterpans. It would be very exciting to find any breeding herds (one day, we stumbled upon 4 breeding herds in the space of about half an hour - my camera was busy!!!) and we would make notes on their behaviour, take GPS points, make notes on the habitat, film the breeding herds and take photos of them. We would also follow the bachelor herds and lone elephants too - always noting their physical characteristics for drawing up an ID profile on all of Tembe's 200 elephants (no mean task...) and noting their interactions with each other and general behaviour.

 Sometimes, we would do that all day (especially if we were doing long drives in the park up to the Mozambizue border) or we would come back to base camp at lunchtime, have a quick bite to eat and then head off into the field again to go and track the lions by telometry. This could be a long job and was often coupled with doing game counts where you note all the antelope, giraffe, elephants, warthog, buffalo and other animals in the park and count them in certain grid references (this game count is done about three times a week and then the information is inputted into the computer software programmes at Tembe).

Sometimes, we would be out in the field until after dark and at other times, we would track the lions in the dark and do a night drive and often we would find white rhino at the waterpans and also elephants everywhere (do these creatures EVER sleep??? They are forever eating!).

On my last day, there was a lion call-up (we had got up at the crack of dawn to track the lions - which we hadn't had a sighting of for about a month and we stumbled upon the four fully-grown lions roaring (lionesses roar too - something I didn't know previously) as we were nearby in the bakkie - very exciting!) and by the end of the afternoon, I was lucky enough to be sat in the back of the bakkie with two fully-grown male lions, two fully-grown females and four cubs all feeding off this poor blue wildebeest just feet away - what an amazing sight! To watch their interactions with each other over a carcass that they were feeding on surprised me - male lions are gentlemen and tend to let the others feed first. One of the cubs was quite cocky and he walked up really close to our bakkie. It was great fun to see the cubs playing with each other and I even managed to film one of the males as he was roaring - priceless!These are memories that I will treasure forever.

Everybody at Tembe's very friendly and they'll be more than willing to teach you Zulu if you ask them! It's always a good idea to master some basics. Also, you get the chance to interact with other people who do other projects at Tembe and one night, we went frogging at the pans with one of them - great fun!

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