Shamwari Conservation Experience

The Shamwari Conservation Experience through the eyes of a Volunteer

 Philip Hovgaard, a recent volunteer, shares his experiences and insight that succinctly describes what we strive to achieve with every volunteer that joins us at Shamwari Conservation Experience. 

The postmodern society is characterized by individualization. The demand for independence can be emotionally destabilizing as ancestors or religion no longer defines the postmodern individual. One may feel more isolated and struggle to meet social norm expectations with regards to career and educational choice. This polarized situation of larger demands and more personal isolation lays a premise for existentialistic problems, caused by uncertainty. Timeless values such as harmony with nature and close social bonds are therefore very important. These values provide existentialistic security and purpose.

Through a Shamwari volunteer experience social bonds are created and one gets to interact up close with natural environment. You leave Shamwari a happier person, more in harmony with yourself and your surroundings.

Your day as a volunteer at Shamwari starts at around 7:30 am, where you’ll meet the other volunteers for breakfast. If you are “on duty”, which you are once a week, it’s your job to pack and bring the lunch and coffee boxes to the vehicles. The job itself is not demanding, but it still leaves you with the feeling that you have contributed to the group. The workday starts at 8:00 am, where the vehicles leave the lodge and head to the bush. The first drive to the bush is destined to leave a mark on you. One can’t help but be astonished by the untamed wild and feel insignificant in a very pleasing manner. A day of work is normally structured in two halves, some physical labor in the AM (before lunch) and labor that requires your mind in the PM (after lunch). It could be fence patrol in the AM and elephant monitoring in the PM. This fixed day structure works extremely well as it provides the volunteer with a holistic conservation experience. A Shamwari volunteer is “on the ground”, involved in all the basic tasks that are crucial in managing a game reserve.

At first I found the AM’s manual tasks such as “road maintenance”, meaning that you clear the roads for branches with machetes and remove problematically large rocks, quite tedious. Likewise “ring barking”, a method to kill off invasive trees by debarking a tree circularly, could be seen as dull. But the immensely talented guides completely turned my perspective around. Our guide, JP, eloquently explained how important road maintenance is for the APU (anti poaching unit), because it enables the APU to move to potential danger zones much faster with no obstacles.

As for debarking the trees, the importance lies in removing invasive species that don’t contribute to the natural environment in Shamwari in a favorable way. In addition to this, lectures are held on the different species of grass that occur in the reserve. Again, this could seem trivial, but understanding the grass vegetation is crucial as it’s a prime indicator of the current state of the reserve, in terms of balancing the population of animals, making sure they are healthy, and keeping the soil fertile and sustainable for generations to come.

In the same way, our guide JP also made sure we understood that a fence, and thus a fence patrol, is fundamental for a game reserve. Without a functioning fence, poachers can conduct their criminal activity with ease, and the animals on the reserve risk trespassing into the surrounding farmers territory. A farmer will most likely have an incentive to put down a predator, like a leopard, if he estimates that his cattle are in danger. Modus vivendi has to be established. When doing the fence patrol the volunteers are equipped with a detector that measures the voltage in the concrete section of the fence. If the section is faulty the detector will showcase in which direction the fault occurs. 

Furthermore, it’s the volunteers’ task to fill up holes in the fence that have been dug by animals. While doing the fence patrol, one might fall upon small animal traps. Hunters place these traps in order to catch animals such as impala or warthog. Meat can be scarce. As explained by our guides, this of course is something you can sympathize with, but the problem is that endangered species might fall in those very traps. In addition to that, the hunters very rarely get to collect their catch on the big reserve, leaving the animals to die a painful death. These are some of the difficult problems a game reserve has to deal with on a daily basis, and it’s a great insight participating in solving these issues.

The best thing about these manual jobs is that the volunteers get briefings by the guides on the progression being made in the particular field that the volunteers worked with. Our guide JP for instance told the group that based on his reports and our findings, the fence team had now started the process of fixing the problems we determined. He made sure that we understood that we, the volunteers, are making a visible difference. That insurance fills your heart with pride and makes you stand up straight with your shoulders back.

Another inspiring aspect of the Shamwari volunteer experience is the community work that’s being done. Every week the volunteer group goes to the local village, Alicedale, to help with numerous tasks. These can include building new swings for the kids, painting their playground or teaching them basic computer skills on word, excel or powerpoint. Interacting with these less privileged kids is really humbling. They lack material wealth, but seem cheerful, are self reliant and well behaved. It’s not pleasant when you encounter five kids that are otherwise so playful, open minded and happy, fighting over and in the end sharing one single apple between them. Therefore it can be tough to navigate between playing with them and being stern, but the guides manage this task very skillfully. Other than being humanitarian enriching, the community work is also important conservation-wise. Shamwari wishes to involve the locals in conservation as they envision that through education, the locals will discover that there is an economic incentive for them to conserve the nature. Furthermore, education helps with anti-poaching when it’s being made clear that tourism is a valuable source of income, that is more profitable than selling illegal tusks or horns. Education is important. For instance the local cattle often graze on grass with lots of plastic thus creating the risk of plastic infested meat and milk.

The Born Free Foundation is a concrete example of an educational program that Shamwari offers to local kids. Here they get to familiarize and experience the behavior of animals that have been saved from lives in captivity. The kids get to see the positive positive influence humans can have on wildlife.

The second part of the day is focused on more intellectually satisfying tasks. This could be behavioral monitoring of Elephants, Rhino, Lion, etc. The observations are discussed and the knowledge is brought to the lecture room. Here, the guides will orchestrate a debate in which the volunteers share their thoughts. Specifically, a debate could be on how to deal with overpopulation of elephants in South Africa, and the decreasing population of elephants in most other areas. Is the best solution the pragmatic culling method, where whole elephant herds are killed in order to reduce the negative effects of overpopulation by elephants on the environment? Other options include contraception and translocation, both of which have positive and negative aspects. A debate is so much more qualified, having just monitored the animals’ behavior in the wild. Our observations on an elephant herd left us with follow-up dilemmas such as; does sterilization have influence on the matriarch family structure? Is translocation a cost-effective solution? Is culling unethical even if it is effective?

Other than monitoring the wildlife, the volunteers are also assigned to help on various university studies. This could be a project such as the hyena den project. In this case a university student wanted some data on Hyena dens, which we provided. The information requested were details such as if the den was active. This is determined by analyzing the den sight in order to get statistics. The volunteers put temperature loggers in the den and in nearby trees. They measured the dens GPS-location, the dens size and slope by using trigonometry, the surrounding vegetation and more.

The diversity of the day and tasks at hand allows everyone to contribute with something. Every individual is a valuable and necessary asset.

Dinner is served at the lodge at around 17:30 pm when you come back from a long day in the bush. The volunteers get together and talk about whatever experience the day might have brought. Most of the volunteers have travelled a long way from the comforts of home. They therefore have to find comfort in each other’s company. It goes without saying that the volunteers have a lot of fun creating lasting social bonds across cultures and backgrounds. After dinner the group, and also the guides, normally gathers around the fireplace. A lot of laughter and story sharing is the common denominator of these fun evenings. There are plenty of opportunities in the weekends for small getaways. The famous surfer city, J-bay, is a popular option if you wish to party, which the volunteers often do. You should visit the distinct mountain village, Hogsback, if you prefer a quiet and relaxing weekend. The staff at Shamwari is really service minded. Your room is cleaned while you are in the bush, and you can always rely on their help. The staff creates a lovely atmosphere at the lodge. This is exemplified in the very competent manager, Andre, who you’ll interact with the most. As he famously proclaims “I can be your father, your brother, your friend, your counselor and your manager”.

At Shamwari it becomes clear that things such as fences, grasses and community are fundamental components for conservation. When you add this to the lessons learned by animal observation and discussion, it allows you to appreciate that conservation is a very complex issue. Conservation demands lots of variables being taken into consideration.

It is based on these empirical notions that action on conservation has to be taken. As for the volunteer experience one is left with a holistic view of the workings of a reserve, thus making it a lot more fun and satisfying to watch the great animals in Shamwari. You appreciate seeing the animals in different way with this perspective in mind. Monitoring Elephants, Rhino, Lions and identifying them for research is truly remarkable. The guides are very informative and take pride in answering whatever questions your heart or mind desires on a high level.

Watching the animals is like watching ourselves without all the superficial norms and structures. What it all essentially narrows down to is family, survival instinct and living and adapting in harmony with the surrounding environment.

Mankind has always had concerns about existentialism and the abstractness of life. They have been looking for moral guidance and security. Pantheism explains it as so; God is in everything and everything is God, God is nature and nature is God. The word God can be substituted with the word spirituality. Nature is everything and everything is nature.

Plato’s Theory of Forms presents a physical realm and a spiritual realm (realm of forms/realm of ideals). When being in this untamed wild it seems as if some of the nature experiences work as a medium between these two realms. You sometimes find yourself leaving the material realm and for a moment visiting the spiritual realm. This connects the body and soul and you feel a delightful harmony within, as well as existential surety. When you are close to these animals and nature you can’t help but feel exalted.

The Shamwari Conservation Experience provides catharsis for you soul; you’ll leave as a more satisfied you. 

                                    

You leave Shamwari a happier person, more in harmony with yourself and your surroundings.

You leave Shamwari a happier person, more in harmony with yourself and your surroundings.

Road Maintenance.

Road Maintenance.

Debarking invasive species.

Debarking invasive species.

Monitoring the fences.

Monitoring the fences.

Briefings on the how Volunteer work helps the reserve operate.

Briefings on the how Volunteer work helps the reserve operate.

Volunteer Community Work.

Volunteer Community Work.

Wildlife Monitoring.

Wildlife Monitoring.

Watching the animals is like watching ourselves without all the superficial norms and structures.

Watching the animals is like watching ourselves without all the superficial norms and structures.