Wednesday, September 5, 2012


A typical scene at a waterhole.
For the past 10 weeks I have been doing volunteer work in South Africa with an organisation called Wildlife ACT. Most of the time has been spent monitoring African Painted Dogs. There are only 3,000 of these dogs left in the wild and less than 400 in South Africa. The painted dogs live in a pack with a very strict social structure. There is a dominant 'alpha' male and a dominant alpha 'female' and these are the only two in the pack which breed. Often dogs will break away from the group, called a 'dispersal', to find other male or female dogs and form a new pack. The dogs may range over a considerable distance in search of new partners and when outside of the game reserves they are often attacked or killed by the community. The dogs are also very vulnerable to poachers who use snares to entrap game. The result is that painted dog populations are generally on the decline and they are an endangered species.
One of the painted dogs I have been monitoring.
The time I have spent here has been divided into two blocks on each of the five reserves which Wildlife ACT monitor: iMfolozi, Tembe, Mkuze, Hluhluwe and Thanda. Each reserve has been different. For example Tembe in the north borders on the border of Mosambique and is a sand forrest. The animals here have had limited contact with people and are extremely wild. At iMfolozi and Hluhluwe there are a good number of tourists and animals, while still dangerous, are a little more predictable. At Mkuze the terrain is very wild but the dogs have to be monitored twice every day because poaching is a big problem. Thanda is the only one of these reserve which is privately run and there are a number of other groups doing volunteer programs here at the same time.

A typical monitoring session, using telemetry to locate each dog pack..
Generally the routine has been to go out of the back of a utility vehicle at 5 in the morning. Using telemetry equipment we locate one own the dog packs and try to get a visual sighting on each of the dogs in the pack. In this way we can confirm that the dog is with the pack and that the dog is healthy. At least one or two dogs in each pack has a collar on it which sends out a signal we can pick up. Some reserves have more than one pack, iMfolozi for instance has 9 or 10 packs.

A cheetah at Thanda.
As well as monitoring the dogs we monitor elephants, lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyaena, rhinoceros and vultures, though this varies from reserve to reserve. During the 10 weeks I have been involved in the collaring of dogs and lions. These were amazing experiences. During the lion call-up we 'darted' nine lions. Blood and tissue samples were taken from each of them and two of the lions were moved to a different reserve. While moving the lions I was lifting the head of the unconscious lion when it suddenly sat up. The four fellows who were in the back of the ute lifting it suddenly dived over the side. It soon went back to sleep.

There were a number of other very exciting experiences with animals. At Tembe I managed to photograph a hyaena. the hyaena hasn't been seen there for 10 years and it was supposed that they had died out. At Tembe I also managed to see the two biggest elephants still alive in southern Africa. These two 'big tuskers' were amazing. I did manage to not only see what are called the 'Big Five': elephants, lions, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros, but added the next two: painted dogs and cheetahs to see the top seven wildlife attractions. 
The lion call up at Tembe. Taking blood and tissue samples.
The bird life here was also amazing and a good few hours were spent beside a waterholes photographing an exciting array of birds. I did spend some time at hides, which are a structure near a waterhole, watching the wildlife coming down to drink or to play in the mud. These allowed me to take  a good number of pictures. the whole experience was wonderful. You really felt like you were contributing to wildlife conservation as well as developing an understanding of the issues facing conservationists in South Africa. I also got to experience hands on work with these animals while coming close to other animals in the wild. Wildlife ACT have on their T-shirts: this is Zululand not Disneyland. I agreed, but it is better than Disneyland. 

For more information on Wildlife ACT they have a website:             or for more on my experience in South Africa go to: