Robin Shepard - 2013 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

There is an endangered species crisis in Africa, and I wanted to learn about it and do my bit to help.

Black rhinoceros at Lake Nakuru, Kenya

A black rhino at Lake Nakuru, Kenya

Why did you choose to sign up with Wildlife ACT?

I did over 80 hours of research on the internet, trying to find a reputable organization with which I could learn, experience, and participate in real conservation. The down-and-dirty kind, protecting vulnerable species, not the fake baby-animal-petting or vacationing-by-a-pool-and-going-for-photo-safari-drives kind. I wanted to support a group of people who were not getting rich off of "volunteers" digging holes, and then the next group filling them back up (this really happens at some "volunteer" camps, where they are creating "work" for volunteers to do.) I also didn't want to support groups that breed big cats under the guise of releasing them into the wild, but allowing volunteers to feed and pet them as babies, as this renders them unfit for wild release and is unethical. I wanted a group that works hard, down to their last dime, trying to ethically protect and conserve critically endangered species... and I found just that.

What was your favorite part about Africa?

The beauty of the wildlife, culture, and people. I loved seeing other ways to live and thrive, but also seeing the challenges of another country was a reality check.

What made your wildlife experience unique?

It really opened my eyes to another world. There are so many unique ways to live here on this planet, and I loved learning and seeing the beauty of the country, its people, and its stunning wildlife.

How did staff at Wildlife ACT support you throughout your program?

The volunteer coordinator was amazing. She was with us every step, answered our numerous questions, and helped us plan our stay. We were on a tight budget and she helped us to plan finances as well.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I would have planned and budgeted to stay longer. I would have loved to work with Wildlife ACT for longer, but also to explore more of South Africa. There's so much to do and see; I will be back!

African wild dog in South Africa

A female African wild dog in South Africa

Describe a typical day in your life in Africa.

Wake up before sunrise, grab a quick cup of coffee and breakfast. Get in the back of the truck and head out to find the resident wild dog pack before they wake up and get on the move. We used telemetry to find the collared members of the pack and once located, we monitored them for health and behavior, and then followed them as far as we could for a couple of hours. Often, we'd see a pursuit or kill. Sometimes, we'd go off to find the cheetah or elephant herd. We spent around three or four hours tracking different key species each morning.

Then, back to camp for different projects like building a garden or repairing a vulture hide. Then, lunch and maybe a walk to the nearby snack shop. Then, a well-earned nap. Up again in the early afternoon for another three to four hours of tracking, triangulating, or working on various projects. Often, we were back by sundown, but we did have a couple night drives. Often, we'd come home to baboons, impala, or nyala in the camp hanging out.

Volunteers would then take turns cooking dinner for everyone or we'd have a braai (barbeque). Lots of visiting and stories around a fire or under the stars. Then, retiring to bed under the mosquito netting for a night, surrounded by bush noises like the notorious bush babies, hyenas, and assorted insects.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

I enjoyed visiting with other volunteers from around the world, watching the local animals that come close to camp, learning about the key species we monitored, getting involved in whatever project was going on around camp, and performing critical data entry for the monitoring sessions. We also took nice walks around camp many days, and lounged by the pool once or twice, although we were usually too busy for that!

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

It was quite rustic at uMkhuze, but many of the other reserves they work on are more modern, while some are even more camp-like. I loved the real, bush-camp quality about it, and was not concerned with a fancy lodge-type experience. I also loved that the local animals came in close and you could spend time with them while sitting at camp.

What is one thing every participant should know before signing up with Wildlife ACT?

This is not a luxury vacation, nor is its a photo safari- although there are lots of photo opportunities. It is a working conservation organization and you will be immersed in their on-the-ground vital conservation work. You'll get dirty, you'll get tired, you'll learn stuff, you'll have adventures, you'll never forget it!  Also, talk to other volunteers and the volunteer coordinator before packing, to get an idea of essentials you might need for your season:flashlights, shower shoes, mosquito nets and spray, etc.

Great white pelican at Soysambu, Kenya

Great White Pelican at Soysambu in Kenya

What did you find most inspiring about working on conservation projects in Africa?

I can't wait to go back and do more conservation work. I learned so much, and now I see that there's so much more to be done, and there are hard-working people out there doing it day in and day out, and I want to help them in any way I can.

Would you recommend Wildlife ACT to others? Why?

Without a doubt, I would highly recommend this program, as it is rooted in real conservation that makes a difference, NOT profit or animal exploitation. This group is doing vital work and making a real impact, and they can really use your support. You will be well rewarded for your effort!