All except two of my trips to the continent of Africa have been with African Impact. Going with an organisation like them is an excellent way of taking part in wildlife conservation and being able to photograph completely different animals, landscapes and people to when I’m back home. It’s also a fantastic way to meet other likeminded people from all over the world, and the friendships that you make on these volunteer projects make it even better.
One of our conservation tasks on the Mara project is to help with repairing ‘roads’. Our work entailed gathering rocks from various areas and placing them in the ruts made by vehicles on a track so that it will still be passable when it rains and the track turns to mud.
Another task was to mark out new routes by cutting back bushes with machetes and laying branches in lines through areas that are currently impassable in a vehicle. This is so that tracks can be followed and vehicles don’t just drive anywhere and everywhere which would destroy all the land. Having said that, if there is an interesting sighting of an animal, we can go ‘off road’ in order to get closer to it. Some of the volunteers love hacking at branches with machetes!
Each afternoon we headed out for a 3 hour drive to take notes of any big cats and elephants that we saw. We photographed whatever identification details of each animal we could, recorded the GPS location, how many there were, and whether they were mating or hunting etc. This information is passed on to other organisations who track their movements, prides, and numbers. Each cat has different whisker patterns so I was able to provide good close up photos of them for their database as I was lucky enough to have a very long lens with me.
This lioness will be easily recognisable in the future, as she’d obviously been in a very recent fight. We were assured that she would heal up, but this bottom lip is never going to knit together. We were astounded at how unfazed she was by this as it looks like she should be in agony.
Each elephant has distinguishing markings too – their ears have notches and holes of different sizes, patterns, and places, and their tusks are another identifying factor – they can be broken, lopsided, curved differently, different lengths between each other, crossed, splayed, or one higher than the other. When you know what to look for it starts to become clear how each one can be picked out and identified. The one below is a good example as she has a hole and several notches and patterns in her left ear, and has uneven tusks.
Each week we did a game count. There are designated blocks of land and every animal we saw within those blocks was counted and recorded. The information is passed on to the conservancy managers so that they can ensure the grassland can sustain the animals on it. The Maasai people are mostly cattle and sheep farmers, and they graze their animals here.
If there is an increase in wildlife, such as when the wildebeest flood into the area during the great migration, the cattle will have to be grazed in a different area. Land has to be carefully managed, and we volunteers with African Impact can make a positive difference and help this process.
One evening we stopped on one of the plains and were able to get out and stretch our legs – a huge herd of wildebeest were close by and it was fantastic to be on the ground as they ran past. The light was so low I knew there was no point in trying to photograph them in any other way than attempting some motion blur shots.
Another task is measuring grass! Just like the game counts, this is so that the conservancy can be managed. It involved going to pre-determined locations on the plains and measuring the gaps where there is absolutely no grass. Any gaps that are longer than 25cm are recorded and this information is passed on to the conservancy managers.
We also spent a morning chopping off tree branches in order to make soil barriers in ditches that have been eroded. We then hammered some posts into the ground, wove smaller branches around them, and tied them with wire. The purpose of this is to stop the soil from being eroded further during the rainy season, and to let the deep ditches gradually fill up again with soil from the banks.
The accommodation on this project is right next door to a guiding school and volunteers work closely with them. The prospective guides are all Maasai and the course is one year long. In order to be accepted into the school they have to be able to speak English and pass various tests. They live at the school with the hope of qualifying at the end of the year and getting a job as a guide afterwards. The idea is to employ local people instead of outsiders and give them the opportunity to earn a good wage. Each day a couple of trainees came out on our drives in order to gain experience and confidence in talking to people. They always wore their traditional clothes and it was a privilege for me to meet them and find out more about their lives. It was surprising to me to discover that there are 5 young women on the course – times are finally moving on here 🙂
On this project the volunteers go into one of the lessons at the guiding school each week unless the trainees are on a break. The week we went in, each trainee had to give a short talk on an animal of our choosing. This entailed standing up in front of everyone and telling us what they knew about that animal. Some did much better than others of course but they were only 4 weeks into the course, and we had to give feedback to them as to how they could improve.
After the lesson had finished we were able to chat freely with them, and they were all very lovely and keen to receive individual feedback and practice their English. A group photo just had to be done!
One of the African Impact employees (Francis) is a graduate of the school, and we were also taken out each day by guide Joseph and intern David.
Joseph was a great storyteller and often had us in fits of laughter with his tales. Friday evenings were campfire nights, and once we’d eaten and chatted, the guys would put some music on and teach us to dance. Having no lights outside meant that I didn’t take photos, but on our sundowners drives the dancing continued.