Welcome to the podcast show notes and transcript for Episode 8: Choosing A Wild Animal Sanctuary When You Volunteer in Africa. In this episode Rachel Heller and I speak with travel blogger, Maria Hart, who writes at Travelling With Hart about responsible tourism. Maria tells us of her experience volunteering at N/a’ankuse, a wildlife rescue centre in Namibia. Listen and see if you fall for some of the heartwarming tales of wildlife in this story.

How to choose a wild animal sanctuary when volunteering in Africa

How to choose a wild animal sanctuary when volunteering in Africa

Time Stamped Show Notes

0:42 Choose a Wild Animal Sanctuary

2:56 The N/a’n kuse Research Center

4:35 New Skills Learned: Animal Caterer

5:53 The Care and Feeding of Baboons

7:06 Learning About Baboon Society

12:36 The School of Peculiar Animals

14:32 Volunteer in Africa

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How to choose a wild animal sanctuary when volunteering in Africa

How to choose a wildlife sanctuary when volunteering in Africa

Transcript

This is a transcript of 1001 Travel Tales Podcast: Episode 8: Choosing A Wild Animal Sanctuary When You Volunteer in Africa. The text has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

A conversation with Shobha George (Just Go Places Blog), Rachel Heller (Rachel’s Ruminations) and Maria Hart (Travelling With Hart).

RH: Hello, we’re speaking with Maria Hart today from Travellingwithhart.com, that’s Hart as in H-A-R-T. Not like the organ in one’s chest. Welcome, Maria.

MH: Thank you. Hello. I’m happy to be able to interview for your podcast, it’s going to be amazing.

Choosing A Wild Animal Sanctuary

SG: Wonderful, well you were just mentioning that you’ve just been to Namibia. It’s one of the countries I’ve always wanted to go to. It seems so exotic. Tell us how you went and what you did there.

MH: Okay, I’ve been wanting to go to Africa to do something with animals with conservation because that’s the heart of my blog.

SG: Your Travellingwithhart heart.

MH: Travellingwithhart heart, that’s the one.

I’ve looked into some other ones. You’ve got to be so careful in Africa that you don’t do something that’s unethical. I was challenged by someone because I was going to go on the a lion adventure.

I was challenged by a safari guy who’d been a safari guy in Africa for 20 years. He says, you do not want to do that because that is unethical because of this, this, this and this. He says if you’re touching the animals, if they’re being interacting with humans they cannot be released back into the wild. That is unethical.

But I say yes, but I’ve looked into it. It’s got this certification and this accolade and this. He says, so what. And he challenged me.

I thought okay, he feels very passionate about this. I need to look into it further because this is important and I did. I found out he was exactly right. So I searched further for an ethical organization that I could do the same thing.

So I found a conservation righted project that I could feel very good about. It was working with cheetahs. Basically it’s almost like a SPCA for wild animals. So animals that are orphaned or injured or have been taken as pets and people realize, jeez! I can’t have a cheetah as a pet. These people take them in and they have a veterinarian. They’ll heal them and they’ll raise them up. They now have everything from oryx. They’ve got hartebeests. They’ve got a whole bunch of Baboons because they kill Baboons down there.

SG: Why?

MH: They’re considered a pest. So then they’ll shoot a baboon. See, oh gee! You just shot somebody’s mother with a baby clinging. Then they’ll bring the baboon baby in and say, here.

So then they raise this Baboon baby up. Then they keep them in 2 groups. A family group so it’s more natural for them.

They also have cheetahs there and they keep them as wild as possible. There is one Lion. They had two. One died, unfortunately. And they got wild dogs.

How to choose a wild animal sanctuary when volunteering in Africa

Namibia has the most remaining wild cheetah in the world.

The N/a’n kuse Research Center

SG: It seems quite a big conservation center.

MH: It is. It’s huge. They have research…

SG: What was the name, did you mention it?

MH: It’s N/a’an ku se, which means God Protects Us in the ancient San. They work with the local community as well which is also a part of responsible tourism. So they help these people who are typically underemployed. You’ve got the community involvement, wildlife conservation and then they release as many as possible back into the wild.

RH: Now how is this different from the one that you were originally going to do? I don’t understand what the difference is between the two.

MH: Because at the other one without getting too specific so people identify it, you would be interacting directly with lion cubs. These cubs if you’re going to be interacting with them and walking with them and petting them and all that sort of thing, they’re not going to be as wild as they need to be.

Raised by their mothers, they are taught to hunt by their mothers. They are off in and put in protected areas. But to date in 15 years, I don’t think they’ve even released one.

They might have started but that’s a long time before they release whereas the one that I chose if they’re injured they’ll release them as soon as they can. If not they put them in a huge enclosure which is as natural as possible. They just go live their lives in there if they’ve been too humanly habituated.

They can’t go back out into the wild because then they’re a danger to themselves and to others. They’ll go to humans for food and humans will say aah! Here’s a big cat coming to get me. I’m going to shoot it.

New Skills Learned: Animal Caterer

RH: So what was your job there?

MH: I went as a volunteer to just help with whatever the farm needed, basically.

And I spent some time at the farm, some time on the research projects. So at the farm what you would do is you had to work so one day might be you’re preparing the food which means there’s a huge table in the middle of the room and you have all this porridge lie stuff and you mix it with yesterday’s leftovers for lunch.

SG: This is for humans to eat?

MH: This is what we’ve eaten, nothing gets wasted there. It’s very, very eco-friendly the whole place.

You mix it with your hands and then you make it into balls for the Baboons and you just make up the different animals, different foods based on the requirements. You make up the little bottles for the baby Baboons. It’s just like you know.

And then you can feed them as well, you can go and do things like as glamorous as digging weeds, spreading sand in a coral because that needs to be done. You do that but then you’re rewarded with days where they take you to say, feed the carnivores. And you get these big hunks of meat which you know I’m a vegetarian so this is you know, what it’s like.

SG: Fairly gross.

MH: It’s fairly gross but they can eat it, that’s their thing it’s not my thing.

SG: That’s what animals are supposed to do is eat in the wild, yeah.

MH: It is, yeah. So you just throw it over the fence and that’s obviously probably more work for them to take us out and do that but it’s kind of our reward for doing the weeds and all that sort of thing. You throw it over everybody loves that seeing the big cats jump for their hunk of meat. You go on Baboon walks, for example, and…

The Care and Feeding of Baboons

SG: You walk with the Baboon or…

MH: You do. There was once when I was walking out to the water hole. Now you’ve got the baby Baboons. There’s a different stage process. The real young babies still need to sleep with a mother at night or father.

How to choose a wild animal sanctuary when volunteering in Africa

Baboon mother and child spending some quality time together.

So you take them to bed. You can take some, whoever the new ones are and the warmth and comfort of sleeping with somebody at night. You have to put a little diaper on them, put a hole for the tail. Give them their bottle…

RH: Hole for the tail.

MH: Yeah. Give them a little bath unless you want to sleep with a dirty baboon which is your choice. Then in the morning they go back with their groups. There’s one there who’s brain damaged. Shrinky is her name and she’s special.

SG: What happened?

MH: They don’t know but when they found her she was brain damaged. She’s come a long way now she can eat for herself, she can walk.

SG: Special Ed. Baboon.

MH: She is…

RH: But she won’t be released to the wild.

MH: No, not a hope. But she’s good because there’s one little baby baboon who is my baby. I want to go back and see my baby, Alwin.

RH: He’s probably full grown by now, right?

Learning About Baboon Society

MH: No, he’s probably only… 5 months, something like that. And he’s picked on by the other baboons, in fact, I protected him from them.

SG: Why? Bullies.

RH: Wait, wait, wait. The one who’s brain damaged was picked on?

SG: No, another one.

RH: The other one.

MH: But the one who’s brain damaged she will cuddle him at night so he has that

RH: So she’s taking on that cuddle function for the younger ones. Oh, that’s sweet.

MH: So she comes in very handy.

SG: Why are they bullying him?

MH: Because in baboon society it’s all about status. They’ll challenge you. They’ll bite you without breaking the skin so that they can test your status. That’s how they test your status. If you react that means you’re lower status than them. So they bite you. You have to pretend that nothing’s happened.

SG: Stare them down.

MH: No.. not even that. It’s like, lalala. Did I notice them? That must have been a fly. Completely ignore them or else you’re lower status.

Completely ignore and you build yourself up. If they have a baby because there’s one little baboon she’ll try and steal the baby because that gives her status.

SG: It’s very complicated in this society.

MH: It is but it’s cool. So you go on these walks with the Baboons because inside their enclosures they get bored. They have the younger ones in a little daycare center, if you will. Then the older Baboons. Now I think it’s twice a day they let them all out and it’s completely open. If they want to run away they can go but they don’t want to. They stick in a group. You’re part of the Baboon troupe. They walk towards say, the waterhole, if you’re going that way. So you walk in the hot African sun. The little ones, they’ll try and catch a ride with you because they don’t want to walk that far.

SG: Oh, sweet. So they’re hanging on to your back or something.

MH: No, they run beside you. They put their little arms up and you just grab them and you swing em’ up. There was once I had two bigger ones around my waist, grabbing on and two sitting on my shoulder.

SG: So you’re a Baboon taxi.

MH: Yeah. I then one put his hand over my eyes. I couldn’t see a bloody thing and of course, I had no hands left to move it. So I like just move his hand or foot or whatever that is over my eyes. But it’s amazing because they go and they go up to these trees, these camelthorn trees are hideous, horrible trees with 2 inch thorns.

RH: I remember those, yeah, yeah, yeah. They had those in East Africa too.

MH: And they go climb. They’ll climb on these trees. So they go in their water hole. They have fun and do things, groom each other. Then they’ll come to you and they’ll sit on you. They’ll climb up your shirt.

How to choose a wild animal sanctuary when volunteering in Africa

Cuddles at the watering hole. (Photo credit: Maria Hart)

RH: Only now they’re wet because they’ve been in the water.

MH: Some of them, yes.

One of them, it was her time of the month. They don’t use feminine products. So she’s sitting on my knee and everybody’s like gross. It’s like whatever. It’s natural. I go to the water hole, I wash it off.

Then Shrinky, the brain dead one,  tries to jump up on me and be a real Baboon, give me a fat lip. Like bless her she missed. She tried. She tried to be a real Baboon. She tried so hard. So adorable. That’s it.

And they run around. Unfortunately, one thing is you can’t have anything, buttons, zippers, they’re smart. These guys are smart. Buttons, zippers, and hair, okay. You can’t…

RH: I should interrupt long enough to say that if you haven’t visited her blog you haven’t seen her picture. She’s got long blond hair.

SG: What did you do with that?

MH: Which is a great rope for a Baboon.

SG: Did that hurt?

MH: Oh yes! I would just walk around grabbing the top of my head, the crown of my head and pushing down on my hair so that they didn’t rip out more chunks.

They got quite a few. They play rough with each other so they play rough with you. They don’t mean it. It’s just that they play rough. They’re baboons. They’re not British school children.

SG: And you can’t put them on the naughty step.

MH: You cannot. They’ll laugh at you and go climb the tree. So that was fun and then you’d take them back and they all come back and go to their own closures.

SG: So you’re saying, just back to that poor little one that was being bullied, he was being bullied because he reacted when they were picking on him? So he was a lower status?

MH: I guess in those societies they have a status thing. I don’t know how they determine that within themselves but they do.

RH: It’s a pecking order.

SG: It’s a pecking order and he’s got put at the bottom for whatever reason.

MH: Because he’s the smallest. He’s just too old to be the one that goes to sleep with the people. He’s graduated from that and now he’s in with the 1 to 2 year olds, for example.

SG: Okay. And he’s the smallest of that bunch. The runt of the litter sort of thing.

MH: Yeah. So sometimes he gets picked on. He’s run to me, wraps his arms around me and of course, I’ll protect him. I have gotten a big bite from another one who’s trying to get to him because they were being so mean. They were pulling his hair and biting him and everything.  It’s like, oh no you won’t. They can turn on you. You have to be careful but you have to stay calm.

SG: They’re wild animals.

MH: They’re wild animals even though they’ve been mostly hand raised. But that being said I know this is not necessarily pc but I also walked into a classroom and the children were climbing on the furniture. The children were pushing each other too so that I would pick them up. The children were biting and hitting each other.

SG: Well Rachel originally you’re a teacher.

MH: So, have you seen this?

RH: Okay, this happens, human children, yes. We can use our words to train them out of it which probably wouldn’t work with the baboon.

MH: Well, to some extent. To discipline them you’re not rough with them. Y ou just say no and you put them down. They don’t like that. Their ears go back. They’ll look at you like how dare you say no to me, like a spoilt child maybe.

SG: Or 2 year old.

MH: Yeah, oh yes. Just like 2 year olds. It’s not just about the baboons, although I miss my little Baboon baby. I want to go back and see him. I bottle feed a Hartebeest I remember.

SG: A Hartebeest?

RH: A kind of Antelope.

SG: Okay. So how big were they then?

MH: Well this was a baby, only about 5 months but it was the size of maybe a pony. A small pony but not as stocky. You know more gazelle like.

The School of Peculiar Animals

MH: Sure. There was an oryx with a wonky horn.

SG: Was he born that way?

MH: Yeah, yeah. So he would have trouble in the wild. He wouldn’t be able to defend himself very well. Unless he used it to his advantage maybe it could work for him. Oh, what else did they have? Of course, they had the cheetahs.

SG: I don’t know why I think of Finding Nemo and his little wonky fin.

MH: It sort of is.

SG: It this was a Disney story, he would be the hero in the Disney story.

MH: Yeah, he could be. So could my little…

RH: It’s a misfits orphanage, you know.

MH: Yeah. It is. They’ve got little Meerkats in there. And I pet a porcupine. I didn’t think you could pet a porcupine.

RH: You can. If you go in the direction of the spines you won’t get hurt.

MH: Yes and I had a little friend who was a porcupine. His name is Taz. Taz would come to me and I would stroke under his little chin. He loved it, behind his little ears, yeah.

Then Gomez is the vulture. Now Gomez can be an asshole, okay. So Gomez…

He’d come over on the fence near the porcupines and hang out overlooking them. Now that’s gonna freak out anybody. You got a vulture looking down on you going, yeah…

RH: Just waiting.

MH: Exactly! So poor little Taz. He saw Gomez and he put out his spines. It’s like okay, crap. Then he tries to run behind my legs. It’s like oh, that hurts. So I jump up on the ladder.  I’m like I’m sorry Taz, I’d love to be there for you but… I can’t cuddle you right now. He didn’t understand but that was nice.

SG: Gomez, the vulture wouldn’t hurt the porcupine, would he? But I guess if it was in a natural setting he could.

MH: Well only if he’s dead. Or close to.

SG: Oh, they don’t kill. They feast on dead carrion, got it.

MH: I was sharing the duties with feeding Gomez.

SG: Okay, so the little porcupine was not in any danger. But he felt it. He felt he was.

MH: Yeah.

RH: He was doing what came naturally which was putting up those spines

SG: Yes and just hide behind the human.

Volunteer in Africa

RH: Okay, maybe not that part. But wait a minute, you’re in this place. First of all how did you contact his place, how did you end up there?

MH: I searched online and I found what I thought was ethical and I went through a tour agency.

RH: Okay, so you had decided to go to Namibia and you wanted to do…some sort of volunteer work with animals.

MH: Yes,

MH: So I found there’s a few.

RH: Because you were painting this as you were sort of let loose in this place and just sort of wandered from animal to animal. Taking care of them like you felt like.it.

MH: No, no, no, no. Heavens, no.

RH: There were other volunteers there?

MH: There was actually. It’s getting to be too much now. There’s a lot of young people who go there. Because it’s getting quite well known, quite popular now. So when I was there it wasn’t too bad. When the school’s out, it’s going to be overwhelmingly busy. Probably too busy, I’m afraid to say. But in low season it would be amazing.

You’re on a schedule. So one day in a group, your group  and you do maintenance or you do something like that. Next day you’re on animal feed. Next day maybe you’re on carnivore feed. Next day you’re on free animal time or that sort of thing.

SG: So where did the other visitors come from, the other people who are volunteering?

MH: There’s a lot of Danish and Germans. And Norwegians. You definitely heard those accents a lot.

SG: So everyone spoke in English.

MH: No, the Danish tend to stay in their groups and they speak in Danish. Norwegian would speak Norwegian some of them could speak English as well.

SG: So Maria, did you have a friend?

MH: My friend were the baboons?

SG: Who spoke to you?

MH: Yeah, well

SG: Thanks Maria for speaking to us about your adventures in Namibia. That sounds absolutely fascinating. If you’d like to hear more about Maria’s eco adventures you can check out her blog Travellingwithhart.com. And traveling is spelt the British way, t-r-a-v-e-l-l-i-n-g. Double L there and Hart is her last name H-a-r-t. Thanks very much and we’ll see you next week for another podcast.

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