The first time I visited Africa, it did not go as I expected. If you have read my “volunteering in South Africa” blog post then you will understand why. If not here’s a quick recap: I volunteered at a monkey rehabilitation centre in Pretoria for 2 weeks and the place was horrendous! I had a horrible two weeks but lucky my days off searching for beautiful animals at the Dinokeng safari reserve made up for my terrible time. My bad experience defiantly did not put me off Africa, quite the opposite.
I decided I wanted to do some more volunteering but something that was completely different to anything I had done before. I spoke to my university teachers to know if they knew of anywhere that offered volunteering with animals and conservation and one of my lecture suggested that I looked into a company called CRM (Carnivore research project, Malawi). Carnivore Research Malawi is a non-profit conservation project based in Malawi, created in partnership with the University of Bristol, UK. The project falls under the umbrella of the UK Charity Conservation Research Africa. CRM works in collaboration with Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Malawi and conducts three core activities: applied research for wildlife conservation management, education and awareness and Capacity building
I went home and spent a lot of time researching the company, the eight key areas of work that volunteers undertake while working with CRM are:
1. Camera trapping (setting/checking traps, pictures and identifying animals)
2. Acoustic call in surveys to census carnivores
3. Large mammal transect surveys (to assess prey abundance and distribution)
4. Spotlighting and spoor tracking surveys (to determine carnivore density and distribution)
5. Radio tracking and behavioural observations (to determine spatial and social behaviour)
6. Vegetation surveys and habitat mapping
7. Community questionnaire surveys
8. Various lab based activities including: scat diet analysis, GPS mapping, data entry.
After reading more into CRM and the brilliant work they do I decided that this was definitely a good place to volunteer at without having a negative effect on the animals welfare and I got in contact with then and booked my flights.
When I landed it was a very sunny day and I was excited but also quite nervous because, yes I have done a lot of different types of work with animals but this was completely out of my comfort zone and after my first bad experience volunteering in South Africa I was a bit sceptical. At the airport I was picked up by a member of staff who drove me to Lilongwe wildlife centre, here I was greeted by a member of staff called Maddie. She showed me where I would be staying for the night and then picked me up the next morning. When I was picked up the next day she drove me the office to sign paper work and then took me to the coach pick up point, we had a pizza and waited for the coach to arrive.
Once I was on the coach, I got comfortable and prepared myself for the 6 hour drive to Mzuzu. The drive was long and hot but I was treated to some truly beautiful sights along the way. Once I got off the coach I was relieved to see two members of staff, Alex and Katrina waiting to take me to the Hostel. The next morning I had a lie in while the girls went to sort out their visas and to buy supplies for the camp. The camp was situated in Nyika national park and was about a 3 hour drive from the nearest town, so all food and petrol had to be bulk bought in town and transported to the camp. The drive from the hostel in Mzuzu to Nyika National park took about 4 hours and was mostly along bumpy dirt track roads but the view was stunning and made the long drive slightly more bearable. Also listening to the girls squabble like an old married couple for hours was also very entertaining.
At the camp there was Alex and Katrina who both are staff for CRM and they spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week working and living together. It’s no wonder why they acted like an old married couple! There was also 4 other girls there at camp, they did not work for CRM, they were there undergoing research for their studies and helping CRM while doing their own work. I was really nervous to meet everyone but they made me feel welcome as soon as I arrived and I settled in quickly.
The camp we were staying at was very small. It consisted of a school, a little shop, garage and a football pitch. The people who worked in the national park all lived in this camp along with their families. The cabin that housed the staff of CRM was a cute wooden cabin in the middle of a pine forest. There were three bedrooms with two bunk beds in each. A large living area with a log fire, a nice bathroom with hot water (only hot if we kept the fire burning outside) and a patio. We had access to power for 4 hours in the evening. This was fine, apart from one day when a circuit blew and half of the camp had to go three days without any power! This meant that as soon as it hit 5pm every day we were submerged into darkness and had to use our head torches to see and cook with, this was a fun challenge to overcome especially since leopards and hyenas would venture into the camp and we had no way to see them when outside collecting logs for the fire! The only other issue we faced with the cabin was our washing, once we hand washed our clothes we had to leave them on the washing machine for most of the day to dry. It took a long time for the clothes to dry because the camp was about 2100 meters above sea level so it was always very cold! One evening at camp, one of the girls left her trousers out to dry past dark and when she went out to collect them she found a very cheeky Roan munching on her trousers!
During my time working with CRM I got to undertake in some really interesting work. This included putting out camera traps and retrieving camera traps that had been eaten by naughty hyenas, spotlighting (using a spotlight to find animals after dark and then GPS tagging them and trying to identify them), transect surveys (similar to spotlighting but in the morning time), hiking while searching for active hyena dens, vegetation surveys, scat analysis and a lot of data input! One day in particular will always stick in my mind over the rest. We all got in the car ready to go on our daily spotlighting drive, when we pulled up to the start of the transect we went to put the spotlight on only to discover that it was not working! We decided since we were already out we would carry on with the drive but not record any animals we found and we could use our little torches we had with us. After about ten minutes of driving we were shining our lights into the forest and two eyes appeared through the trees. It was an adult female Leopard. We only had eyes on her for about five minutes before she disappeared. Once we lost her we carried on our drive for around half an hour but we did not see anything so we decided to turn back and drive past the location we first seen the leopard to see if we would be lucky enough to find her a second time. As we turned the corner, there she was. Sitting in the middle of the road, looking totally relaxed. We stopped about 10 meters from her and observed her behaviour. We were in awe, she was beautiful and to make our experience even more unbelievable a juvenile leopard jumped out of a tree onto the female and started to play fight with her. It was amazing to be so close to these completely wild animals and to be able to observe their natural behaviour in their own habitat.
After about half an hour of watching these beautiful creatures play flight with each other, the juvenile leopard climbed back into the tree and the mother moved under the tree into a bush. We decided it was time for us to leave them alone and head back to camp so we drove past them as slowly as possible but as we were passing the adult female leopard our lights cut out! We were sitting in complete darkness in a truck with open windows. I was sitting in the front passenger seat and my heart stopped! As the girls felt around the find the wires for the lights I sat there as still as possible, the lights came on and I was face to face with the adult female leopard. She was sitting less than a meter away in length from me, my window was wide open. The girls were still fiddling with the lights and the car and had no idea how close we were to the leopard, I couldn’t move or look away. Katrina asked me if I could see the leopard, without breaking eye contact I said “erm, yes. Just drive, drive please, she’s looking at me!”. It was terrifying and amazing all at the same time. We finally got the lights fully working after what felt like a life time and drove forward, I could finally blink! I looked back and she was still sitting under the tree guarding her baby, although we had gotten so close to her she was still so very relaxed and showed no intention of attacking us. At the time all that was going through my mind was, she’s protecting her baby and that makes her extremely dangerous and temperamental and I was worried that if I moved or broke eye contact with her that she would see me and a prey species or that I was playing with her. Lucky nothing bad happened apart from a mild electric shock for one of the girls when they were trying to get the lights working.
I had a truly amazing time volunteering with CRM, as well as leopards I also got to see incredible wild animals such as hyenas, jackals, elephants, zebras, genets, civets and servals as well as many different antelope species. I had the best three weeks working with CRM and I learnt so many interesting facts, and it felt great to get involved with such a worthwhile project. I loved my time here and If you looking for a career within the animal industry and want to add to your CV or just want to get involved with a great volunteering opportunity that benefits Africa’s wildlife then I definitely recommend
Carnivore Research Malawi.
To find out more information about CRM or to inquire about volunteering follow this link: http://carnivoreresearchmalawi.org/