15 December 2016

Biological Sciences student Jenny Mitchell used a university scholarship to fund a volunteer trip to South Africa, monitoring wild dogs and other animals.

Reaping the rewards

After the hard work I threw into my A level studies, I wanted to get as much as I could out of the results. So when the Academic Excellence Scholarship - offered to Lancaster University unconditional offer holders - finally arrived, my options were clear. I could spend it on shoes, books and food, or put the £3000 to good use spending a month living among and protecting South Africa’s endangered animals. Not a difficult choice really.

After a bit of online research, a friend and I set off for Kwazulu-Natal to volunteer for WildlifeACT, a WWF-supported group preserving South Africa’s most endangered species.

Lots of work some play

From the day we reached the reserve, I quickly discovered just how much effort monitors put into the conservation of these animals 365 days a year. I cannot praise the WildlifeACT team enough. Set up initially to protect African Wild Dogs, and then extended to other endangered species, WildlifeACT runs teams using volunteer funding to monitor a host of nature reserves across Zululand.

At each of the two reserves where I worked, five volunteers sat atop a jeep, using tracking equipment to follow animals via their radio collars across thousands of hectares a day.  The professional Monitors were brilliant, training us quickly on interpreting radio signals, minimising human interference on animals that crossed our path, entering data from each day, setting camera traps and, most importantly, surviving the horrendously early mornings. 

I would never have thought that in a single month I would learn to track down a pack of wild dogs, from tens of miles away to within a few feet of us in mere hours. The dedication and commitment these Monitors show protecting wildlife and educating volunteers seven days a week all year round was truly mesmerising. If I can recreate their passion in any aspect of my life it will be a life well-lived.

The animals

Think of any animal you might stereotypically find in Africa and we probably came within 50 metres of it. The first fortnight I spent learning the tricks of the trade as we knuckled down and focussed on the monitoring of a single African Wild Dog pack of eight. We watched the five full-grown pups’ power struggle with their parents from 4:30am-10:30am, and again from 4pm-7pm, every single day: by the end I really felt attached to this ferocious family.

With the final two weeks of my stay came a string of jackpot sightings. Every day a new insane experience trumped the last: from a lion pride sunbathing, to a baby giraffe so tiny and new the umbilical cord was still visible, to a surprisingly-friendly adult male black rhino, to two young male cheetahs on their first hunt without mum.

Just in case this wasn’t magical enough, we also monitored daily a 31-strong breeding herd of my favourite - elephants. I very much doubt any coffee I have from now to my deathbed will live up to that 7am coffee on the back of the truck at sunrise, watching a mother elephant hurriedly try to rebury a water-pipe her month old calf had moments before ripped from its trench. 

Making friends

Each reserve brought a new group of 5-10 volunteers, and we all bonded quickly through our shared love of conservation, as well as a shared lack of sleep. With struggles like no running water every few days due to drought, or monkeys intruding into the house, stealing food and making a bomb-site of the place, lesser folk might have curled up in a corner and given up. Instead, we accepted the challenges and came out of it with long-lasting friendships. Some of my favourite memories involve playing a round of cards with a bottle of wine after a long day tracking.

If you get the chance, take it.

I returned home resolved to annoy all my friends and family by encouraging everyone I could, as often as I could, to go and volunteer yourself! I guarantee you, there is no greater joy and satisfaction than doing something where you know with absolute certainty that what you are doing is making a notable difference to a deserving cause.

 So I extend this plea to everyone reading this. If you achieve those dreamed-of top grades –  you will if you put your mind to it - and you get to reap the deserved rewards, celebrate by putting those rewards to good use! Why fritter away a scholarship on day-to-day spends, when this time next summer you too could be sitting watching sunrise beside your pick of the world’s rarest species. 


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