Wildlife Conservation in South Africa

During most of the year, I’m a media arts and filmmaking student at the University of Montana. This summer, however, I’m a wildlife researcher and international volunteer! Thanks to the generous contribution of the Franke Global Leadership Initiative, I had the opportunity to take on a whole new experience related to my global interests. This summer, I am volunteering at a wildlife research base in the Limpopo region of South Africa. This experience has been absolutely life-changing so far. I’m so grateful to be here and to contribute to real-world wildlife research in the wilds of Africa. 

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Global Theme

My chosen GLI Global Theme and Challenge is natural resources and sustainability. This program directly relates to this theme because the volunteer program I am participating in is a wildlife conservation experience. This program exposes participants to life as a bush researcher. I’m only halfway through my experience thus far but I have learned a tremendous amount about the conservation work in this area and how data collection of wildlife helps sustain the ecosystems of South Africa. Every day here in the bush has opened my eyes to a new idea and topic related to this theme and I can’t wait to incorporate this knowledge into my GLI Capstone Project in the future.

My Experience

I am here with a program called Global Vision International (GVI) which is in partnership with AFS Next. GVI is a worldwide volunteer organization that allows students like myself to participate in a wide range of volunteer experiences. In my case, I am with a wildlife research team to collect big cat data at Karongwe Game Reserve. The GVI base here at Karongwe monitors the big cats species, collects data on them, and helps maintain the reserve as a whole. It’s very busy with lots to take care of and do here at the base camp. There are over seven countries represented here at the moment and there’s a diverse mix of personalities, but we all have something in common: a love for wildlife. 

Everyday is full of surprises, but here is the short version of daily life here:

The team goes out on two 3.5 hour drives each day. One in the morning and the other in the evening. The purpose of these drives is to go out and find the big cats on the reserve, monitor them, collect data on them, and then later plug that data into the base computer. The primary focus with the research drives is to find a group of three male cheetahs. It’s currently these three brothers that are the first thing we need to go and find each drive. Once we reach a presumed location, a volunteer sets up the telem and tries to find a signal. One of the male cheetahs has an implanted tracker inside him so we can generally find him using telemetry. On a good day, we’ll stop a few times, test the telem, and then finally hear a beep from the telem indicating which direction the cheetahs are from us. 

It’s about a 50-50 chance we’ll actually end of seeing the cheetahs on drive. When we do find them, it’s time for data collection. We GPS their location and answer the main research questions. Where are they located? How full are their stomachs? Do they have a kill to feed on? What species are they feeding on? Are they mobile? Other notes? All of these notes are later imputed into a huge database for further research. Once this primary data is collected, the team then goes out to do the same thing for a pride of lions, and if time allows after that, the herd of elephant on the reserve. Aside from the research, some other duties as a volunteer include cleaning the base, reserve work, cooking for staff, and data entry. 

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I have gained a much better understanding of my theme and challenge from this experience. The biggest takeaway related to sustainability is the controversy around certain species protection in South Africa. The biggest topics include elephant culling, rhino dehorning, and game hunting and how these issues have positive and negative effects on sustaining the bush ecosystem in South Africa.

This experience has positively benefited my leadership skills. Everything we do is a team effort here at base. It is this collaboration that allows us to conduct the large scope of research we do and maintain a healthy base camp. 

The best part of this experience is meeting a group of extraordinary individuals. Each volunteer, intern, and staff members shares a passion for wildlife and a wanderlust for the world. What makes us different is our backgrounds. Where we’re from, what lead us to GVI, and our strengths and skills that contribute to life on base. It has been amazing representing the US and more specifically Montana here with GVI. 

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This experience would not have been possible with the Franke Global Leadership Initiative at the University of Montana. I can’t express enough how grateful I am for this opportunity! 

Blog Post by Jeff Hyer

 

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