ZIMBABWE (eTN) – Volunteer work in Zimbabwe is not for the faint-hearted, but it can certainly be rewarding. A volunteer from West Sussex, UK, who spent much of her summer on the edge of her seat, coming face to face with buffalo, snakes, and starving antelope marooned on an island, called it “a never to be forgotten experience of a lifetime.”
“We all learned tons about the country, its people, and animals, and gained amazing experiences during our six weeks out there,” said Nicola Johnstone, marketing coordinator for a Maidenhead IT company.
She helped with research for Dete Animal Rescue Trust (DART) in Hwange National Park, initially established to remove poacher-set wire snares off wildlife. Her work included carrying out game counts in this park, as well as scanning for snares in the bush of the Zambezi National Park near Victoria Falls.
“Animals caught in these wire nooses can die horrific deaths,” she said. Poaching in Zimbabwe is an on-going problem, made worse by the country’s harsh economic climate, which continues to drive the population to seeing wildlife as a source of food and the fact that elephant tusks and rhino horn still have a lucrative international market.
The DART charity, founded by Paul de Montille and managed by Trevor Lane, now also assists wildlife researchers and the government’s National Parks Department. In conjunction with SAVE Foundation of Australia and National Parks research branch, they now also lead efforts to save the threatened black rhino.
Nicola was ill with the obligatory traveler’s stomach bug accompanied by sunstroke so could not track black rhinos on foot, although the other volunteers of her group did. The data collected is usually presented to National Parks to determine the state of the rhino population in the area, allowing them to deploy anti-poaching patrols where most needed.
“It was awesome being so close to wildlife whilst walking through the bush on foot looking for snares. Once I ran away from a very close herd of buffalo when I tripped over a termite mound – it certainly took my breath away!”
During a 24-hour game count at a waterhole in Hwange National Park she found the star-lit night skies accompanied by a chorus of lions roaring, elephants splashing and drinking, and jackals calling to one another completely fascinating. She even heard a leopard growling “right beside us! That was unnerving.”
Even more so was the encounter with a snake, which twisted itself onto the steering wheel of her guide’s landrover. “When the guide shrieked, too, and let go of the wheel I got really scared, but it slithered off – it was probably the most terrified of us all!” she said.
Musango Safari Camp on its own island in Lake Kariba offers limited opportunities to volunteers wanting a piece of real Africa, so Nicola helped professional guide and camp owner Steve Edwards with projects including liaising with clients and updating computer data. A nearby animal rescue mission going on at Starvation Island at that time needed urgent help, and so she carried hay bales to the many animals trapped on this island, recently formed as Lake Kariba’s water levels rose suddenly way beyond normal.
“It was hard to decide if feeding the animals in this way was helping or making the situation worse, as starved impala would eat so much they’d die from over-eating,” she said.
Another task on the mainland was to drive up and down an air strip scaring wildlife from the runway to allow aircraft to fly in unhindered. And just off the shoreline of the Matusadona National Park she canoed among hippopotami and crocodiles, an activity that was “not for the timid, put it that way.”
She also assisted at Children in the Wilderness, an environmental and life skills educational program established by Wilderness Safaris to teach local children across southern Africa about their environment and the importance of conservation. The aim is to bridge the divide between communities and wildlife and to develop leaders who will care for their natural heritage and so become the future custodians of these areas.
About 50 children from an AIDS orphanage in the town of Dete and from villages surrounding the park come to Wilderness’ Linkwasha Camp in Hwange National Park.
The volunteers interacted with the children and instructed teachers on new teaching methods and how to operate recently-donated equipment.
“The children were so keen to learn and so respectful of us, their teachers, elders, and each other. This project really made me realize how much we take for granted in our schools. Most of the children had never seen a magnifying glass, lab goggles, magnets, or petri dishes. They didn’t even have exercise books, pens, pencils, or blackboards before the CITW involvement,” said Nicola.
Volunteer opportunities are available throughout the year in Zimbabwe, and there are various companies on the Internet offering programs. Nicola found her way via advice from The Zambezi Safari and Travel Company, a safari operator based in Victoria Falls and the UK.