A tiny black face peers through the open gate, not daring to go out. A couple of minutes later, another furry body runs past – he is the first vervet monkey to step into a land of unknown mysteries, his new home. Soundlessly, other members of the troop follow, the juveniles first, the females and their babies last. Some climb the bridges of tree stumps that have been placed over the fence. Some prefer to walk through the gates of the enclosure, as if they know it was opened just for them. As they explore, they smell the air and climb the trees; they scan the horizon and mark their new territory, oblivious to the observers taking pictures. They are free, and this is all that matters.
As a wildlife journalist I have visited many wildlife sanctuaries. When I first arrived at Riverside Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (RWRC) in Phalaborwa, South Africa, I expected to meet people who cared about animals, and I was not disappointed. The owners of this 12ha primate rehabilitation facility, Primatologists Bob and Lynne Venter, are a delightful couple, and the 400 vervet monkeys and 96 chacma baboons they look after are spread out in several good-sized and exceptionally well-kept enclosures.
Bob and Lynne’s unlimited passion, and their vast amount of scientific (and legal) knowledge, means their work goes beyond providing a safe heaven for abused or injured wildlife. At the RWRC, the animals are not only brought back to health, they are reintroduced into their natural habitat.
It all started in 1992. Bob, who ran a construction company at the time, rescued a three-day-old vervet monkey from a farmer. The farmer had shot the mother and intended to smash the tiny creature against a wall when no one volunteered to keep it. As a reward, 14 charges were made against Bob for defending the animal.
Back then, South African law listed vervet monkeys and chacma baboons as vermin and pests. Interfering with a person in the process of killing any of these animals was a criminal offense. Bob was sent to court and asked to hand the baby monkey to the authorities who would no doubt kill it. Naturally, Bob refused.
On the day of his trial, Bob took the monkey with him. The magistrate and members of the court were not impressed, but after a lengthy trial, they were incapable of finding him guilty of any of the charges brought against him, ‘because I acted in a inexplicable fashion by saving this animal,’ Bob recalls with satisfaction. "It was the first time this happened in South Africa. That’s how it all started and what made me want to start a rehabilitation center for these animals."
In late 1994, his wife Lynne joined him to help run RWRC which grew over the years and was soon able to welcome vervet monkeys, chacma baboons, bush babies and other wildlife casualties. The operation increased in size after 2002 when the RWRC began receiving volunteers from every corner of the world, all of whom work around the clock cleaning the enclosures, preparing food for the animals, bottle-feeding babies and other such jobs.
The Venters have never stopped fighting for the rights of these animals and have studied primate ecology as well as South African law. After many attempts, they successfully helped establish the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) which became law in 2004, giving protection to all CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) listed animals. Vervet monkeys and chacma baboons have appeared on this listing since 1974.
"The first thing we wanted to do was to change the law, to give these animals proper protection," explains Bob. "The second was to create a facility where casualties could be brought for proper treatment, and thirdly, to reintroduce and release all our animals back into the wild. These animals predate on insects that are quite harmful to agriculture – they are also big pollinators. They eat seeds, and their digestive system assists the germination of the seeds when they drop it in their faeces. So why would we try to eradicate these animals that are crucial to our survival?"
As soon as an animal arrives at RWRC, it receives 24-hour attention and any necessary medical treatments. It is then placed in quarantine for 40 days where volunteers and staff monitor it. Once quarantine is over it is introduced to a larger enclosure with other babies or monkeys of various ages. Once this integration phase is successful the group is released into a natural enclosure sufficient in size to be exposed to natural predators occurring in the area such as martial eagle, giant eagle owl, spotted eagle owl and African rock pythons.
"Occasionally the primates get to see black-backed jackal and caracal outside of the rehabilitation enclosures and instinctively recognize them as danger," explains Bob. "Their instinct towards predators and other dangers, including humans, are honed by the given exposure. They demonstrate recognition of danger and predators with specific alarm calls and how they react in relation to such threats, which are passed on to the young and other members to follow the fight or flight behavioural response." Once a troop of monkeys has become stable and self-sufficient, they are moved to a specifically chosen release site where they will be tolerated and not hunted, and it is here that they regain their freedom.
The process of reintroduction into the wild is lengthy and involves discipline and hard work. This I came to realise during my three month stay at Riverside. We started capturing 31 vervet monkeys in their semi-wild enclosure in mid July 2014 to be released in a temporary 51m x 51m enclosure erected at Wydehoek, a beautiful, hunting-free, private game reserve containing enough natural food and medicinal plants to sustain the animals for many years.
Placing a temporary enclosure at the release site is a fundamental step that the majority of other so-called rehabilitation centers tend to ignore. "One cannot simply set animals free where they can disperse in all directions and end up dead or injured or starve to death", Bob explains. "Successful reintroduction, or release, depends on these animals being capable of defending themselves, being able to populate their species, identify predators, know whether to fight or flight. They must also have developed a fear for humans, find their own food and be able to distinguish plants for their nutritional and medicinal properties."
Two weeks after the animals arrived at the Wydehoek site (which, Venter estimates, is enough time for the animals to have established scented markings and recognise features of the environment) the electrified fence was deactivated, log and branch bridges were placed over the fence, and the gates were opened.
It was an emotional moment as we all watched the monkeys taste their newfound freedom. "I don’t have words for it anymore," says Lynne Venter. "It really makes me happy and proud that these monkeys are going back to being wild. It reminds me of everything I’ve given up to do this, and why it is worthwhile."
To date, the Venter’s have successfully rehabilitated and released 19 troops of vervet monkeys – more than 600 individuals – and one troop of 24 chacma baboons. Another troop of baboons – the second to be released into the wild – will be set free this year. Ten years on, these animals will still be monitored in the wild in order to learn about their progress and improve rehabilitation methods.
With the growing public awareness of the plight of primates and other wildlife species, it is vital that programs like these are maintained to cope with future casualties. However, sadness fills Bob’s eyes as he tells me about the threats that hang over their operation. When the new South African government came into effect in 1994, it was decided that certain land must be returned to claimants in terms of the land reform act. In 2005, the RWRC’s land was claimed. At the time the government compensated farmers and landowners for their losses, but because certain tribes disagreed on who should get the Venter’s land, no decision was taken. While they were able to stay longer on their property, it also means that, should they lose their property now, they will not be compensated. The new claimants said they would use the enclosures for poultry farming, and they have refused the Venters request to rent the property and/or stay on the land. Bob adds that a dam will soon be built on a river close to RWRC, flooding 50% of the land, including three of their enclosures and their volunteer accommodations. "We will have to remove the animals. We don’t know where we will go. That’s why we don’t sleep." Meanwhile they continue to rehabilitate as many animals as possible for as long as they can.
To assist Riverside Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre you can donate on PayPal to the following account: firstname.lastname@example.org RWRC is registered with South African government as a welfare organization. Donations go towards the rehabilitation and reintroduction programmes.
Mokolodi Nature Reserve, situated south of Gaberone, the capital of Botswana, is home to a wealth of animal species and is working hard to preserve the local flora and fauna through environmental education amongst local children and tourists who come to visit the park. Many large mammals, including white rhinos, have found a safe haven, and more work is constantly being done to ensure these animals continue to thrive.
I arrived at Mokolodi Nature Reserve, a beautiful 12,355 acres piece of wilderness, on a chilling Monday evening. It had been raining a lot over the whole of Botswana and I was glad to find refuge in the cozy volunteer house where the park manager, Ian Johnson, had arranged for my friend, Janaina Matazzaro, a professional wildlife photographer originally from Brazil, and me, to stay.
We set out early the next morning on a "walk patrol" in the dense, green bush along the fence of the reserve. Glen Geeves, Mokolodi Conservation manager, explained to us that he and other members of his department did this a couple of times a week to tthat the fence isn't damaged or that animals have not been injured. Every so often, they would come across snares put up by local people hoping to catch small game such as warthog or impalas for food.
Their job includes removing any traps and fill up holes dug by animals or people on the way. For a couple of hours, we walked up and down steep hills and through the park. We saw plenty of impalas and kudus, followed a crocodile's tracks to the river and were surprised by a dozen giraffes, which, inquisitive and curious as they are, had come to check up on us.
Mokolodi is home to no less than 50 species of large mammals, including white rhinos, listed as endangered, and more than 300 species of birds. It was established in 1994 as a charity with a specific goal: “to get involved with conservation within Botswana and also to increase environmental education awareness for children within the country”, Ian Johnson says.
Many activities are possible in the reserve, including game drives, bike trekking, bush walking and rhino and giraffe tracking. Mokolodi also has a permanent wildlife sanctuary and rehabilitation center where several species such as vultures, owls, vervet monkeys, baboons, eagles, snakes and tortoises, are being cared for all their lives or until they can be released back into the wild.
“There are two main goals to Mokolodi: education and conservation”, Glen Geeves explains. “Education through the education center where we mainly educate children (…) to teach the future generation on why conservation is important. Guest also get to learn about what we do through the number of activities we offer.”
While Mokolodi is still growing, it already welcomes between 8000 and 10 000 children from all over the country every year. “It’s definitely the most successful operation in Botswana and I think we do have a positive influence on children about environmental education. Historically we focused on young children, but we’re slowly trying to expend that to high school children and also universities”, Ian enthuses.
As mentioned earlier, one of the main focus of Mokolodi is the protection and rehabilitation of the endangered White Rhino. I was able to take a very close look at those magnificent animals when I went "rhino tracking" one morning. The weather was not on our side, it was drizzling and rather cold. Our guide said rhinos are usually harder to track during the rainy or wet season as they will stay close to water to cool off on sunny days and stay in the hidden on overcast days.
However I was particularly lucky since after less than an hour driving on the rocky road we came across very fresh tracks. So fresh were they that we just soon came upon them. Two rhinos, a pregnant female and her daughter, were resting under a tree, almost on the road. At first, they were startled and got up but they did not run away. As we came closer, the mother turned her huge snout and pointy ears towards us but did not seem aggressive or scared and I was able to take some amazing pictures.
Twenty years ago rhinos were extinct in Botswana but a group of leading organizations, including Mokolodi, decided to start breeding the animals to reintroduce them locally. “Over the years we have bred and released or transferred about 25 rhinos all over the country”, Ian says. Presently, there are five white rhinos in Mokolodi, including one dominant male and one sub adult male.
While they haven’t had any incident so far, poaching remains a real threat to the rhinos in the park because Mokolodi is situated less than 4km from the South African border. “Poachers could fly in and fly out before we even have the chance to react", Ian adds. Poaching of bush meat is also a problem, even in the park. Hence, staff in Mokolodi conducts many fence patrols, night patrols, walk patrols and bike patrols to “show people that we’re out and we’re watching, so they know that we’re there”.
Mokolodi tries to to rehabilitate the park's land, which was initially cattle farm and was heavily overgrazed. They also educate the young generation. Many children who have come through Mokolodi at a young age have even ended up with conservation positions and one of them has even become the reserve’s deputy manager. And they are getting more and more chldren every year. “I think Mokolodi is doing good despite all the different challenges we face (…)," Ian says.
At the moment, without any external funding , the reserve is sustaining itself. It also gets two sources of external funding – one is from the UK and they help disadvantage children to come into the reserve – while the other comes in the form of a grant from the Global Environmental Fund to tackle erosion and bush encroachment.
Securing a future for the rhinos - words: Mahina Perrot, photographs: Janaina Matarazzo
“Oh, look!” my friend exclaims as she kills the car engine. I turn my head slowly to my left and gasp. Less than three meters from the car are four huge white rhinos, their imposing horns like swords ready to thrust at any potential enemy. Yet these gigantic creatures simply stare at us for a full two minutes before apparently deciding we are not a threat and slowly moving forward to get a drink from a puddle of water that has formed on the road after the previous night’s rain.
We are elated by the sight and talk in whispers. After a while, three of them start walking right in front of the car, across the road. We cannot move nor can we take our eyes off them. Suddenly the fourth rhino, which had been grazing behind a tall tree, comes out of hiding. We catch our breath as it lets out a loud grunt, clearly challenging us.
Without warning, the massive animal, weighting well over 1500 kg, charges at us. All I see is its horn, which could easily slice through the door, and it is coming right at me! Just millimeters from the car the rhino stops. Still groaning angrily it moves towards the front of the car, the edge of its sturdy blade, made up of tightly massed filaments similar to hair, barely missing the car tire. The mock charge is over and the rhino grumpily saunters off and joins its companions.
They remain just three metres form the car, chomping grass as if nothing happened. Our hearts trumpeting in our chests, we look at each other in awe. We cannot stop taking about what has taken place on the way back to Khama Rhino Sanctuary camp.
This encounter was a powerful reminder that the rhinos are the kings of this particular sanctuary, a land dedicated to the preservation of this species. The long-term goal of the sanctuary is to let the rhinos safely breed within its borders and re-introduce them into their natural wild habitats.
After a week in this beautiful, semi-wild reserve, I leave with a hopeful heart. It is the work of people such as those who are working in Mokolodi that can really make a difference. I certainly recommend this sanctuary to anyone who travels through Botswana and is looking for a unique African adventure while learning about the environment as well as the local community.
More than 38 white rhinos and three black rhinos have found refuge at Khama Rhino Sanctuary which was officially established in 1993, when the Ngwato Land Board allocated the land around Serwe Pan to the sanctuary in the trust of a group of local people. “The mission started when we realised rhinos were getting finished in the wild. We set up the trust with the Department of Wildlife, and the main purpose was to save those animals”, Moremi Tjibae, the park manager, explains. “The president of the country is the patron of our trust.”
Covering approximately 4 300 hectares of Kalahari sandvelt, the sanctuary is a large grass-covered depression with several natural waterholes. The Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, with the help of Natal Parks Board, first started the sanctuary by trans-locating four rhinos from northern Botswana in 1993. These rhinos were placed in a large boma before being released into the park. The operation was successful and since then, all the rhinos that have been relocated to the sanctuary have settled and have been breeding. In fact, they have been doing so well at Khama Rhino Sanctuary that the government recently allocated them another 4 300 hectares of land.
The government is also coming up with some strategies, the manager, who has been working at Khama Rhino for 11 years and worked as a Department of Wildlife and National Park officer before, adds. “In ten years time, maybe there will be around 600 rhinos here. The population is growing.
This is the second largest place in Botswana where you find such a concentration of rhinos, we find them in the Moremi Game Reserve but many are sill being poached. You see, rhinos are very important. If they become extinct in Botswana, the country has failed to protect them. They just have to be protected”, he adds.
Thanks to their proximity to a Botswana Defence Force base, Khama Rhino Sanctuary has never had a problem with poaching, which remains an issue in most parts of the country. “This is a community-based initiative, initiated by the people themselves and they all surround the sanctuary so they take care of it. The fence also prevents people from coming in and also we patrol it all the time. And then the army is there”, he says.
According to the Botswana law, poachers can be fined up to 100 000 Pula and get 30 years imprisonment if they are caught hunting or poaching a rhino. “That’s the only animal that you get a really big sentence if you are caught hunting”, Tjibae enthuses. Tourists from all over the world come to see these rhinos.
The open pans in the north of the park is prime habitat for the white rhinos while black rhinos can be found in the more bushy areas further south. The park is also home to hundreds of wildebeest, zebra, warthog, giraffe, eland, hartebeest and other antelope, as well as over 230 species of birds. While big cats such as leopards and cheetahs also make their home at Khama. The sanctuary’s roads are well maintained to make them suitable for self-drive game viewing.
As I leave Khama Rhino Sanctuary, I feel very privileged to have encountered this majestic and almost prehistoric creature in a place where they can roam freely, even though more still needs to be done to protect these animals from human’s greedy and inconsiderate activities.
The plains adjacent to the Boteti River, which flows into the Makgadikgadi salt pans, in Botswana, are home to some of the most amazing wildlife in Africa. Thousands of zebras and wildebeest make their way here each year between May and November to seek relief from the heat and re-hydrate their parched bodies. They mingle with kudus and impalas and also elephants, hippos and crocodiles.
Between 1993 and 1995, the river started drying up and the wildlife began to disappear. David Dugmore, owner of Meno A Kwena camp, relives the memory, “That’s when the conflicts between the farmers and the wildlife got really intense, to the point where we couldn’t bring clients here. There was too much death and destruction, overgrazing – snares were everywhere. We’d see lots of cows in the park, crossing the dry riverbed, so we saw a lot of living livestock but most of the wildlife was dead.” Animals were dying in huge numbers. In the 1990s, the population of wildebeest went from about 100 000 to less than 20 000. “It was horrible, it was a disaster. A major disaster.” Lions and other predators, on the other hand, were prowling over the land and succeeded where other animals died of thirst.
A 140 km long fence erected for the purpose of protecting the Makgadikgadi National Park eventually went up in 2001. For two years, the electrical fence worked well, but then elephants started breaking through and lions were chasing zebras into the fence and damaging it. As a result, cattle came into the national park and fell prey to predators. Seeing how desperate the animals were, David Dugmore built two waterholes for the wildlife. “Once you put water down you can’t stop because you create an ecosystem and if you suddenly stop for even an hour the elephants would start digging up pipes. Everything was so desperate we even had lions drinking at one end of the pool and the zebras at the other. Twelve meters apart, they just lost fear, they were too weak and desperate. I used to sit there and think: ‘I’ve created a monster’. Yet I never regretted that decision, because it was the right thing”, he adds.
Seven years later, in 2008, the river started flowing again. And the fence brought other problems.“The river arrived and the fence stopped working because they weren’t expecting the river to flood again, they hadn’t made arrangements to waterproof it and a lot of the fence went into the riverbed and got flooded out,” Dugmore says.
This year the Botswana government is talking about moving the fence which at present prevents wildlife from accessing the river in all but two distinct places – a decision which David Dugmore approves and which he says will benefit everyone in the area including the wildlife. Although this has not been officially announced, Dugmore has heard rumors that the government is thinking of moving the whole fence to the main road. “This is an ideal situation. If the government can do this, great. The boundary of the national park is the middle of the river but you can’t build a fence in the middle of the river, so that’s out of the question.” Dugmore explains.
This new fence would give wildlife access to water but also to the food growing on the riverbed. Maintenance work could also easily be done. “The fence can last forever but it does need daily maintenance. And it needs to work because it’s not just about protecting the national park, it’s also protecting the beef industry from foot and mouth disease, which is very important to this country”, he says.
For years now, David Dugmore has been taking his clients on conservation safaris, to help fix the fence where it has been damaged. Visitors also get to help put up water pumps and can see first-hand the work Dugmore is doing to help the animals survive. “What we’ve done is to use tourism to get sufficient resources to help the wildlife”, he says.“But first of all you have to get the community on your side and then you can carry on with tourism for conservation”, he insists.
Prior to fences and the drying up of the Boteti in the early 90s there were numerous species of particular antelope such as impalas, roan antelope, bushbuck, lechwe, waterbuck, that existed naturally and are now no longer in the area. Through their Water for Life projects, Meno A Kwena aims to re-introduce some or all of these species to the Boteti River area. “Not only does this project create a market for wildlife species’ re-introduction back into former natural habitats, it helps to stimulate and recreate natural ecosystems. This initiative solves predator/livestock conflicts through a reduction in predator dependence on cattle and other domestic animals when the zebra migrate from the Boteti River for their wet season breeding range in the salt pans a hundred kilometres away,” David Dugmore enthuses.
“Conservation safaris are another way, I believe, to maximize tourism benefits beyond conventional tourism. It’s another version of tourism that increases awareness and generates income that goes directly to community involvement and wildlife conservation. The idea is that investors don’t have to rely on conventional tourism income to put back into the environment. While at the same time it opens up more feasible safari opportunities to people who cannot afford the high conventional safari tourism expenses. It’s a win/win for everyone,” Dugmore concludes.
Co-existence between cheetah and farmers - By Mahina Perrot
Cheetah Conservation Botswana (CCB), situated among farmlands in the Ghanzi area, has been studying and working to assure a secure future for the nation’s cheetah.
The population of wild cheetah has dropped by a staggering 90% over the last century alone. These fast but smaller predators often do not do well in protected areas like national parks, where they compete with larger predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas. Often driven out of such areas and onto nearby marginal lands or farmlands, cheetah may then face more threats from livestock farmers and poachers.
Over the last few years conflicts between farmers and predators, such as the cheetah, seem to be decreasing in Botswana thanks to efforts of organisations like Cheetah Conservation Botswana. However the animals’ habitat continues to shrink due to human activity and more solutions are needed. “Today, only 10 to 12 000 of the 100 000 cheetah which were estimated to roam throughout Africa remain and now live in isolated populations scattered throughout the continent”, says Rick McKenna, CCB’s Ghanzi camp and Research coordinator.
00 of those reside in Namibia and 2 000 in Botswana. So what happens in Botswana is extraordinarily important for the future of these cats”, he adds. The rest are scattered throughout Southern and Eastern Africa, mostly in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, and a few can be found in in the northern parts of the continent. Although 100 years ago, their range continued into the Arabian peninsula and as far as India, today, the only place outside Africa where wild cheetahs are documented is in Iran, where fewer than 100 individuals are thought to remain.
Cheetah Conservation Botswana has been trying to combat conflict issues between predators and the community by combining community outreach supported with education and research. CCB thus helps assist farmers identify which predators are causing problems on their farms by implementing predator-friendly and cost-effective management tools to help protect livestock from predation. In fact, some farmers believe that every cheetah or other predator is a livestock killer. But research has found that most problem animals are physically restricted in some ways (crippled or injured) or are old and can’t hunt properly. Sometimes the calves are left alone or injured livestock remain behind the herd, which can also attract the attention of predators. “So we try to teach farmers to keep those kinds of animals safe, by kraaling it at night, for example, and we try to promote better herd health”, Jane Horgan, one of CCB’s research officers, says.
“The use of the dogs is also incredibly efficient. A recent survey we conducted with CCB found that 84% of farmers using dogs had a reduction in the amount of livestock they were loosing to predators. Farmers that were loosing 20 to 40 livestock a year to predators are now loosing none or maybe one or two. The average saving for farmers was about US$2 000 a year”. While guard dogs are quite popular with small stock farmers, their ability to guard cattle is not widely known or tested in Botswana. “So we’re currently trying to test the dogs with cattle at the moment to try and see how we can move forward with that because, obviously, cattle farming is a very big industry”, she adds.
Another part of Cheetah Conservation Botswana’s work includes educating the public about the vital role that predators play in the eco-system by conducting numerous school talks and activities and running bush camps. “As for children, they are the future and if you can capture them at a young age and interest them in topics such as conservation and make them understand how predators fit in the bigger picture, it’s something that may stick with them as they grow older”, Rick enthuses. CCB is also involved in extensive research such as diet analysis and behavioral studies of the cheetahs. “We found that only about 5% of the cheetah diets can be attributed to livestock species.
Generally speaking, cheetah and other predators prefer wild prey so when a predator is taking livestock it’s an opportunistic situation or there are some underlying problems driving the cheetah to livestock”, says the Research Coordinator. By using various technologies such as GPS and radio collars, CCB researchers have been able to accumulate a lot of data, but they are constantly trying to get a more complete picture of the cheetahs’ population. To better record the animals’ activities, CCB works regularly with local San trackers. They have incredible skills in deciphering the natural world through the tracks and signs left on the landscape by its wild inhabitants.
In April this year, they will be following on with a larger project in order to look at the behavior of cheetahs on farmlands. Researchers will trap and fit about 10 cheetahs with cameras, alongside the usual GPS and radio tracking devices. A lot of research has been conducted in protected game reserves, but cheetah behavior in the farmland areas, which are really “the strongholds of the cheetahs these days”, as Jane Horgan puts it, has not truly been studied in great detail. “No one really knows what’s going on. Often farmlands are quite bush-encroached, in a bushy environment you can’t see 20 to 30 meters ahead of you, so the National Geographic crittercam project is a great way to be able to find out what social groups there are, how cheetahs interact with each other, how they’re hunting and moving through the environment.
We are guessing that they’ve adapted their behaviors in many ways because of the bushy environment and the lack of larger competitors. But we really don’t know. This project is a great way to open our eyes to what’s happening”. The survival of the fastest land mammal in the world relies on the conservation of the few remaining populations found in Africa, CCB stresses. Many threats continue to contribute to a decline in numbers so promoting the coexistence between the livestock farmers and the cheetahs is really the key to their survival in the future. “Only by understanding cheetah ecology can we really hope to develop scientifically supportable strategies to help improve cheetah conservation,” Rick concludes.
Living the dream at Modisa Wildlife Project - By Mahina Perrot
Published in the Ngami Times, Botswana (01/2014)
I was raised on Tahiti, a small island in the south Pacific Ocean. One month ago I left there for Africa: my dream destination was finally becoming reality. I first headed to Maun, situated by the Okavango Delta in Botswana and from then on had someone drive me to Modisa Wildlife Project situated on Grassland Safari Lodge’s 10 000ha game reserve which is about 2 hours from the small township of Ghanzi.
It’s there that Mikkel Bille Leghart, 30, and Valentin Gruener, 26, decided two years ago to establish their camp and start their volunteer program. I had been in touch with Mikkel for several months already and it was time to get down there and see what these guys were really about. As I had anticipated I quickly fell in love with Africa. My experiences during my stay at Modisa have left me with an even bigger craving for adventure and for meeting more people involved in caring for their environment and its wildlife.
Modisa, meaning “guardian” in Setswana, the local language of Botswana, is an ambitious volunteer program with the long-term aim of rehabilitating wild lions. There, on William De Graaffs’ property, Mikkel and Val help care for previously rescued lions that could have been killed by local cattle farmers who do not want them preying on their livestock. They’re also educating the public on lion conservation efforts in Africa.
These two young men’s passion for their work is not only palpable but highly infectious. Val works in the bush and actively runs the volunteer program on-site while Mikkel takes care of the business and publicity side of Modisa, only a few weeks ago he made a speech at the famous TEDx conference, held in Copenhagen, in Denmark.
Having heard about them via friends or having stumbled across their website or Facebook page, people come to Modisa from the four corners of the world with a strong determination to help, a desire to make a difference. Whether from Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, Norway or South America, working under Val’s guidance in remarkably close knit teams, these individuals always manage to achieve an incredible amount in just a few short weeks.
I have, since I’ve arrived, met quite a few of them I am amazed at how many strong and long-lasting friendships form after such a short time in these tight-knit groups. There, in Botswana’s dry, sandy bush, through a mix of lectures and invaluable experience we learn how important the country’s own natural resources are. Everyone mucks in as there are many jobs to do: Volunteers go on hunts to help collect wildebeest, bulls or donkeys that Val has shot before butchering them and dividing the meat into equal portions for the predators; We also help with the feeding, throwing the huge meaty legs to hungry lions and depositing the intestines in front of overexcited wild dogs.
At the moment, we are busy helping to build an electric fence around a 200m x 250m enclosure into which four absolutely beautiful young lions, currently sitting in a smaller cage, will be relocated. When less occupied because a car has broken down or because it is too hot, we find other ways to improve the campsite or invent games before setting out again at the end of the day to enjoy the sunset and the sound of lions roaring.
Most of the activities are planned well in advance, but this is Africa as we know it – and as it should be - with its share of unpredictability too. For example one night, a few weeks ago, we all jumped in the land rover in a panic and drove off to put out bush fires: Lighting had slashed the sky that evening but the rains hadn’t come. The grass was so dry it had rapidly caught fire. We climbed over the outside fence and used branches to beat out the small fires that Val had lit on purpose, thus “fighting fire with fire”, he explained, as our horrified faces stared at the blazing flames creeping closer to the car. After a full night of this, everyone was only too happy to sleep in the next morning!
A week later, the rainy season officially started with the rain pouring down, in torrents, soaking our tents and clothing but also offering us a grand display of lightning bolts, discharging in the rumbling, threatening sky. The majority of those volunteers I came to know told me before they left the project that this was “the experience of a lifetime” and that it had exceeded their expectations by far. I totally agree. This is a project its founders can be proud of, a project with a huge potential and one which, which the right people supporting it, could help turn a small game reserve into a spectacular, pristine wilderness area.
“Lions should be wild and free”. That’s Valentin and Mikkel’s motto. So when they discovered a starving lion cub, abandoned by its mother, they were tempted to let nature take its course and leave it to die but, in the end, they decided to give her a second chance. They named the cub Sirga after a movie called Sirga the lioness which is about a young guy growing up with a lioness in the bush.
Twenty months later she has become a stunning young lioness. As we approach her sleek, powerful body can be perceived through the thin iron wires of her large enclosure. Val’s tent is set up adjoining the enclosure and as the young man opens the gate, she literally jumps into his arms for a massive lion hug.
We heard Valentin’s excited voice on the radio one morning. Sirga had made another kill. It’s her third and her natural instincts are clearly kicking in even though she’s been hand fed all her life. The other volunteers and I all got in the car and headed out to them.
I felt very privileged to witness Valentin and Sirga’s obvious trust and affection for each other as he used his knife to butcher the now dead eland and help her feed. The young lioness was very tired and hot after the hunt as the sun was almost directly above us by then. In the searing heat, Sirga ate the heart and some of the flesh directly out of Val’s hands.
He then went to the water container and she followed him, just like a proud youngster having accomplished something important. She settled beside him as he poured water over her face and body to cool her off, drank greedily from his cupped hands and then went back to the carcass so she could feed again.
At the moment of writing, she has killed five times and will soon reach sexual maturity so Val and Mikkel are looking for funding to get land so she can be released in a controlled environment. They might even introduce her to a young male when the right time comes.
These guys are doing a truly amazing job out there. Their main goal is the preservation of the animals and ecosystem in which they all live, whilst working with the local community so that the people also get the chance to live off the land and be a part of this project.
I recommend Modisa Wildlife Project to anyone who wants to experience the real Africa and lend a hand to a worthwhile cause.