David's Journey as a Return Volunteer in Africa and Sri Lanka!
David's Journey as a Return Volunteer in Africa and Sri Lanka!

David's Journey as a Return Volunteer in Africa and Sri Lanka!

Kariega 'Big 5' Conservation Project

Kariega 'Big 5' Conservation Project

7 - 84 Nights from $994.00

Volunteer with the 'Big 5' on one of the country’s most diverse wildlife reserves.

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The Great Elephant Project

The Great Elephant Project

8 - 85 Nights from $1,119.00

Encounter the beautiful Asiatic elephant deep within the heart of the vast and verdant Sri Lankan jungle!

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Two Rewilded Cheetahs, Two Years On - A Remarkable Rewilding Story

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The Team Returns - James & Lauren's South Africa Experience

The Team Returns - James & Lauren's South Africa Experience

Lauren and James have returned and are ready to relay tales of their South African adventure. Join us as we uncover their insightful encounters, memorable moments, and the profound impact of volunteering across a number of our incredible projects.

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Posted by Beth Mills on 23rd May 2024 8 mins

Return volunteer David Pratt has joined 4 of our projects over the past 6 years. David has written the following blog regarding his experience at the Kariega ‘Big 5’ Conservation Project and The Great Elephant Project:

The Kariega ‘Big 5’ Conservation Project

So, where do I begin?

Well, let’s start with the basics. My name is David Pratt and this is my story with conservation volunteering. From a very young age, I took a great interest in wildlife and wildernesses, and always wanted to travel to Africa.

After I graduated in 2005, I signed up for a three-month-assignment in South Africa. The following years I went back to Africa as a tourist, but what I really wanted was to go back to wildlife volunteering. This eventually led me to The Great Projects with whom I booked my journey back to South Africa in 2018. My destination was the Kariega ‘Big 5’ Conservation Project in the Eastern Cape, one of the original reserves where I stayed back in 2005. My memories were magical! I was ready for a renewed adventure!

Upon arrival, I was treated to the same spectacular views and beautiful landscapes I enjoyed in 2005. On my first day, I was lucky to spot white rhinos, multiple bird species, ostriches, Egyptian geese, cattle egrets, an assortment of ungulates such as greater kudus and giraffes, and a lion pride which had doubled in numbers since 2005, thanks to conservation efforts!

This project is a MUST for anyone wanting to experience Africa’s legendary 'Big Five' as all species roam there.

It was extremely interesting to see how much the reserve had improved in thirteen years. Their elephant herd had also increased in numbers, again due to the efforts of wildlife conservation, and black rhinos had recently been reintroduced into a part of Africa where they’d been absent for nearly twenty years. The project now supports strong populations of African buffalo and white rhinos.

Rhino sighting at the Kariega 'Big 5' Conservation Project

I stayed at the project for two weeks. My assigned tasks included elephant monitoring, clearing invasive prickly pear cacti, birdwatching, day and night drives, caring for a pair of servals being rehabilitated for release into the wild, working with the local communities, rhino observation, and reserve maintenance.

My Thrilling Highlights

  • Spotting lions and elephants.
  • Sighting a wild black rhino for the first time, truly memorable!
  • This project is a MUST for anyone enthusiastic about rhino conservation with many chances of photographing white rhinos too!
  • Watching two bull giraffes fighting for mating rights.
  •  Hippos grazing at night (during the day they stayed in the river).
  • Spotting a secretary bird in flight on a birdwatching mission!

Elephant sighting at the Kariega 'Big 5' Conservation Project

Community work is an integral part of life at the project. At least once a week, volunteers will visit a local school in a nearby township where they would interact with the native children and help make lunches in the soup kitchen. My group and I organised and acted a play to a local school; the theme was to discourage cruelty to domestic animals which had manifested itself in the locality.

Free time was spent exploring the nearby towns of Kenton-on-Sea and Port Alfred, which were perfectly safe during the day. Shops, bars and restaurants are to be enjoyed, perfect for grabbing food, drink - supplies, and relaxation!

South African coastlines are truly magnificent. There are plenty of walking trails to experience the country’s golden coasts. Not to be missed!

The excitement of my adventure at Kariega inspired me to sign up for more projects...

The Great Elephant Project

So for two weeks in March 2024, I signed up for The Great Elephant Project in Sri Lanka. I already held a lot of previous experience with African conservation volunteering and I was able to bring my skills and knowledge to Sri Lanka. I’m extremely familiar with African elephants, but I decided that their Asian cousins also needed my help.

My journey to Colombo International Airport from London Heathrow was very straightforward. I recommend that you book your flights with Qatar Airways and transfer through Doha. Upon arrival, I was driven through the Sri Lankan countryside and towns to my hotel in Ambepussa where I would stay for one night.

The next morning, both I and another volunteer were picked up by our main contact for Sri Lanka. Along the journey, we discussed the issues that face both Asian elephants and Sri Lankan wildlife conservation today. I also described my previous volunteer experience in both South Africa and Zimbabwe.

As soon as we arrived at the project field house, we were introduced to the other volunteers and staff and were driven to ‘the elephant corridor’ - a stretch of jungle that cut through the local farming community designed to link two national parks together. This task was named ‘elephant observation’ and was carried out by volunteers every afternoon, except on weekends.

After a wait, a large herd of Asian elephants emerged from the jungle! I found this new encounter absolutely surreal as I’d never seen Asian elephants in the wild before! Our task was to observe the elephants behaviour and count their numbers. Needless to say, I took loads of photos and made great use of my binoculars.

A herd of elephants in Sri Lanka at The Great Elephant Project

Upon mission end, we returned to the field house where I was briefed on volunteer daily life. The volunteer coordinators explained that one task would always start at 8:45am which ran until lunchtime, and at 3:45pm most afternoons, we would track the elephants in the 'elephant corridor'.

The most spectacular memory I will always possess was when our group spotted an elephant herd over twenty-strong. Initially, we followed them on our game drive vehicles, but as the mission progressed, we exited our vehicles and tracked them on foot through the jungle! This was something I’d never done before. We climbed a rocky outcrop to observe the herd with their young from a safe distance. It’s great that despite human-elephant conflict, the elephants are breeding here. I was absolutely thrilled with this opportunity! I took loads of photos and videos on my phone.

Asian Elephant at The Great Elephant Project

Other tasks I took part in were interviewing the local villagers of their experiences with the human-elephant conflict that the community had suffered from.

We learnt about ‘project orange elephant’, where orange trees were distributed to the local farmers to prevent further villagers/elephant deaths. We discovered that the presence of orange trees made a huge difference in reducing crop raiding by elephants, and farmers are also able to make huge profits from their new crops. This is because elephants don’t like citrus fruits and the smell of orange trees keeps them away from farmland.

Volunteers will be involved with village work. My group was even assigned to help paint a local school one morning! I was also able to ride the local ‘EleBus’, designed to keep schoolchildren safe from elephant attacks.

Another important mission I was a part of was 'butterfly monitoring' in the nearby farming village. During this mission, I was able to observe, catalog, and learn about Sri Lanka’s numerous butterfly species.

During my stay, I had two opportunities to visit Wasgamuwa National Park. Not only was I able to obtain lots of close-up photos and videos of Asian elephants, but we spotted numerous other species including birds, monitor lizards, monkeys, and deer. Peacocks were everywhere!

Close up of an Asian Elephant at The Great Elephant Project

It’s great to see that the work being done by The Great Elephant Project is making a huge difference for the preservation of Asian elephants and that Sri Lankan wildlife conservation is going in the right direction! As someone enthusiastic about elephants, it felt great to be a part of this!

My Advice for Future Volunteers

  • ALWAYS take plenty of water! Three bottles minimum! Sri Lanka does have high temperatures of 36 degrees C so dehydration is a threat. Don’t get caught out!
  • ALWAYS ensure that you have a large sunhat, sunglasses, and a strong pair of walking boots with good ankle support. Don’t go walking through the jungle with just sandals/flip-flops. Large sunhats also protect against heatstroke.
  • Pack plenty of insect repellent. Although malaria isn’t present, there are loads of mosquitoes. It’s also a good idea to spray around your legs to prevent ticks.
  • ALWAYS take a torch with you if walking through the jungle trail at night. I personally used a head-torch and my phone.
  • Keep any food items/toiletries wrapped up in plastic bags in your main luggage to prevent disease-carrying cockroaches from accessing them.
  • DON’T drink the tap water! Always brush your teeth with bottled water.
  • Buy a local SIM card if you’re staying for a long period.
  • Go for the private accommodation if you can, because the shared accommodation can be very basic and the private rooms do have an en suite bathroom and air conditioning.

Overall, I’m glad that I undertook The Great Elephant Project. This was certainly the way I would’ve done Sri Lanka; off the beaten track! This trip is a MUST for anyone serious about Asian elephant conservation and I would also recommend this for anyone wanting to experience wild Sri Lanka!

Feel inspired to make a difference in wildlife conservation? Join The Great Elephant Project to protect Asian elephants or the Kariega 'Big 5' Conservation Project to help conserve African wildlife. Your support can make a lasting impact!

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