Blog Index An extraordinary day in the life of a volunteer at Shamwari by Charlotte Cornwallis (UK)

I've been at Shamwari exactly 4 weeks now and have had the most incredible, awe inspiring experience. On an average day as a volunteer you get to do various things like chop trees, remove old fences or build new fences in the morning and then in the afternoon you get to see cheetah, lions, elephant or rhino, at times ALL of them! Not too bad for an average day you would think, and you'd be right. An average day here is awesome. However, today has surpassed all my expectations just because of the importance and magnificence of what we were doing. It will be a highlight of my time here for many years to come and I will be boring many a friend with intimate details for eons! 

I have watched many a documentary of game capture and animal monitoring methods back at home in the UK and often wondered if I'd ever get the chance to participate in such a process. You can imagine my excitement when we were told that we would be helping the veterinary team here dart black and white rhinos in the north of the reserve to enable us to track them better in the future. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I happen to be here to get involved - timing is everything!

With an early set off around 5am, which ordinarily on a Monday morning would bring a groan of resentment if you were going to 'work', all 21 of the volunteers were ready and waiting with eager anticipation. You could feel the overriding excitement at what lay ahead.

The SCE team of Konrad, Cindy and Jens drove us in 3 vehicles up to the north to meet up with the chopper, the vet team and other helpers. On arrival we had a briefing on what we were doing today, why we were doing it and what help we could give. The main purpose was to extract DNA from each rhino horn, collar each animal with a GPS tracking system and implant a micro chip - no mean feat when you are talking about black rhino! This was probably a dawning moment for me as it sunk in exactly how we were going to contribute to the onward battle to save the rhino. As a volunteer your main ambition is to make a positive contribution to the environment you're in and today everyone had that chance in a unique and special way.

Within 5 minutes of the chopper taking off we had word on the radio that they had found a black rhino. We witnessed some awesome piloting of the chopper, steering the animal to a safe area and then positioning itself to enable one of the vets to dart it. We waited for the call advising that the animal was down and therefore safe for us to come in - these black rhino have serious attitude so safety is paramount! This particular rhino had finally given in to the anaesthetic in deep bush so we had to move the head to make it more accessible in order to drill the two horns for samples.

Everything has to happen super fast once the animal is anaesthetised as there is always risk in these situations and to keep the animal sedated for too long increases that risk. With excellent instruction from the experienced team here, individual volunteers were given the chance to either measure the horn (length and circumference), drill the hole to extract the DNA from the horn or implant a microchip. As we were planning on darting as many rhinos as possible in one day there was plenty of time for everyone to do their bit. Just being up close and able to touch this formidable animal was out of this world. To touch their armour like skin, feel its toughness and rigidity and at the same time being close enough to feel their breath on your body, it was majestic and unique, indescribably brilliant.

Once the first animal was done, the antidote was administered once everyone was safely away and the rhino regained consciousness, a little groggy but overall unharmed and now safer than ever. With no time to take a breath the chopper had already located another black rhino and were in the process of darting, so off we go, at pace to the next location. Never have I been driven so quickly around this reserve, in fact I'm pretty sure our driver had taken lessons from Colin McRae - thank goodness for seatbelts! It's the only time that speed limits are broken, needs must! Again, the rhino had gone down in a heavily vegetated area and we needed to move her to make it a comfortable operation for her and us. Rolling these animals from their sides is not an easy task but with a volume of hands we made light work of it.

All the necessary actions were complete and again the rhino was woken up once we were all clear and no harm had been done. This is always a relief for the team here as there are so many things that can go wrong. They don't want to put any animal at risk when taking on this kind of operation but by nature of the task at hand no one can really be sure that everything will go like clockwork. It is always seen as a blessing when it does. I got my chance to drill the hole in the horn on our 4th capture of the day, which was the first white rhino we had darted. It was quite tricky as he kept moving his head so his horn kept moving but with some guidance and assistance from the experts the job was done. Holding the horn and literally being close enough to be hit by rhino snot was awesome, how lucky am I! Not everyone can say they have rhino snot on their clothes you know - serious claim to fame.....

It turned out that we darted 7 rhinos in total today, 3 black and 4 white. There were no incidents to report and now we can track any of their horns should a poacher infiltrate the excellent anti-poaching system in place here and we can locate them on the reserve at any time, enhancing their security. Overall a hugely successful day for all concerned. There are few words to describe what today meant to me, the emotion it evoked and what I will take away from such a magical experience. You do worry about what the animal goes through during this process. However, the thought of not trying to protect them and not putting measures in place to track the hideous crime groups who are now turning to rhino poaching is more dangerous and more disturbing.

I have witnessed the care and concern all around me for each and every animal on this reserve. I trust the team here to do the right thing and will do all I can to help them fulfil their role as rhino protectors now and in the future.

This life is so far from normality to me. I am used to commuter trains, grumpy Londoners and stressful sales targets. Although a black rhino may sometimes resemble a grumpy Londoner, that's the only similarity I have found here. I consider myself privileged and honoured to have played a part in such an important day and will take the emotion I felt, and still feel, to my grave. I am left wanting to do more, to work harder and ultimately to make a difference and I hope that today I have made that positive contribution we all strive for every day.

Thank you Shamwari Conservation Experience for the unforgettable experience and for the chance to play a role in the rhino’s future here in South Africa. I know all volunteers here count themselves very lucky to have been a part of today, I hope it has touched them the way it has touched me.


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