It’s not all cuddles in conservation
After my first time in Africa, I could not wait to go back and a year later I found myself volunteering again, this time in Malawi. The Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWC) has dedicated itself to protecting Malawi’s wildlife and its habitat, founded in 2008 with the first project being the wildlife centre. Since then the organisation as grown to include: conservation education, advocacy and enforcement and rescue and rehabilitation
LWC is a haven for animals that are rescued from the illegal pet trade and wildlife trafficking. It is also a sanctuary for injured and sick animals found or confiscated from members of the public. The centre has fully trained staff who are passionate about the care of wildlife. The staff consists of local Malawians and members from around the world, this team is complimented by a plethora of volunteers who work around the clock to provide care for all the animals, especially the orphans.
The centre also runs outreach projects to include school education and protected area and community outreach. All these projects consist of conservation education, encourage more sustainable living and the importance of protecting wildlife and the environment. On top of this tireless work the centre also facilitates research projects and welcomes veterinary professionals from all over the world to take part in intern and externships, these are open to students and veterinary nurses.
The centre can be proud of its accreditations, PASA (Pan African Sanctuary Alliance), GFAS (Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries) and the Born Free Foundation through the PAW (People & Wildlife) scheme. It’s also, a Responsible Tourism Award winner. While patrons of the centre include conservationist Virginia Mckenna, OBE, you can be assured that Lilongwe is a well-respected and trusted organisation with animal welfare and conservation at the heart of its work.
As a veterinary nurse, I was lucky enough to witness and assist with the pre-release health checks of a vervet monkey troop. As exciting as this was it meant that my first full day on the job was earlier than normal with alarm times that I have never even witnessed in my London lifestyle. I would clamber out of my bed, check I had no snoozey cockroaches on my pyjamas, change into my most ‘safari Africa’ get up I could find and head on out to the vet room to meet the team. Veterinary life in Africa was a whole new world, the early start was to avoid the hottest part of the day and we were taking the vet room to the enclosure, a good fifteen-minute walk laden with boxes and bags full of syringes, needles, drugs and laboratory supplies – and our water. Never go anywhere without water. I love the outdoors but setting up vet camp in the jungle was very surreal, being used to four very clinical walls obsessively labelled and certainly not covered in dust. That being said I embraced it, this is where I wanted to be, on the frontline, in the action and making a difference.
The next phase – monkey anaesthesia, it dawned on me that I hadn’t anaesthetised a primate ever in my life and here I was stethoscope at the ready clipboard in hand, looking the part. At least I was familiar with the drugs being used, that was an advantage. In the five spare minutes before starting I decided to give myself a pep talk, used all my clinical reasoning and convinced myself that this was nothing different to back home, process was the same so I had this covered. Before long the monkey was there in front of me on the make shift work space and I dived straight in, remembering I always did work well under pressure
Ten vervet monkeys later the heat had creeped up a few levels, it was time to pack up and head back, to return the following day. The morning had consisted of excellent team work, great bonding exercise and some serious learning. All monkeys recovered uneventfully and were returned to the troop.
They had blood and faceal samples taken, TB testing, ear tags checked and replaced, full health checks and the females had their contraceptive implants removed.
Time to get fit
The centre did not have the luxuries of a washing machine, all bedding was hand washed and hand rung in the early morning sun, which is as fierce and unforgiving as any other time of day. All animal food was prepared by volunteers and feeding often meant wondering through the wilderness to enclosures in oversized overalls (I’m 5ft 2) carrying items that got heavier by the second. Browsing was definitely a physical task; three volunteers would head off into the bush wielding various tree cutting implements. Part of me felt like I was living the childhood dream, the other part trying to scan the floor for snakes and simultaneously watch for low handing branches. I sure was fighting fit after three weeks. By 6pm everyone had undertaken so much physical work that we all ate and read our books heading to bed around 8pm. Fortunately the centre has a chef and a cleaner, lunch and dinner was always prepared for us and our volunteer house kept tidy with our washing done. I’m not sure any of us would have even eaten had it not been for our amazing chef. Some nights even chewing was barely within my reach. The kitchen was fully vegetarian, much to my delight, with a rotating menu and a washing up rota to ensure everyone did their fair share.
Week two. As adorable as baby animals may be, they also require much more from us in terms of their care. Orphan animals often present at the centre sick or injured, and if there are no visible ailments it’s likely that these small creatures are suffering from shock and/or mental trauma. Animals this young and small are vulnerable. Unfortunately, this means they are susceptible to infection, and nursing them can be intense, we must be very cautious and ensure we follow all protocol correctly. Lilongwe protocol for raising orphans that can be released into the wild means we must ensure the orphans do no become humanised. This process can apply to any animal.
Humanisation of an animal is a process whereby they come habituated to humans in close proximity or human contact. This means animals no longer have a natural fear of humans that they may encounter. They may associate humans with food. It is in these cases that they can be tempted in the wild to approach humans, bringing them closer to harms way.
The centre works hard to ensure non-contact policies are followed unless there is a specific need, like hand rearing primates, bottle feeding or medical care. If this is the case the appropriate staff are responsible for this or trained long term volunteers with relevant experience/training. Long term volunteers are chosen for these tasks as it is better to keep continuity of care for orphans. All dealings with animals is an opportunity for infection to spread, this is especially important with primates, because humans and non-human primates can contract diseases easily from each other, even things such as parasites can be transmitted, we wear numbered overalls and properly disinfect after each shift, this involves a full shower and our clothes are placed straight into the wash. The all blue overalls also help reduce humanisation of the animals. All interactions with animals are ideally carried out by staff wearing the blue overalls, this again reduces the chance of humanisation as they only associate the blue uniform with food or surrogate mums therefore they have no strong connection to humans in normal clothing.
I was lucky enough to be involved in a game count on my first weekend at the centre. The game count took place at Kuti Wildlife Reserve (https://www.kuti-malawi.org/about) , an absolutely stunning area spanning 2000 hectares. A rather interesting drive there, be sure to drive carefully to avoid goats, cows and bicycles. On arrival, we were presented with an incredible sunset, food and drinks.
The game count commenced with a 5am start, splitting into groups and being dropped off at various drop off points around the perimeter of the park. At a given time we were all to set off towards middle of the park, noting down all wildlife we saw on the way. Mammal species included, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, civets and one camel. Multiple antelope can be seen also, sable, reedbuck, waterbuck, bushbuck, kudu and impala to name a few.
Following the count, breakfast was served and the team headed over to lake Malawi for a relax and swim. Do be aware that once swimming in or walking close by the lake side it is best to obtain a wormer from the pharmacist as Bilharzia cases have been reported from Lake Malwai. Bilharzia is a tiny worm than uses the human body as a host to lay its eggs.
The centre has excellent outreach programs, I didn’t get chance to take part in them all, although I did make it out to 3 schools with the education team. Frank and Nebbart did a fantastic job of incorporating the volunteers into their lessons plans. The subject we were teaching was ‘Wildlife Crime’, quite an emotive topic with some fairly gruesome footage for the children to watch. Children are born with a natural fascination with nature so school is the perfect time to encourage this. My favourite part was when we show the hotline number on which people call to report wildlife crimes and the children all rush to write this down.
Malawi is among one of the poorest countries in the world, also one of the safest countries of Africa to travel. I flew there alone ready to be collected at the airport by Lilongwe staff. I received such a warm welcome by all the members of the centres team. The taxi into the town was always fun but I suggest going with at least one other person.
The 3 weeks I spent in Malawi is by far one of the best decisions I ever made, it was a far cry from life in the UK. This was a real test of how much you really do love wildlife, we regularly shared the shower with the cockroaches, however they were clearly less fussed by the humans they shared their space with. Volunteer life was enjoyable although I must stress that it is not all cuddles in conservation, it is early mornings, late nights and every other bit challenging in the hours between. The main challenge was navigating the bunk bed steps and mosquito net without waking or harming any other humans.
I would highly recommend Malawi as a country and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust to anybody wishing for a change to everyday life. Volunteering is not a holiday, especially when it comes to conservation!
Despite the media coverage of volunteering abroad, it’s not all cuddles where conservation is concerned.