Being a volunteer at the Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia was a rewarding way to be involved in such a valuable project. What I enjoyed most was spending time with and helping the animals in need and learning about the wildlife conservation and education work that the sanctuary wholeheartedly exceeds in.
Tired after my day long journey into Windhoek, I was transferred together with the other new arrivals to the farm which was a 40 minute drive from the airport. There, I was given a brief induction and was then free to explore my new home for the next two weeks and meet some of the beautiful animals living at the sanctuary. This is definitely not a petting zoo but a place for injured and orphaned wildlife, who are rescued, rehabilitated and in many cases, released back to where they belong.
The sanctuary currently houses over 100 animals including (but not limited to) Meerkats, Baboons, Cheetahs, Caracals, Leopards, African Wild Dogs and Lions. Once animals have been rehabilitated and released, they might choose to stay living on the farm like Milo and Coco-Bella the Goats, Elsa the Hartebeest, Kudu the Kudu and Vulfie the Jackal who all live freely around the farm. You quickly become accustomed to seeing animals walking around the camp, Milo and Elsa would always be hanging around at breakfast time to see if they could steal my food! It soon becomes your new normal to be walking amongst resident animals and they are all real characters who you grow to love! I’ll always remember brushing my teeth in the bathroom one night and having a Jackal sit next to me!
On my first full day at the farm, a more in depth induction was delivered through an engaging and passionate presentation. The working day is usually split into a morning activity from 8am-12.30pm and an afternoon activity from 2.30pm-5pm. Volunteers are in groups of about 5-6 with a set timetable rotated everyday to give everyone a chance to take part in all the activities. In the afternoon, I was in the recycling team which involved bottle cutting to transform empty bottles into souvenir wine glasses to raise funds for the sanctuary.
I started day two with a presentation from the snake expert, where I learnt about and handled some (non-venomous) snakes. Our group was able to help release a Sand Snake and Egg Eating Snake in the bush-land nearby. We also completed some work on-site, mixing cement and collecting rocks for water holes for a new Caracal enclosure.
On my fourth day, I went on the Baboon walk, one of my highlights! Every day the Baboons are taken for a long walk with the volunteers across stunning landscapes where they play together, climb trees and just be Baboons! They were so mischievous and fascinating to watch. Being used to and loving human interaction, some of the Baboons will groom you as they do each other so my hair was pulled about but I didn’t mind! They feel threatened if you approach them but they will come and sit with you of their own accord and hold your hand and give you hugs - so adorable! Most of the Baboons living at the sanctuary were rescued as orphans, their mothers having been killed by farmers. A few are a little older, after being kept illegally as pets. Just like humans, Baboons need a lot of care when they’re babies and have to be bottle fed at the sanctuary to have any chance of survival. Sadly, as Baboons are seen as pests in Namibia, the Government doesn’t allow them to be released back in the wild so they will spend their lives living in captivity, but the sanctuary give them all they need.
Later on that day, my group worked on camp improvements and enrichment which involved painting some of the baby animal’s temporary cages and cleaning the baby tortoise house. In the evening, I took part in feeding of the Wild Dogs. African Wild Dogs are an endangered species and a litter of 14 pups were rescued and rehabilitated at the sanctuary and now live on the farm.
At the weekend the usual timetable didn’t apply but tasks were allocated as the animals still needed to be fed and looked after! My group were responsible for Baboon feeding and clung onto the back of an open top jeep and threw balls of tasty food over to the senior Baboon camp.
I had booked an optional activity for Monday morning which was a walk with some of the beautiful Cheetahs and Caracal living at the farm, another of my highlights! Most of the Cheetahs at the sanctuary were rescued as orphans after their mothers were shot and they were hand raised as cubs. Sadly this means that they are too humanised to be released so are kept in captivity in very large enclosures, but like the Baboons, are taken on walks and given enrichment. Many of the Cheetahs are semi tame and they appear to be like big domestic cats, loudly purring and playing together. To be walking alongside these beautiful, graceful, majestic creatures was a dream come true.
The sanctuary has strict rules about the Cheetahs, no touching (unless they touch you), as they’re still wild animals, and no ‘selfies’ with them as this does nothing to benefit the animal. Social media can give a misleading impression, boosting the illegal pet trade and the cruel tourism fuelled petting zoos.
Although Cheetahs are a vulnerable species, in Namibia they are often trapped and shot by farmers if they believe that they’re a threat to their livestock, resulting in senseless loss and cubs being left without a mother. This persecution is usually unfounded as Cheetahs prefer wildlife in the bushlands and will only take livestock if they are desperate to feed themselves or their cubs. The sanctuary is involved in ways to mitigate the persecution of Cheetahs and other large carnivores that are affected by human-carnivore conflict. When they get a call from a farmer who suspects that a Cheetah or Leopard has taken his livestock, the Rapid Response Unit can capture and collar the animal in order to GPS track their movements and send this information to the farmers so they can see for themselves when there’s been a kill, which is usually wildlife and not his livestock. They also advise the farmers on livestock protection measures such as guardian animals and thorn bush barriers resulting in the endangered and vulnerable carnivores being able to live harmoniously within the same territory alongside humans without coming to harm.
After the walk, my group were looking after and feeding the baby animals. Baby Meerkats, Mongooses, Porcupine, Tortoises, Steenbok and my favourite: Speckie the Warthog. Speckie is unbelievably cute with his little skinny legs darting about and his tail excitedly wagging away! He loved to chew on my shoelaces and when I fed him he got the food all over his snout and wiped his mouth on my leg!
The next day, I helped with food preparation and feeding the animals once again, one of whom was Samira, a beautiful 20-year-old Cheetah who had been living at the sanctuary for the past 9 years. She’d been kept as a pet illegally and was fed the wrong diet so she suffers some health problems as well as arthritis. In food preparation at the sanctuary, nothing goes to waste and I had the fun job of going through a bucket of food leftovers to separate out all the good stuff to be mixed into the Baboon feed. It was a pretty gross job but so much food is wasted so it’s great that the Baboons can benefit from it!
One of my favourite days was when I was in the Research team. We were given an insight into how the Rapid Response Unit is able to collar large carnivores to track their movements. We were shown how this technology works along with using camera traps to observe the Leopards currently being tracked and how the team update the farmers in the area. We were also informed about the Footprint Identification Technique which is being implemented to recognise existing Cheetahs but identify new ones. Their footprints are all unique just like our fingerprints and this technique can eventually provide an indication of the current wild population. Footprints from some of the Cheetahs living in captivity are photographed for this purpose, which we then attempted (but trying to rake the sand to have a clean, clear footprint area was a little difficult with several Cheetahs wanting to walk on it prematurely!). They were curious cats, contentedly purring and had to be bribed with food until it was their time to walk on the sand!
Driving back to the farm, we spotted a large group of Giraffes so we hiked in the veldt following animal tracks and managed to be within close proximity of the Giraffes, who were as curious of us as we were of them. In the afternoon, we went on a game count and clinging to the back of a jeep, we listed numbers, species, sex and distance of various animals living freely in the veldt. One of these encounters was with a group of Zebras and I was able to take lots of amazing photos of all the wildlife!
The next day, my group were responsible for the enclosure cleaning for the Meerkats, Mongooses, Rock Dassies, Vervet Monkeys, Genets and Polecat. Afterwards, we constructed large papier mache animals to be given to some of the Cheetahs (with meaty treats hidden inside) to tap into their natural hunting instincts which they later enjoyed ripping apart!
As it was getting much colder at night, a house had been constructed for Samira, the 20 year old Cheetah in her large enclosure so she could shelter overnight and keep warm and cosy. One of my jobs was to help paint her house inside and out and while doing so she lay in the sun purring the whole time! In the afternoon I went on another walk with the Baboons, leisurely walking together and lounging in the sun, watching their natural and entertaining behaviour and troop disputes!
For my last weekend, I was in the carnivore feeding group helping to feed the Cheetahs, Lions, Leopards and African Wild Dogs, and with each stop of the jeep, we learned the variety of reasons these animals came to be at the sanctuary. It’s vital that if any of these carnivores are to be released in the future, they have no human contact (it only takes one week for a Cheetah in captivity to become humanised). Some of the Leopards at the sanctuary were rescued without having any human contact which means that they may have the opportunity to be released into a bigger reserve when ready, where they will be safely monitored and protected throughout their lives.
After cleaning one of the Cheetah enclosures it was time for some weekend relaxation. Before booking my volunteering expedition, I’d decided to treat myself to a little bit of luxury so on Sunday afternoon, I took off to stay at the nearby Lodge, which has created jobs for the local community and all profits are fed directly back into the project. The accommodation was a beautiful chalet with stunning views of the bushveld and a natural canyon, housing wildlife such as Rock Dassies, Warthogs and Baboons. The Lodge can be booked in advance or once you’re at the project and I’d highly recommend having a night here as the food and chalet were out of this world!
My last day at the sanctuary started with a wonderfully delicious breakfast at The Lodge. As well as pre-booking my night of luxury, I had also pre-booked an optional behind the scenes tour with the Namibian conservationist, Marlice van Vuuren, who runs the sanctuary. This tour started off with another walk with some of the gorgeous Cheetahs and then an in-depth presentation about the sanctuary’s ongoing research and conservation projects. The small group were then taken on a tour of the farm and given background information about various animals. The tour concluded with a fabulous walk with the baby Baboons where a couple of them insisted on being carried on my head as we walked!
Later on, after feeding some of the baby animals, the volunteers all helped to clean up a huge enclosure for two Leopards to accommodate. Its previous occupant, Gobbelina the Lion was being moved to a new enclosure that afternoon. After being alone for a number of years (after the death of her lifelong mate), a mighty new male had been found for her from another Namibian organisation and all being well, they’re going to be slowly introduced to one another. Let’s hope they like each other!
My time at the sanctuary had sadly come to an end. The hard work involved was very rewarding and I would love to return for a longer period and visit the carnivore research sites if I get the opportunity. Since returning home, I’m definitely missing seeing all the animals everyday and also the brilliant stars at night; I’ve never seen such beautiful star filled night skies as in Namibia, truly magical!
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