If you’ve seen our Instagram lately, you’ll notice we have a new member of the team, who arrived freshly back from South Africa (SA) last November. Indie travelled out to a game reserve in the region of Limpopo – in the north of the country – to undertake a two-month internship in Wildlife Conservation with GVI.
It was – in her own words – the best two months of her life. In this guest blog post, Indie discusses her incredible experience on the reserve, what she learnt about conservation in SA and why she is passionate about preserving the natural world.
Starting the Journey
‘I must admit, my decision to embark on the internship felt somewhat spontaneous and I was truly terrified to start with! I had been working in medical communications for around a year and a half since graduating, and whilst I loved wildlife and the experience sounded dreamy, it was a huge leap of faith! Even more so considering I hadn’t ever travelled alone, let alone been outside of the UK for the last 8 years… But in hindsight, it was also the best decision I ever made.
Life on Base
Day-to-day, life on base consisted of twice-daily game drives; during these, we would record the whereabouts, behaviour, condition, and abundance of species around the reserve first thing in the morning (adapting to some brutal 4:30 am starts!) and then again in the late afternoon sun. Between drives, we would study, have lectures, or generally get up to good fun around base. Everyone pulled their weight with making lunch and dinner and keeping the base clean, and there was a fantastic feeling of community and togetherness on base, enriched by the volunteer, staff and intern’s shared love of the natural world. Visiting the local community and going into town each week, chowing down on Braais and spending our weekends exploring, we were immersed into the culture and feel of SA, which I promptly fell in love with.
Seemingly every day there was some moment or happening that would leave me awestruck, making picking my favourite parts very tricky, but I will give it a go. Fairly early on in my two months, we came across the enormous male leopard whose territory encompassed our base. We were on our way back from drive, it was pitch black and I was on spotlighting duty (surveying the environment from the cruiser with a torch to look out for nocturnal species). Suddenly, straight up ahead the torch’s beam picked up a vast, elegant silhouette, which I honestly thought must be a lion at first it was so massive, but as we neared the stunning rosettes of his coat came into focus. The magnificence of this creature, with his silent prowess and powerful beauty, was unlike anything. And then in a second, he was gone, as swiftly and silently as he had appeared. I will never forget those few moments.
Nor could I forget our breathtakingly close encounter with the reserve’s resident male lion. This boy was magnificent – truly one of the most impressive creatures I’ve ever seen. We had heard he’d been spotted in a riverbed not too far from us on our afternoon drive, so we headed over to see if we could get lucky with a sighting. And we certainly did! The second we had descended the bank, his loping form came lazily into view; he walked directly toward our cruiser and lay down right in front of us, taking a drink from the water settled in the grooves of the road. After watching him drink, we reversed out to leave him in peace. But it wasn’t over! Just as we went to drive off, he came lolloping up the riverbank and walked straight up to us! He circled the cruiser coming so close that – I’ll admit – I was nervous for a second, before lumbering back into the bush for a lie-down.
Then there were the hyena cubs. This was during a trip to the incredible Kruger National Park – the largest in Africa and located just a couple of hours drive from our base. On our second visit there, we came across another vehicle that had stopped and slowed down to check out what they were looking at. There wasn’t a crowd of cars and the couple looked as though they may have just pulled over for a pitstop, so we weren’t expecting anything special. We were sorely mistaken. Probably a metre or less from the road, a mother hyena and her two boys were enjoying the afternoon sunshine. Mum was lazing by the road with half an eye on her kids, while the two male cubs scrapped and played, occasionally chewing mums’ ears, or leaping on her back. One of the cubs couldn’t have been older than a couple of weeks and was simply adorable. Hyenas get a bad rap, but they are incredible animals that would be devastating to lose. While the spotted hyena (shown above) is not currently threatened, its population is decreasing, and its cousins the brown hyena and striped hyena are both near threatened.
Conservation in South Africa
I could go on forever; the elephants, the cheetah, not to mention the beautiful birds, reptiles, and amphibian species. I felt incredibly privileged to not only learn so much about these species first-hand but also observe them in their natural habitats too. But there were a few surprises for me when it came to conservation in SA. Perhaps naively, the managed element of conservation in SA had been lost on me. While I knew reserves existed, I assumed them to be commercial, helping to finance conservation of the ‘countryside’ (how British do I sound) via tourism. I thought that great open plains of the untouched wild that I had watched relentlessly on TV were still widespread in SA. This is not the case.
Conservation of the incredible mammals and other species in SA is largely down to the management of these separate reserves – in other words, fenced and owned areas of land. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this to begin with, but in the end, came to understand the benefits – and inevitability – of this. The reserves are carefully managed to ensure carrying capacities – the maximum number of a species that can comfortably inhabit the reserve whilst exhibiting their natural behaviours – are observed, and males/females of the same families are swapped between reserves to ensure genetic pools remain wide enough. The animals are not inferred with but simply monitored with as little intrusion as possible. This enables breeding programmes for endangered species and allows research into the animals to better understand how we can best enable their continuation. Money from the tourism industry the reserves can accommodate is also vital to fund conservation efforts and educate people.
And as I say, it’s inevitable. The population is not only growing but exploding across the globe, particularly in Africa. There is simply the space for the open wilderness that there once was, and if lions and elephants simply roamed all over, there would be endless human-wildlife conflicts. Also worth nothing is the choice of the landowners; using this space for conservation instead of e.g. cattle farming is not only massively applaudable, but also demonstrates the pride and enthusiasm they have for their countries incredible natural world, particularly when you consider that they could be earning far more utilising the land for intensive agriculture. And who knows? Perhaps in the future, with re-wilding and improved utilisation of land (hint: plant-based diets) we will achieve a far wilder world once again.
Looking to the Future
My mission now? To minimise the impact I and all other humans have on the incredible Earth. Rising temperatures, reduction of wild spaces, increases in pollution; we are possibly the worst thing that has happened to this planet, but we also have the intelligence and choice to change that, and maybe even make ourselves the best thing to happen to this planet; become its protectors! While I do think governmental policy is a huge issue and the top-down actions toward halting climate change are painfully lacking, I also truly believe that there is so much power for us as consumers and that each change we make to our lives to become more sustainable has an impact. No action is too small for us to take it, and no problem is too big for us to change it.’