Wildlife volunteer works to save the king of beasts

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Lion face

The lions are certainly not sleeping tonight. I lie in bed listening to them roaring, as they have almost every night since I arrived. But nearly three weeks in, we have only glimpsed a lioness far off on a river bank, despite searching for the pride most mornings. I am starting to think there are no lions, just animatronics and speakers in the trees to keep me hoping. That’s how it goes in the African bush, where I am working for a month as a volunteer for the Askari Wilderness Conservation Program. Our rewards lie in the unexpected.

Not that I was quite sure what to expect when I signed up for the Askari program, based on the 17,000-hectare, privately owned Pidwa Wilderness Reserve in north-eastern South Africa. It turns out I was entering a whole new world.

Many private wildlife reserves make their money from hunting or tourism, but not Pidwa. The John McCormick Family Trust bought the reserve 10 years ago with the sole aim of restoring habitat, providing a refuge for endangered species, and creating a healthy ecosystem able to support the full suite of animals and birds endemic to the region.

Since then, Pidwa has expanded to take in adjoining degraded farmland. With open borders to other reserves, the wildlife has almost 30,000 hectares to roam. Cheetahs and brown hyena have been reintroduced, and breeding programs are under way for buffalo and endangered nyala and sable antelopes.

A Giraffe looks at the camera

As a volunteer, my job is dogsbody to the staff, helping out under the expert direction of Askari’s Katie Rooke and Edward Smith.

On a crowded planet, it is hard work to maintain what little wilderness is left. By the time my month is over, we volunteers have removed old fencing wire strangling trees, mixed concrete by hand for a bird hide, painted fences with creosote, filled erosion gullies in tracks with rocks, and poisoned a lot of prickly pear – all to our immense satisfaction.

We call it work, but it feels like a misnomer most days. Like the afternoon of our in-field wilderness lecture, when we encounter two male giraffes in ‘training’, jostling muscular haunches and swinging necks to sink their horns into the base of each other’s throats. A slow-motion fight, but no less painful when the blows hit home.

We eventually reach a rock outcrop 60 metres above the plain, looking across Pidwa to the Klein Drakensberg (Little Dragon Mountains), glowing lilac and pink in the golden evening light. Below, zebra wander across the grassland with a tiny foal in tow.

We read the wilderness section in our workbooks, open beers and enjoy the view. A fellow volunteer does the Pride Rock pose from The Lion King, holding up the esky as our offering to the circle of life. Although we are anything but kings in this animal world.

A group of Impala

As we learn a few days later, elephants, for instance, have right of way. Always. On a narrow track we encounter Riff Raff, more than three metres tall, striding along and less than pleased to find us in his way.

He swings his head, letting us know he is not in the mood, and Ed quickly drives our vehicle off the track into the bushes. Riff Raff pauses beside us for a few casual mouthfuls of grass before setting off again.

The elephants make their presence known even when they are nowhere to be seen. Many trees have been pushed down for food or machismo displays by males – too many trees for the good of other tree-browsing animals such as giraffes and kudu.

It’s a cruel paradox that while elephants are poached for their ivory at a rate of one every 15 minutes in eastern Africa, Pidwa, like many reserves and national parks in southern Africa, has rather too many elephants for the habitat available.

Even Kruger National Park, at two million hectares the size of Wales, is struggling to cope with a population explosion after culling ended 25 years ago in the face of a global outcry.

Brown Hyena

Controlling numbers in a way that does not damage the elephants’ complex social relationships is diabolically difficult. And repopulating eastern Africa is not an option unless the poaching stops. What to do in this and other conservation dilemmas dominates many a dinnertime discussion.

Nature red in tooth and claw. One day begins with an impala by the side of the road who has had a really bad night – only its head remains. He looks faintly surprised, while the impalas standing nearby merely look relieved. Lions, I suggest hopefully. Probably not: impalas fall into the snack category for the king of beasts, hardly worth the effort.

One night, we sleep out on the grassland under the stars and a full moon. It is so bright we hardly need torches except when taking turns on watch to keep the fire burning and check around the clearing for animals too close for comfort.

We listen to jackals yipping and hippos grunting in the dark, as well as the constant impala mating calls that have formed a kind of mood music backdrop since our arrival. As the sun comes up, the lions are roaring again. They are far away but sound carries in the crisp winter dawn so they seem close to us by the river. Magical. It is all magical.

Elephant and its baby

Finally, one sunlit evening, the spell is broken. We see lions up close. Very close. So close that a large male rises from knee-high grass beside the vehicle as we approach another male and a lioness down a track. He glares as we beat a few metres’ retreat, then sinks down and disappears.

The animals’ camouflage is unsettling. Huge elephants take a few steps into the bush and are lost from view. Giraffes walk out onto tracks where there were only trees when we passed seconds earlier. Did we really just see a lion, or is his golden mane just dry grass shuffling in the breeze?

The bush that often seems utterly empty is anything but. Unseen eyes are there, watching. And some are hungry. The inevitable pitstops behind bushes out on the reserve are taken uneasily.

But for the next few days, the Pidwa lion pride at least remains in open view. Two males with dark manes, two lionesses and three cubs. We go to the Lilypan waterhole every dawn and every dusk to watch them, a leonine feast at last for my hungry eyes.

The details

Askari Wilderness Conservation Program, Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, Limpopo Province, South Africa

Four weeks’ stay about $A2200 (depending on exchange rate). Getting there: Domestic flight or bus to Hoedspruit, the nearest town, from Johannesburg or Tambo international airport. Visit: askariwcp.com

RACV Travel Insurance

Children are covered free when accompanied by a parent or grandparent. Details: racv.com.au/insurance

Written by Claire Miller
March 20, 2017