Africa In My Blood – What I learned

I wanted to make a post especially for summarizing what I learned while I was in Africa. I want to share these things because I think they are important, but they are also my most cherished souvenir. I learned practical things but also some things about myself. If I was to break it up I would have to say that the first two weeks I learned a lot of important things about Africa that I had misconceptions about before. But over the second two weeks I learned more about myself.

I learned a lot about conservation in Africa while I was in Masebe. Issues there are all pretty complicated because of a couple of reasons; both the humans and the wildlife demand a lot of space and don’t necessarily get along very well and a lot of the world has opinions about what should be done regardless of whether the information they have is correct.

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A lioness which was in the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center, one of the places that will come in and remove problem animals from areas where human/wildlife conflicts arise.

Many of the communities that have to deal with the wildlife on a daily basis are very poor and many of them need livestock or land to make a living and feed their families. Conflict arises when the wildlife in the area start interfering with their ability to make a living through those means. For example, if there is a leopard in the area and it has started to kill their livestock, in order to keep their family from starving these people have no choice but to trap or hunt that leopard, whether or not it’s legal. One way they can fix this issue is by putting up fences. In my experience with fences in Montana they are mostly a problem because it creates barriers in migration routes. In Africa this is a problem as well, but there are other benefits to the fences that may outweigh the negatives. Fences in this environment serve many purposes and in most people’s eyes they see them as a good thing. Fences keep the wildlife out of communities, and with all the dangerous wildlife this is a pretty important function, they also help keep people out of wildlife spaces, especially in the case of poachers. The fences are also quite fortified compared to fences I was used to and it’s because they are meant to be more permanent barriers than the fences we have in Montana.

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A bull elephant we saw in Kruger National Park

Although the fences can fix issues for communities, such as elephants eating all their crops or lions eating their livestock, they also create issues for a lot of wildlife in the process. How many elephants do you think there are in Kruger right now? 1000? 100? Too few? There are over 20,000 elephants in Kruger National Park today, which is triple the carrying capacity, or how many elephants Kruger can sustainably hold. (http://www.krugerpark.co.za/krugerpark-times-23-elephant-numbers-18006.html). I was shocked to find this out, I was pretty confident that African elephants were having a hard time. The media has falsely advertised the problem of African elephants, there aren’t too few, there are way too many. The real problem is what to do with these animals. Part of the reason that they are so over populated is because they are confined to one space thanks to fences. There are many advocates of tearing down fences to connect national parks all over Africa. There are other projects in place to help control their population like the implementation of contraceptives for female elephants. Then of course there’s the thing no one wants to talk about, culling. The fact of the matter is that culling may be the only way to bide enough time right now to come up with a better solution before the environment is totally altered by the over population, but officials are afraid to make that decision because the media would explode with negativity if they did. People would be irate – how could they kill these animals in cold blood?

Each solution comes with severe pros and cons. I saw the effects of these animals first hand while I was in Kruger. Elephants are destructive, the eat by knocking down trees to get to the fruit and leaves at the top. We drove through some spaces that were nothing but pushed over trees. The trunks were torn and the tree was dead. I don’t envy the person who is in the position to have to make this decision right now. If you take down fences you risk poaching and conflict with people, if you choose contraceptives you are going to have to spend a lot of time and money as it isn’t easy to administer a drug to a four ton animal, and if you choose culling you will have to face an onslaught of angry people who don’t really understand the issue. I don’t know what the right answer is, but it’s something I know I will be thinking about for a long time.

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“Africa In My Blood” is actually the title of a book I read a few years ago. It was an autobiography written in letters about Jane Goodall, one of my biggest idols. In one of the first letters she wrote home after she arrive in Africa for the beginning of her incredible work with chimpanzees she wrote, “…on the whole I am living in the Africa I have always longed for, always felt stirring in my blood.” This quote resonated in me when I read the book, but it held a whole new and deeper meaning for me while I was in Africa myself. I felt a strong calling there that I haven’t felt before, and I am certain I will be back one day. I also learned that I actually do love to travel, given this was my first trip out of the country I wasn’t sure how I would take to it. I learned that I love the sky from caving and I also love the ground from scuba diving (seasickness). I learned that I can be adventurous and I can do lots of amazing things if I just go for it. I also learned how to travel responsibly and that it’s important to look into the organizations you travel with if you want to make a positive impact in a new place. I inadvertently made a good decision with ISV, they are very environmentally conscious and all of the activities we did, especially those that involved interacting with animals, were done with the utmost respect for the culture and the environment.

This trip was just incredibly enriching and it both filled and fueled a need to see the world and do good in every aspect of my life. I can’t wait to go on my next trip where ever that may be and I know I will carry the lessons I learned from this trip with me for the rest of my life.

Africa In My Blood – The School and Adventure

As part of the volunteer work we had the opportunity to visit a local school and help with environmental education there. We taught the kids about different animals, the circle of life, water, pollution, poaching and the food chain overIMG_2506 the course of six days. The kids were kind of shy at first but by the end they were more comfortable with us and they seemed really excited to see us when we came. The lesson would be in two parts with a snack break in the middle when we could play games with them and take photos (they loved to have their picture taken). By the time of the last lesson they waited for us outside the classroom to give us hugs while we straightened up the classroom. It felt really good to have a direct impact on these kids, and even if they forget all of the details of the lessons at the very least most of them will have a positive memory associated with the themes. Norman (the leader of this part of the project) seemed really happy with how the lessons went and had a positive outlook that we made a difference in at least a few of their lives. This work was admittedly the work I looked forward to the least, but in a lot of ways it was the most rewarding and I enjoyed it a lot.

That was the first two weeks. We left Masebe emotionally having made pretty IMG_3100-EDITclose relationships with the people who had been mentoring us for the last two weeks to head on out adventure tour which was the second part of the month long trip with ISV. The adventure tour promised to be incredible, and it definitely lived up to that promise. We first went to a place called Glen Afric which was a great starting point. We got to meet some of their resident animals including leopards, lions, a hyena, zebra, ostrich, hippos, tigers and cheetahs. Then the next day we got to meet three of the elephants that live in the area; there was a mother named Three, and two teenagers named Hannah and Margie, one of which she adopted. We got to touch them and hug them. It was such a powerful experience I can’t really put it into words. That day we also got to visit a market and a cultural village where I tried ostrich and crocodile. Glen Afric was also a really neat place in part because at night you could hear their lions and hyena while you were in bed. Overall it was a pretty magical start to our tour.

IMG_3622-EDIT-FBThe next place we went to was just outside of Kruger National Park. Kruger is one of the biggest national parks in Africa with 7,500 square miles of area. We spent a whole day in Kruger and saw a ton of wildlife. I felt like we were pretty lucky too, we saw four of the big five (lions, water buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, but not leopard), four individual cheetahs, one of the rarest birds a southern ground hornbill, a carcass frenzy and a ton more. This was one of the parts of the trip that I was looking forward to the most and it totally lived up to my expectations. It was a really incredible day.

After Kruger we went to the base of the Magaliesburg mountains in the
Drakensburg escarpment. There we got to try out kloofing (the South African name for cliff jumping). This was a ton of fun and such an adrenaline rush. Fortunately I don’t have a fear of heights, but this was one of the more challenging activities for those who did have a fear of heights. We had to climb up some loose rocks, stand on top of waterfalls (and under some) and navigate some pretty rickety ladders. The highest jump we did was 11 meters which turns out to be about 36 feet. It was a long, long way to fall. Long enough that you could contemplate just when you would actually hit the water. It was a blast though and we all had a lot of fun. There we also visited a wildlife rehabilitation center called Moholoholo. We got to touch a baby honey badger and feed vultures there. We also learned about how important it is that the people have some kind of relationship with their environment.

Our penultimate stop was in Swaziland (new country!). We visited a candle making factory where we got to see some beautiful candles made by hand. We also got to go horseback riding, mountain bike riding, visit and orphanage and go caving. The orphanage was also next to a cultural village and we got to meet the chief (who was a woman). We got to do a little bit of Swazi cultural dance and singing before we went over to hand out food we donated to the orphans. It was a really humbling experience. These kids were so happy but they were so excited to have apples, oranges and bananas. We all left there feeling like we could all do with a whole lot less and give a whole lot more. Caving was one of the harder activities for me. It was really fun and I felt really proud of myself for doing it all even though it was a challenge. I also got to hold a spider that only lives in that one cave in the whole world. As hard as it was it was a lot of fun and we all made it through by encouraging one another and keeping a positive attitude.

Our last stop was in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique, and we could not ask for a more perfect ending to a perfect trip. As soon as we got to the border between South Africa and Mozambique we switched vehicles from our gigantic bus to smaller cars that would navigate the sand roads that we took to Ponta do Ouro, a tiny little beach town right on the coast. All of the roads were just sand in the area of Mozambique that we were in. In Ponta do Ouro (tip of gold) we left our shoes in the room and spent the whole time on the beach doing things like learning to surf, swimming with wild dolphins, and scuba diving. Our group had one of the most incredible dolphin encounters of the year if not in the history of ISV. We were within arm’s reach of three dolphins, one of which was a baby, and they were amid a foraging lesson with a struggling little puffer fish (which was alive for most of the time we were there). We got to be with them for almost an hour, and at some point another dolphin showed up and we even saw a black tip shark (which was probably not 5 meters away from me). Of all of the activities caving and scuba diving were the most difficult for me. Scuba diving was hard mentally because I was really worried I was going to get water in my mask and just breathing underwater was hard to get used to. I had to keep telling myself that I was okay and I could breath. It was really beautiful though and I was really glad that I stuck it out. The whole trip was really special and Mozambique was an exceptional end to our trip.

Africa In My Blood – Arrival and Volunteering

I left Missoula in the afternoon, which gave me a whole day to feel anxious as I began the biggest adventure of my life. The first striking thing I experienced was the feeling of being totally alone in a new place. I felt empowered by this when I arrived in Salt Lake City. My first flight was short and there weren’t many people on it, but my second flight from Salt Lake to New York was much more crowded and uncomfortable. Once I got to New York I met most of the group that I would be spending the next month with while we waited for the really long flight across the Atlantic. While I was sitting there starting to get to know everyone I felt even more excited as I was just one more flight away from a place I had dreamed of my whole life; Africa!

Once we arrived in Johannesburg we found the rest of our group and our project leader, Leti. Leti was from International Student Volunteers (ISV, the organization I travelled with) and was there to guide us through our service project portion of our trip. (ISV was fantastic, I highly recommend them for an educational, culturally rich, and safe way to travel and make a positive impact in another country. Here’s a link to their website: http://www.isvolunteers.org/). After a somewhat lengthy bus ride (however it was much more comfortable than the plane) we arrived to our accommodations, Telekishi Cultural Village, where we stayed for the duration of our volunteer project. We had a tour of camp and learned about what was expected of us for the next two weeks (cooking, cleaning, and stuff of that sort).

An African Hoepoe, a bird we heard and saw on the reserve while doing bird point counts.

This is the leave of a thorny tree called sickle bush or Dichrostachys cinerea, we had to measure these for the habitat assessments.

The first day was an orientation which involved some bush survival and a run down on the type of data we would be collecting as our volunteer work. We were working with a group called Wilderness and Ecological Investments (WEI) and we would be doing bird point counts and habitat assessments in the Masebe Nature Reserve. The purpose of these projects was to assess the health of different areas in the reserve to help make management decisions with regard to where they keep the wildlife. The bird point counts help by giving an idea about what species are living where in the reserve and how many birds there are. Birds are great bio-indicators of the health of an ecosystem so this helps with determining if the space is being over used. It’s also useful in finding out migratory habits of some of the birds that use the reserve during the year. The habitat assessments were basically a measure of how much vegetation there was. If those measurements are compared from year to year it is possible to find out how much the area is being used by the wildlife.

I really enjoyed the work we were doing in Masebe. I was so pleased that we got to do that project because it is really what I want to do with my life and I can relate it directly to experience I have gained at home in Montana. For instance, earlier this summer I was working on a different bird project concerning Lewis’s woodpeckers, so it was a lot of fun for me to learn some new birds while I was on project. I also learned a ton of  tree species. I found the application of the information we were collecting to be interesting as well. Although it was cold in the morning (I know, I went to Africa and was cold, how about that?) I thought it was well worth it because we saw a lot of wildlife (zebra, wildebeest, impala, baboons, monkeys, even giraffe). We also helped with some other projects, like community outreach and invasive removal. It felt great to make such a positive impact in such a short amount of time. I will cherish every moment of this part of the trip for the rest of my life. I gained valuable experience that will be useful later on in my career as well.

In addition to data collection we helped out with some other project around the reserve as well including invasive species removal, thinning of other problem plants, and game drives. We specifically pulled an invasive called lantana which had originally overtaken a little marshy area. Thanks to removal efforts though it is much more under control now and the area is regaining its health. The other problem plant we thinned was the sickle bush (pictured above). It has some really long thorns and when it grows on the sides of roads it can pop tires, so we just cut some of the tree away from the road. There was also a community outreach aspect which I will talk about in another post.