Circle of Life - Volunteering with Big Cats in Africa

Jul 27, 2015

To complete my Masters of Science and Finance degree at Georgetown University, I knew I had to complete a "Global Consulting Project". Half-way through the program, they announced the location would be Johannesburg, South Africa. Since I didn't think I'd ever have another reason to go to Africa in the future, I decided to take an additional week off of work to explore the country. I was inspired by a video I came across of a cute lion trying to roar. The video was actually much longer and was a documentary done by Jon Watson on his experience volunteering. He posted a link and I followed it to find all the different opportunities that existed.

I have volunteered many times in the past with various organizations including traveling to a Mexican rainforest to deliver food to the Zapotec tribe and build shelters for an orphanage. However, I have never volunteered taking care of animals prior. The trip I had signed up for was called "Living with Big Cats". It was described as working with rescued lions, cheetahs, leopards, servals, and even tigers. The pictures were amazing, and I knew this was going to be the best way to experience Africa. I was a little hesitant since I had to wire my funds to them ahead of time. Therefore I did some thorough research on the companies, including calling them, internet research, and reaching out to past volunteers. It all seemed to check out. After classes were done, we were given our project assignment. The team members and I work diligently with the executives of Barclay's Private Equity team in South Africa to complete the assignment. Finally, the day came (right after my birthday) to fly out to Africa.

I have never been to Africa, or even south of the equator before. I wasn't sure what to expect. The first week I stayed in a business district called Sandton, which is very similar to Hartford The diversity in wealth was amazing. There were many people driving around in $100k+ Ferraris and Lamborghinis, and yet a large portion were poor on the streets begging for money. As my cab driver said, "Here, the rich are very rich and the poor are very poor. There aren't many in between." When we had a break for Youth Day, a national holiday, I traveled to Soweto to see the celebrations and visit Nelson Mandela's former home. I was finally beginning to feel like I was in Africa. The following morning, I presented my case study to Barclays. After a successful meeting, my team and I wanted to celebrate by taking a game drive through "Lion Park". This was my first time seeing a lion up close, and I was amazed by their size, and the look in their eyes just screamed "predator". After this I was very excited for my upcoming volunteering trip!

Finally the day came. A driver arrived at my hotel to bring me to the "quarantine" I would be staying in. The quarantine is just an area with a large electric fence around it. This is where we slept and spent our downtime because animals couldn't enter it. The quarantine is located in the middle of a savannah many miles from any civilization. When I arrived, there were literally game animals wandering everywhere! A zebra had come to eat out of one of the donkey's bowls, and I had to get past them to enter quarantine.

I dropped off the luggage in a small room I was going to be sleeping in and I was immediately handed a knife. The current task was to cut up lots of horse meat, as it was almost feeding time for most of the animals.The cut up pieces were for the smaller serval cats and the cheetahs. The cheetahs were both around 15 years old, which is extremely old for a cheetah. Because of this, their teeth have begun to fade, so to make it easier, we cut up their food. A portion of this food also went to 3 of the lion cubs and 2 mongooses (not mongeese). After we passed out all of the cut horsemeat, it was time to move on to feeding the adults. There were 9 adult lions, 2 adult tigers, 1 leopard, 4 hippos and 1 hyena. 

After feeding all of the large animals it was basically bed time. When the sun sets, you’re not allowed to leave quarantine. You would think this is due to all of the big cats that could be wandering around, but in fact, their main concern is hippos. Hippos kill more people than any other African animal. Though it was June, it's winter in South Africa, therefore, during the day the temperatures would get as high as low 70's, but at night it would drop to the mid 30's. There was no heat where I stayed, although we did have heated pads to use on our beds, which proved to be sufficient enough for me to stay relatively warm. When we wanted to shower, we had to cut wood and start a fire underneath a large water tank, which would heat up the water giving us warm water. This would take about an hour typically, so if you wanted to shower, you had to plan ahead. 

The next day started the same way every subsequent day did; cleaning out all the poop from the animal holdings, including horses, bulls, elephants, ostriches, and all the cats. After this task we would break for breakfast, then be given our assignments for the day. These would vary greatly depending on what needed to be done. The tasks I encountered were emptying the poop trailer, picking up cut grass to feed to the elephants, taking the elephants for a walk, exercising the cheetahs and the leopard, going on a game drive to check on the wildebeests, blessboks, giraffes and other animals, or cutting down a tree that started to fall near one of the electrical fences.

The elephant walks were amazing. It was basically a power walk up a steep hill as we attempted to keep up with them. We had three rescued elephants; Three (the mother) was named this because originally she wasn't going to be kept so she was named her after the enclosure she was staying in, Hannah (Three's daughter), and Marty (Three's adopted daughter).  Marty is around Hannah's age, so she was brought here after her mother was killed by poachers. Since Three was breast-feeding, she took Marty in as one of her own. Elephants eat about 24 hours a day, so on the walk, they would stop and eat every tree we passed. Because of this, it's important to have access to many hundreds of acres to ensure enough vegetation for the elephants. 

The other fun part was exercising the lion cubs by taking them for walks. We would transport them to a random part in the savannah and release them. Since they see us as part of their pride, as long as we keep walking, they wouldn't wander too far from us, as their instincts tell them to stay with the pride. After this, we exercised our cheetahs. Unlike the leopard, the cheetahs don't like to climb. We basically got them to run back and forth and jump on some small platforms. We did this by laying down horse meat and calling them back and forth. One of our cheetahs, Bailey, has only three legs. When she was rescued, she had been attacked by a lion which took off her leg. During our game drives, we would lay out food for the animals in various spots. The winter is the dry season, so vegetation isn't as plentiful. In fact, I only saw a cloud once during my 17 days there. The giraffes however, are more straightforward, and they tend to eat directly from the buckets we have.

There was so much more that we had to do as well, more than I can mention on this blog. During our "time off", we had the chance to join mini excursions. For these, a driver would take us away from quarantine to see what else South Africa had to offer. Trips included sky diving, casino/bar nights, and Lesedi village (a place where the different tribes stay). South Africa has 11 official languages. Many of the people in Johannesburg speak Zulu. I tried to learn a little while I was there. One language I loved was Xhosa, as it had many clicks in it and included sounds I couldn't mimic. I was also able to visit and volunteer at a nearby orphanage during my time off. These types of volunteering vacations are my favorite. They're probably not popular because they are definitely not relaxing. However, they give you a very intimate view on foreign cultures, and although you don't leave relaxed, you do leave with a sense of fulfillment knowing you've made a difference.

After all the hard work, I was slightly relieved to come home. I had a realization while I was sitting at a bonfire listening to distant roaring. I see so many horrible things in America on a daily basis and when that happens, I begin to become frustrated with people, and our society. During this trip, I was able to see the best sunsets, the brightest stars, and some of the prettiest land. It made me remember that the world is not ugly. I was also working alongside some very passionate and noble people, who reminded me that there are plenty of good people out there, and only a few bad eggs. This was the biggest lesson I took away from my experience.

Chazz Logue is a member of HYPE's Personal and Professional Development Committee. He is an Associate Financial Consultant at Webster Investments.

Below are just a few photos from my amazing journey!

1 Comment

  1. 1 Tyra Peluso 28 Jul
    Chaz,  love the blog.  Thank you for sharing -- what an exceptional experience!


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