Written by Cath Jakins
Published on 11 July, 2019
It is my opinion that there are very few genuine “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences left in this world. With technology advancing so rapidly, life is becoming progressively more connected and less authentic. Two weekends ago, however, I had the opportunity to experience something rarely experienced by members of the public: endangered species monitoring in the wild.
At the YouthForLions LIVE WILD Workshop, which took place in March of this year, a group of 8 high school and university students from KwaZulu-Natal won themselves a 2-day trip to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s iconic Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park to track and monitor wild lions with Wildlife ACT, a leading conservation and wildlife monitoring NGO. My YouthForLions colleagues and I were lucky enough to join in on the experience as chaperones for the students.
Upon arrival at the Nyalazi Gate on the Friday afternoon, the excitement amongst the students was palpable. We met up with four of Wildlife ACT’s Ambassadors who are part of their Community Conservation Programme and, accompanied by Zama Ncube from Wildlife ACT, made our way through the iMfolozi Game Reserve to the newly rebuilt Sontuli Education Centre where we would be staying for the weekend.
We arrived at camp just before sundown and spent the evening settling in to our dormitories. We were joined by two of the Wildlife ACT priority species monitors for an informative talk about the telemetry equipment used to track and monitor endangered species in the wild. It was early to bed that first night as we were told to be up and ready by 5am the following morning so that we could join up with the Wildlife ACT monitoring team for the morning.
Getting up at 4am in the pitch dark was certainly a new experience for many of us but after a quick breakfast, we bundled into a game drive vehicle which was kindly given to us for the weekend by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and set off into the dark bushveld. We met up with Fiona, the Wildlife ACT priority species monitor for iMfolozi, and her team of volunteers, who told us that they were on the trail of a naturally formed wild dog pack in the area. The anticipation bristled amongst our group as we followed closely behind the Wildlife ACT vehicle, stopping occasionally to pick up on the moving signal of the wild dog’s collar. After about 15 minutes of following and recording the signal, Fiona told us the disappointing news that, although we were less than a minute behind the dogs, we had lost them as they had crossed the nearby river.
We continued on in search of lion as the sun rose steadily over the Zululand bushveld. As we moved to a different section of the reserve and stopped to pick up the signal of the lion pride that resided in that area, we heard the welcome beeping of the telemetry equipment and got an excited ‘thumbs up’ from one of the Wildlife ACT volunteers – we had a bearing on the lions!
We moved off right away in the direction that the signal was coming from so that we could get an accurate triangulation. Wildlife ACT uses advanced GPS and VHF tracking collars to track and monitor endangered wildlife species including wild dog, lion, cheetah and rhino. The lion pride that we were tracking had an individual which was fitted with a VHF transmitter, also known as a pulse collar. This collar emits a pulsed radio signal (beeps) which allows the Wildlife ACT monitoring team to physically locate and observe the animal by homing in on the signal using a receiver and a directional antenna. The equipment, however, only gives a bearing of the animals’ whereabouts, not an actual physical location, so it can’t say “the lions are in this exact clearing” or “the wild dogs are under that specific bush”.
After following the signal beeps from the lion’s collar for some time, we came to a viewpoint overlooking a section of the river. Fiona told us to keep our eyes peeled across the river for any tawny movements. We knew the direction the lions were in and the approximate distance that they were from us. We all searched the opposite riverbank through our binoculars for what felt like ages, but sadly we could not get a visual on them in the dense bush. That is the way it works in the bush though; sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you drive around for hours with not much luck at all. That evening, however, we struck it lucky on our way back to camp after our second drive of the day.
We set out for our afternoon/evening drive at about 4pm after a delicious lunch and well-deserved afternoon naps. The temperature dropped steadily along with the sun until we were all bundled up in jackets and scarves on the back of the game viewer. The late-June winter wind that hits you on the backs of those game viewers is no laughing matter, but our spirits were high as we looked forward to seeing some of the nocturnal animals emerging as the sun set. The sunset was just magnificent and we all sat in complete awe as we watched it dip behind the trees.
As we meandered along the river on our way back to camp with the spotlights shining through the dense bush, there was much giggling and laughter as the scrub hares bounded and zigzagged across the road in the vehicle’s headlights. One of our group noticed strange looking droppings dotted all across the road ahead of us. “It looks like buffalo dung”, I said. The next thing we knew, we had rounded a corner and were completely surrounded by a massive breeding herd of buffalo. Mumbles of “it’s ok, stay calm” were drowned out by exclamations of “check that one’s horns” and “aw look at the baby!” Although I have visited many game reserves throughout my life, I have never been surrounded by such a huge herd of buffalo like that before.
That evening after dinner, we sat around the campfire telling stories, roasting marshmallows and discussing the work that Blood Lions ‘YouthForLions’ and Wildlife ACT do to conserve endangered species. We chatted with the youth about how valuable populations of wild lion really are and discussed different ways to improve the YouthForLions awareness reach. The students asked a few very interesting questions and some pertinent points were raised. Mark Gerrard and Zama Ncube of Wildlife ACT explained some of the finer details involved in wildlife conservation in South Africa and we had the opportunity to interact with the Wildlife ACT community ambassadors who have all grown up in rural areas surrounding protected areas.
That night, many of us were woken up by the rumbling sound of lions roaring very close to our camp. Excited whispers scattered through the dormitories as we heard the lions moving across the river and closer to our fence line. Janelle Barnard, YouthForLions Digital Marketing Manager was woken up by the unfamiliar sound at about 3am. “Once I came to my senses, I realised that it was lions roaring! The lions were so close that I could hear them crunching through the grass. Everyone woke up startled as the roars filled our room. It’s quite a comforting, yet daunting sound to hear in the bush because it reminds you that you are a guest in their space,” says Janelle.
On our way out of the reserve the following morning, as the usual ‘home-time’ holiday sadness began to creep up on us, our last sighting was a massive elephant bull ambling along the opposite hillside. We sat with him for a while, savouring the last few moments we had before heading back to the city. It was the perfect ending to a fantastic weekend in the African bushveld.
Reflecting back on the weekend, here is what our Live Wild winners had to say about their experiences:
“I had an amazing experience this weekend! We were up at 4 in the morning to go and monitor lions and wild dogs, it was really cold and we had a lot of fun trying to spot animals all day and night. We learnt a lot, especially from Mark from Wildlife ACT, about all the ways game reserves operate and the different ways they have to be on alert for animals. Overall it was a really enjoyable experience and I would definitely do it again” – Alok More.
“I would like to thank YouthForLions, Wildlife ACT and Ezemvelo for the wonderful weekend we had in iMfolozi. We learnt so much on the game drives and telemetry monitoring and got a chance to learn more about animal behaviour and patterns. We also saw elephants and a lot of buffalo on the drives, there were some very funny moments and all of us will cherish the memories, especially those Buffaphants Kyra!” – Makaira Kerkhof.
“All thanks to the Blood Lions ‘YouthForLions’ team for giving us such an incredible and amazing weekend getaway trip. I truly enjoyed every moment spent in the bush and would like to thank the team for giving us an experience of how animals are monitored within the park. I was also enlightened on conservation of wildlife and endangered species. I wish YouthForLions all the best with their campaign and educating people about the importance of protecting South African wildlife and endangered species” – Nokubonga Mthembu.
“The weekend away with YouthForLions and Wildlife ACT was such an amazing experience! It was a great opportunity for me as it was the first time that I had been on a game drive and lion monitoring. As a Nature Conservation graduate, I finally got a chance to see different species that I had never seen before, such as elephant and warthog. We got to meet other wildlife organizations (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Wildlife ACT) and I enjoyed meeting different youth from difference places. YouthForLions really is playing a significant role, not only in South Africa, but worldwide. I encourage the youth to get involved and share this wonderful experience with YouthForLions” – Siboniso Mthiyane.
“This trip was an amazing and wonderful experience as it brought me confidence, joy and admiration due to the value I place on the fundamental conservation and wildlife communities. I absolutely loved this trip and I am very grateful for what YouthForLions, Wildlife ACT and the Ezemvelo community made possible for us. From amazing sunrises to the incredible wildlife sights, these will always be memories I will truly cherish. Thank you” – Kyra Foster.
“The YouthForLions weekend in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park was such a fun trip. We saw a lot of rhino, buffalo and we even saw 4 elephants on the weekend. The Wildlife ACT monitoring with the telemetry was an amazing experience, we tracked lions and wild dogs but unfortunately, we couldn’t see them because they were behind the bushes. We went on 2 game drives, the first one we came back in the dark and saw a massive herd of buffalo just a few metres away and the sunrises and sunsets were beautiful. Thank you to everyone that made it happen: Wildlife ACT, Ezemvelo and most importantly the YouthForLions team” – Odin Kerkhof.