FdSc Animal Management and Applied Science Degree graduate, Charlie Gulliford travelled to Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa at the beginning of April 2020 to take part in 4 weeks of conservation work.
Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, she has been on the reserve ever since doing 3 extra months of volunteering. Charlie has been living and working on the reserve, sharing her back garden with with Vervet Monkeys and Baboons, a resident Inyala and even the occasional lion and wild dog!
Read below all about her exciting experience working telemetry equipment in the reserve’s monitoring vehicle looking for endangered and priority species and catch up with her BBC South Today Interview HERE (18.05 – 22.05)
Charlie’s Student Story
I first volunteered with Wildlife ACT in March 2019 as part of my second-year work experience module. A non-governmental organisation, Wildlife ACT provide wildlife monitoring services and state of the art animal tracking and anti-poaching equipment at no charge to several reserves across KwaZulu-Natal, including Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) – the oldest reserve on the continent and the birthplace of African wildlife conservation.
I returned in March 2020 as a trainee on their four-week Endangered and Priority Species Conservation and Habitat Management Course, a programme designed to expose students to the many facets of South African wildlife conservation and game reserve management. The course provides both theoretical and practical experience of species monitoring, data collection and research, wildlife management, and ecological principles, combining classroom-based teaching and discussions with hands-on experience in the field.
The first two weeks covered the different methods of wildlife monitoring (such as telemetry and camera trapping), principles of ethology, and data collection. Alongside lectures we joined the monitoring team out in the reserve, putting our theory lessons into practice and experiencing the role of a wildlife monitor first-hand. During our second week we also looked at tracking and spoor, and how to read the many types of environmental signs which help to paint a picture of an animal’s presence in an area. The importance of this skill would make itself apparent as the weeks went on, and quickly became an exciting addition to every game drive. In week three we learnt about conservation and habitat management. This was an extensive topic, looking at the many aspects of reserve management including soil erosion, bush encroachment and alien vegetation control, vegetation surveys and game counts, and the necessity of utilising fire as a management tool. Again, the content studied in class translated easily into our practical tasks, and I was able to cement this knowledge while in the field.
Unfortunately, it was around this time that the Covid-19 pandemic started to severely impact the world and my flights home were cancelled. During this time of upheaval and uncertainty, the Wildlife ACT team were a true lifeline, and we devised a plan that I would continue working with the HiP teams at the end of my course until the time came for me to return home – whenever that would be. A vital source of Wildlife ACT’s funding comes from paying volunteers; people of all ages and backgrounds from around the world travel to KwaZulu-Natal to support the teams on the ground in their day to day efforts monitoring the endangered and priority species and ensure the animals’ safety. With international travel now restricted, both the physical and financial support of these volunteers is gone, and in addition to many other money-saving sacrifices, staff have taken on reduced salaries so that Wildlife ACT can weather the storm for as long as possible.
While the world found ways to move life online, so too did Wildlife ACT. It was here that I was given the opportunity to help in the setup of one of their new projects, in addition to taking on the jobs that would normally be spread out amongst a larger team. Our training course continued, delving into the principles, methods and requirements of game capture and relocations. This broad subject also gave us a deeper understanding of the use of bomas and the many aspects of their management; a boma is a large enclosure used to temporarily house animals in very specific circumstances, such as habituating an animal to a new area after a relocation procedure or bonding a new group of animals to ensure the gene pool remains diverse and healthy within a population. We had spent some time in the previous weeks preparing the Hluhluwe boma for any future residents, but it was in the weeks to follow down in the iMfolozi section of the park where we would quickly become well versed in boma management.
The final weeks’ worth of course content broached the difficult subject of illegal wildlife trade and the many unfortunate factors which fuel wildlife crime. While there was little practical work we could do in this regard – my insurance didn’t exactly cover a night out on the reserve with APU – this was a good opportunity for us to watch several documentaries and films regarding the international demands for animal products including the award winning Stroop and Blood Lions. Rhino horn, lion bones, pangolin and vulture body parts, and elephant ivory are some of the best known trafficked animal parts, however we were able look more in depth into each level of organised wildlife crime, and the myriad of challenges they each presented. On a more positive topic, we concluded with community engagement and were lucky enough to listen to a talk provided by HiP’s own community liaison regarding the working relationships between HiP and its surrounding communities.
Upon completing the course we spent a few more weeks in the Hluhluwe section of the park. While we could not go on drives at this point due to the lockdown restrictions, we were able to practice our camera trap set ups in the close vicinity (eventually capturing photos of a leopard!) and took our telemetry training a step further by seeking out hidden collars on foot – a much needed skill for situations such as finding a darted animal in the field. Following this, we travelled down South to the iMfolozi side of the park, joining a fellow student currently interning with Wildlife ACT to assist the team in their work. Monitoring sessions were now permitted, albeit to only three a week to save on fuel costs, and daily boma checks were required for the newly bonded group of African painted dogs – the Mbulunga pack. During this time I was also able to observe and assist in the collaring procedure to fit a tracking collar onto a dog from another pack (the Sokhwezelas) named Ndoni. It was thought that she and her sister, Ciyana, may soon disperse from their natal pack and so steps were made to ensure that they could be located and monitored should this happen.
Our work continues, with each day bringing its own opportunities and challenges – fence issues, new arrivals, breakdowns and more. I can safely say that taking part in the course before working as a volunteer (as unplanned as the latter may have been) meant I was considerably more prepared for the work that would be required of me, and with a far deeper understanding of the many processes and factors of wildlife monitoring I have been able to contribute more to the team. While my future career plans may align more on the research side of the industry, having this hands-on and very real experience has given me invaluable insight and practice to support my career path. When we all look back and ask each other “where were you during the Corona pandemic?”, I can’t think of a more worthwhile place to have been.
In addition to fuel and vehicle maintenance, funding must be sourced to supply the high-tech animal tracking equipment. Most often in the form of tracking collars, the kits enable monitors to locate endangered animals if they are sick, injured or fall into a poaching snare. The reserves’ anti-poaching teams are already seeing an increase in break-ins; the lack of tourists to act as deterrents, coupled with the false information which touts rhino horn as a cure for Covid-19, is driving the international demand for rhino horn, with many other animals killed as by-catch, and the teams are working back-to-back shifts to try and protect these iconic species.