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Volunteers' Stories




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

As a person with a very keen interest in African wildlife, especially predators, to be given the chance to track lions in a national park such as Tembe was too irresistible to turn down. Unlike many volunteers who have come, and will probably come in the future, I am not completely new to Africa and had a good idea what to expect. This, however, does not make it any less exciting.I left England and travelled down from Uganda to South Africa - having seen lots of the wildlife on my trip, my interest had only grown stronger in these months.

I arrived at Tembe in the early evening. I was shown my new home for the next 3 coming months and met all the personnel that I would work with.

December (the main lion monitor) informed me that we would be taking a drive that night. The first drive in any park is always memorable, I was introduced to the technique of tracking lions with the telemetry which picks up a signal from the lions’ radio collars. Our first night was unsuccessful in locating the lions, but I had two close encounters with elephants and saw a black rhino. These sightings which are now a regular occurrence of our drives was made special by the fact that we are one of a few people with access and authorization to drive in Tembe Elephant Park at night.

Tembe, being a very wild park, has very thick bush and not the most extensive road network, this makes sightings of the lions very hard, even when close. I was told that the previous volunteer had only had 6 sightings in 2 months - this made me feel that this project might not be all it was cracked up to be. An assumption that was soon proven wrong.

In my first week I saw all 4 lions. Firstly the males, which apparently were the lesser seen of the lions. They were pick up heading towards Vakuzini Pan. We made a good guess that they were coming for water and waited at the Pan for what seemed to be a lifetime, yet was actually only about 10 minutes. With our spotlight turn off so as not to hinder their approach, the moonlight cast 2 silhouettes moving towards us. When we turned on the spotlight, I was taken aback - the size of the lions, which was much larger than other lions I have seen in Africa (which later I found out was partly why they were chosen, for their tourist pulling power). Light in colour and with unblemished skin, they were most impressive. This is also evident in the females who stand very tall and broad.

Since my arrival, all 4 of the lions have moved south of the Salini wilderness to far more accessible areas. This has given us the chance to observe the lions a lot more than previous volunteers have. I have seen many aspects of the behavior that are most interesting. On one occasion we pick up a very strong signal from the telemetry around Ponweni. I decided to stay in the hide and wait to see if they would come to drink at the Pan. There were a group of Nyala who were very wary and the males often gave off danger calls, I sat waiting for 1 hour when suddenly one female lion shot out of the reeds in pursuit of the Nyala. The chase was, however, unsuccessful.

I observed both females playing and drinking until a breeding herd of elephants came and chased them. This worked in the lions favour. Following the lions was male a water buck who the female strategically stalked and chased. The water buck which ran from one lion towards the other (which was hidden) then with both lions in pursuit the water buck just managed to find gap in the trees and soon disappeared. This was one of the highlights of my whole trip to Africa.

Another aspect of lion monitoring I enjoy is when we do a call up. A call up is when we use a fresh carcass as bait and play recordings of distress calls of buffalo, antelope or when calling for males use other male lions’ roughing. Until very recently, only the males responded to our call ups. My first involvement in a lion call up was quite a strange experience and proved to be a very impressive one. Some people would say that being close to lions, in a small jeep with no windows and canvas doors whilst the back of the vehicle is soaked with blood from a carcass just shot might be stupid and they would probably call you insane when you told them you were play tape recordings of other male lions roughing to attract them. This, however, was a experience I would not forget.

When the lions arrive they seemed to be very angry and were probably expecting a fight with other lions. Instead they found a reed buck carcass and us in our small green jeep! They then proceeded put on a show that made my hair stand on end - they both started to rough. Not like you hear in cartoons and the Lion King, but a loud, groaning rough. This was so loud that the doors on the vehicle shook! They were heard some 9 kilometers away at the main camp. However, females have only just started to respond to in the last week which will be helpful when the time comes to collar them.

On arrival at the Park I was informed that whilst I was in Tembe I would be able to observe the changing of collars on the lions. So far we have only collared the males, this however was a very interesting and gave me a chance to have hands-on experience with the lions. On a brightly lit night with a full moon, we called up the lions. On arrival, they pulled at the Impala bait which was tied to a dead tree pushed over by an elephant. One lion alone managed to drag the 6 plus metre tree (which I later tried to move to no avail) and tried to drag it off into the bushes. The second one arrived and then the vet fired the darts to sedate the lions. After seeing the strength of the lions dragging the tree, the thought of walking up and touching the animal was surreal. After a few minutes they were both fully sedated and we went about changing the collars. I got the chance to touch a wild lion and work with a team of experts carrying out general checks.

Many people get to see lions, but this project gave me the chance to get hands-on experience with them. Of all my experiences with the lions, my most enjoyable moment was watching the two females trying to catch a bush pig. They seized the pig by its jugular, but the pig’s will to live was too strong and when the female released her grip, the pig got up and they started fighting. The pig, badly wounded from the attack, managed to ward off the lions that were very wary and eventually gave up pursuing their prey. This just showed that the King of the Jungle does not always get its own way!

The experience extends more than just with lions - I have seen fascinating behaviour of elephant, rhino, and many antelope. I have also got involved in rescuing a Nyala stuck in mud (which nearly ended up with me stuck also). This, like so many days in my time at Tembe, are things that you can’t experience when you just visit for a day or two. Things that I take for granted back home have a new meaning out here. For example, where else but Africa do you have to check for elephants when you want to go to the office or when you want to make a phone call? Because Tembe is out of the way this can cause a few problems. Services, e.g. banks that change currency are not close and even your local shops are not local! However, I believe this all adds to a volunteer’s Africa experience

The knowledge a volunteer can gain is massive I have a greater understanding about the bush and its animals/plants. Also I can now successful track animals using telemetry. I hope that I have also given information to the guys that I work with. December and Thabani have both learnt how to cope with a Yorkshire accent and can gain more knowledge of the western culture from volunteers. They both have tried to teach me Zulu which I am slowly picking up.

Projects like this give people from South Africa the chance to benefit from tourists and overseas visitors. I feel these projects are a win/win/win situation. The volunteers gain valuable experience as well as the local people whom we work with in different cultures and ways of life. Also not forgetting that the conservation element, which is the main purpose of this project, also benefits from schemes like these. As long as the right people are placed on these projects, as tracking lions needs patience, I can only predict successful future for this and similar projects.

I know this is not my last trip to South Africa and would like in later years to return to Tembe to see the progress the lions and the park have made.

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