Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research

volunteers in africa doing a wilderness lecture

WATCH: Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research Video from Blue Lizard Adventures

The Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research volunteer project provides volunteers with a lifetime opportunity that will never be forgotten; to actively contribute to and participate in daily management activities, wildlife research and monitoring activities taking place on a private game reserve in South Africa. The programme fosters the conservation of wilderness and is based on a private wilderness reserve in 25 500 hectares of South Africa’s untamed beauty.

The reserve is on its way to becoming a benchmark wilderness reserve, as it has based all its ideals on mimicking the natural system as much as possible. Unfortunately humans have taken their toll on many wild areas of Africa and natural processes have been affected. The goal of the Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research volunteer project in Africa is to restore the balance that existed prior to human interference and this requires a little assistance. Volunteers are hands on members of the team responsible for all aspects of this assistance, from varied reserve management projects to the research and monitoring of the reserve’s flora and fauna.

Volunteers at the Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research volunteer project will experience life on an active game reserve, enjoy world class wildlife viewing, while making a real contribution to conservation and the establishment of a benchmark wilderness area

The Wilderness Conservation Volunteer Project is in the Limpopo province in the North Eastern part of South Africa. It is about 70 kilometres from each of the towns of Phalaborwa, Tzaneen and Hoedspruit, and is about an hour’s drive from the famous Kruger National Park. This area is known as the Lowveld, and is rich in wildlife, habitat and reserves.

The reserve is 14 000 hectares in size and is the northern half of the 25 500 hectare Greater Makalali Conservancy. The Conservancy was set up by the various landowners within it, agreeing that internal fences be dropped to give the animals a much bigger area to roam freely.

All internal roads are dirt roads so it is easier to check tracks and animal movements. The terrain is gently undulating, with wonderful views of the magnificent Drakensberg mountain range.

The Selati River flows through the reserve and carries its most water in the summer months, the rainy season in the Lowveld. The river supports beautiful indigenous trees, and is a favourite haunt of all game, and especially lions and elephants.

The Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research Volunteer Project run breeding programmes of rare and endangered species, including sable, reedbuck and nyala antelope. Brown Hyaena, rescued from farmers’ traps has been introduced. Cheetah, eland, African wild cats, and tsessebe are among the different species also brought in.

“Have you ever helped push a rhino into a truck to move it to its new home?”

Rhino translocation

Ground hornbill nesting box construction

Volunteer Role

For stays of 4 weeks or longer, your first week will be an orientation period during which you will learn the principles and goals of the reserve and gain a general knowledge of conservation and its importance in South Africa.
Volunteers are then immersed into a huge variety of reserve and conservation activities such as anti-poaching patrols, predator monitoring, alien plant control and habitat improvement to name a few. You will also spend a night under the African stars during sleep-out. Each day brings a new variety of things to see and do, and at any moment volunteers can be called upon to assist with certain situations and emergencies that arise. The work at The Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research Project is divided into 2 main categories – Reserve management, and Wildlife conservation and research.

“Would you like to witness the release of an endangered species into the wild area in which it belongs?”

Activities vary seasonally but may include:
* Veterinary dartings
* Prescribed burns
* Game capture & release

We encourage you to spend at least 4 weeks with the project to get the most out of your experience. Longer stays (up to 4 months) are very welcome but the minimum period is 2 weeks. For those staying more than 4 weeks, orientation will include an introduction to important bush skills such as first aid, 4×4 driving (licence required), fence maintenance, rifle shooting etc. You will be introduced to research and monitoring programmes and learn the various techniques for recording and capturing data.

A typical day starts around 6.00 am with a morning work session perhaps removing alien plants, repairing an eroded site or removing bush encroachment. After a mid-morning breakfast the team heads out again, this time maybe to set and check camera traps for our research. After lunch the team departs on another activity such as an herbivore age and sex ratio research drive.

Volunteers also take it in turns to carry out various duties on a daily basis. These include meal preparation, data collection, vehicle checks and fence checks. All ingredients are provided for cooking along with easy to follow recipes so don’t worry if you’re not a master chef!

Depending on the season, events such as prescribed burns and game capture and release take place. Both emergency and planned veterinary dartings also occur and volunteers are involved in all of these if they coincide with the period of their stay.

Our activities are not only essential but also aimed at being educational, inspirational and fun. We are proud that we are valuable participants in the running of an active wilderness reserve.

Would you like to assist as a wild cheetah receives veterinary help for its injury?”

The Accommodation

Volunteers stay in a large and spacious, attractively furnished house in the heart of the reserve. The house is set in a very large garden with lovely big trees, protected from the wildlife all around by an electric fence. The accommodation at offers:

* Each room is en-suite, sleeping up to a maximum of 4 people.
* There is a double room for couples.
* All linen, except towels, is provided.
* There is ample cupboard space for all your bush gear.
* Mosquito nets are provided above each bed.
* The house has electricity, so hot showers and air conditioning are available as well as power points for the charging of those over worked camera batteries!
* All water at the house is safe to drink
* There is an attractive open plan lounge with big comfy sofas and a dining table for evening meals
* The kitchen is large and has a breakfast table and benches.
* There is a library and study area where you can work at big tables
* In the office you can check the schedule for the day, find information on all the reserve’s wildlife, and make your contribution to the data collection.
* Bongani, your “African mother”, keeps the house, rooms and bathrooms clean for us. She will also do your washing … and even ironing twice a week.
* Outside there is a pleasant barbeque area where we spend many happy evenings.
* There are plenty of outside areas where you can write your diary, take an afternoon siesta or watch the animals stroll by. Herds of impala, giraffe, rhino, elephant and lion regularly visit. The rare antelope breeding camps border the garden, so there is always something to watch.
* The garden has a splash pool to cool off after a day in the hot African sun, and ample space on the lawns for frisbee, cricket, football and rugby games.
* A small attractive waterhole, built by previous volunteers, attracts plenty of bird, insect and amphibian life.
* The project even has its own vegetable garden. Volunteers assist with its up keep so we can have fresh organic veggies with our meals.
* Wi-Fi internet is available at the house and can be accessed from the house laptop or your own computer, i-Phone etc. Unlimited use is available for a small monthly fee. Unfortunately mobile phone signal is poor to non-existent at the house but there are a few ‘hotspots’ where you can find a bar or two to send a sms. If you have a Skype account you can make calls using that via the internet but normally without the video link.
* The ‘Sable Station’ is a great spot in the garden, a 6 metre tall look-out tower built by volunteers. Enjoy the sunrise, sunset or some stargazing from the top. Tick off some birds on your list, watch the antelope feed in the breeding camps below or gaze across the plains to see what wildlife you can spot.
* Coming soon for 2014, a large swimming pool in the garden. Take a dip after a hot days work, relax at the weekends, and swim some lengths to keep fit.

 Research and Conservation

During your time at the project you will spend time observing in the field and collating many different kinds of data. You will learn the skills needed for data capture techniques and also receive training to use the research equipment such as GPS consoles and when needed, radio telemetry equipment. The data you collect contribute to a huge variety of projects and monitoring both on the reserve and with other research and conservation organisations. Herbivore counts and predator monitoring are essential for management decisions on the reserve while data collected during the brown hyaena project are being used in projects own scientific publications. Furthermore, much of the data you assimilate will contribute towards projects and research being carried out by fellow conservation organisations.

Cheetah Metapopulation Project

Since 2009 the team have introduced 4 cheetahs onto the reserve as part of its cheetah reintroduction programme. All new cheetahs are fitted with a radio collar and their initial survival and progress is closely monitored by the Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research team. The data collected are then used to assist continued cheetah conservation efforts in both the Lowveld and South Africa by contributing to the EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) Cheetah Metapopulation Project. The project aims to develop a national metapopulation management plan for cheetahs in smaller, fenced reserves and one of the key aspects is to ensure adequate gene flow among fragmented sub populations. Life history, survival and breeding data are collated for each reintroduced cheetah and wherever possible, DNA samples are taken to add to the nationwide genetic database. The team sends data for all reintroduced cheetah and has also contributed two samples to the genetic database. The Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research is currently on the waiting list to accept a new female cheetah which will be monitored by the team and contribute further to the project.

Conservation biology of cheetah in fenced reserves

Information from the cheetah reintroductions is also contributing towards research on the conservation biology of cheetah in fenced reserves. The research is being carried out by Kenneth Buk in association with the EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) and University of Tshwane, South Africa and incorporates many different aspects of cheetah survival and ecology. Data provided for the research includes cheetah spatial movements, feeding habits, habitat use and relationships with other predators.

Vulture Monitoring Project

Data collected by the Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research contributes to the Vulture monitoring project, part of the EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) Birds of Prey Programme. The project aims to ensure the survival of all vulture species throughout the southern African sub-continent and monitoring is an important part of this to determine if conservation activities are being successful. Data on vulture nesting sites and other raptors on the reserve are collected by the team and passed on. Sightings of tagged vultures are also reported to the project by the Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research team.

Ground hornbill Conservation

The Southern Ground-Hornbill is a flagship species for the savannah biome classified as Endangered (IUCN) within South Africa. With their numbers still in decline, an estimated 1500 remaining birds require immediate assistance to prevent the species becoming extinct outside protected areas within the next 3 generations. The Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project is working to slow decline through a variety of techniques including the harvesting of chicks, re-wilding and reintroduction and the provision of artificial nesting sites. The Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research works in conjunction with the project to build and place artificial nesting boxes and also provide spatial data for the Ground Hornbills on the reserve.

Read more about the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project

Energy wildlife conflict project

Through data collection and reporting, the Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research project has been able to contribute towards the EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) Energy wildlife conflict project. One aspect of the project is a strategic partnership between Eskom (who are responsible for the supply of South Africa’s electricity) and the EWT. The partnership aims to find a balance between the power needs of South Africa’s people and economy, and the protection of fauna and avi-fauna from negative interactions with electrical infrastructure. These interactions take on many different forms and include the electrocution of birds and mammals, the collision of birds with power lines and even birds nesting on infrastructure. By reporting electricity related fatalities on the reserve (including vulture, giraffe and ibis) we can ensure problem areas are addressed with the help of the EWT and Eskom partnership.

Read more about the Energy wildlife conflict project

Rhino anti-poaching

Poaching is now taking a tremendous toll on South Africa’s rhino population as demand for the horn continues to soar across the Far East. Here at the Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research Project, one of the key goals is to protect the rhino from falling victim to this barbaric trade and in turn contribute to the conservation of the species as a whole. In 2012, the decision was taken to dehorn the rhinos on the reserve, therefore removing the reason that the poachers have for killing them. To safeguard our rhinos, the team works continuously to cover all aspects of our anti-poaching plan. Volunteers assist with rhino monitoring as we aim to account for all our rhino on an extremely regular basis. Learning the rhino’s home ranges and behaviour patterns is important so we can monitor and patrol these areas more intensely. Sleep outs around the reserve also allow provide an extra opportunity to monitor any unusual activity.

Will I get time off?
During your time volunteering, the Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research Team will provide transport to:
● ‘Daktari wildlife orphanage and bush school’ (R50 donation for short tour)
● Local ‘Giant Baobab tree’ (R10 entry per person)
● Khamai reptile park (Entrance fee covered) – 4 week volunteers or longer only

Should you wish to do some local sightseeing this can be done on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday when all volunteers have time off. Many volunteers join together to hire a car or use a local tour company. The 2 most popular trips are a visit to the ‘Kruger National Park’ or down the Panorama route of the ‘Blyde River Canyon’. For car hire you must be over 21 with a valid licence and credit card in your name. If using the local tour company they will pick you up from the Wilderness Conservation and Wildlife Research project, drive and guide you for your day’s activity and return you home later on. Costs for weekend trips must be covered by you; some options for activities include…..
● A trip to the world famous ‘Kruger National Park’
● The Blyde river canyon; waterfalls & boat trips
● Horseback safaris in the bush
● Microlight flights over game reserves
● White water rafting & tubing
● Cultural tours

Should you wish to stay at the project over the weekend, all food will be provided. No activities are organised but you can use your time to relax, play sports, use the pool etc.

erosion control in africa

African Sunset

You will first need to fly to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo international airport. We then ask you to make your way to our local town called HOEDSPRUIT in the Limpopo province, an hour away from the project. The journey can be made by either taking an internal flight from Johannesburg or a shuttle by road using a private transfer company. Volunteers joining the programme should arrive in Hoedspruit on the start date (Monday) of their project. South African Airways operate domestic flights to Hoedspruit on their airlink service which takes just over an hour. The road transfer takes approximately 6 hours and leaves OR Tambo airport before 7am. Therefore if your flight does not arrive early enough you will need to spend the Sunday night near the airport and the shuttle will collect you from your accommodation first thing Monday morning.

Elephants in africa volunteer project