By Tolga Aktas
I first journeyed with Wildlife ACT back in July 2018 where I flew out to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to volunteer on their Endangered Species Project. Finding genuine and reputable projects is a very difficult thing to do when you are embarking on your first project abroad, but when I came across Wildlife ACT – I knew immediately that I had found the right organisation.
What inspired me the most to pack my things and leave the UK after completing my first year at university was the African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus). African wild dogs, which are also known as painted wolves amongst many other names, are South Africa’s most Endangered canid species and Wildlife ACT works tirelessly to help protect and conserve the species from becoming extinct.
African Wild Dogs used to range across 39 countries, with population numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Currently, less than 6,000 individuals are left in the wild, barely surviving in the 14 countries that the species inhabit. The wild dogs are in such a vulnerable position in their natural habitats and require all the help they can get.
With current threats such as human-wildlife conflict, being caught in snares as bycatch by poachers hunting for meat, habitat loss and infectious diseases like canine distemper and rabies – the fate of this Endangered species hangs at the end of a fragile thread.
There were many other priority species that Wildlife ACT were conserving such as the elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, cheetah and vulture, however, my love for canid species such as the African wild dog made me focus on the species even more. The first reserve that I was based at in KwaZulu-Natal was the Somkhanda Game Reserve, a current home to senior monitor Pippa Orpen. Throughout my 2-week placement at the reserve Pippa never failed to inspire me with her bush knowledge and love for protecting threatened wildlife – making my first ever experience with the wild dogs ever so memorable.
With the recent television airing of BBC’s Dynasties documentary series on the painted wolves, I realised how much effort is going into conserving the species and that I must continue to contribute what I can to one day see the animals thrive again in the wild. A species that not many people know exists and the few that do easily mistake it for a hyena, which share no common physical similarities whatsoever.
There is so much that still needs to be done to help protect wild dogs and a majority of those efforts rely on funding. Monitoring the species daily during early morning and evening game drives made me realise the harsh realities of wildlife conservation and that things are not exactly like how filming companies portray them to be.
Seeing this elusive species on numerous occasions during my time at the reserve made me truly value their appearance and allowed me to put all my energy into making a difference during my African adventure. Fortunately, the timing was great, and I was part of a wild dog collar up and darting which allowed us all to collar the alpha male of the pack. Having the opportunity to be up close and personal immediately sold it for me and I told myself ever since that I will be coming back the following year.
The truth is, I was! If everything goes well during my second year at university, my final dissertation project will focus on African wild dogs and lions at the Somkhanda Game Reserve – a place which provided so many memories and allowed me to protect my favourite species. I plan to go back out to Somkhanda in July 2019 and focus on collecting data relating to my project theme.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen the African wild dogs in the wild, as many people that I know who have been going to Africa for years have never seen them. Conservation volunteering is such an important life experience when you find the right organisation that is not only reputable, but is really doing great work for the natural world and providing a better future for the species of wildlife that are Endangered.
Wildlife ACT is an organisation that I recommend to any individual looking to experience Real Africa and obtain invaluable skills such as using telemetry to track Endangered species or setting up camera traps to observe the presence and absence of elusive animals such as wild dogs and leopards.
If you plan to see African wild dogs and other African wildlife in the wild responsibly then I recommend looking at a few of Wildlife ACT’s game reserves that provide different, but nevertheless invaluable wildlife experiences:
- Somkhanda Game Reserve, South Africa
- Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP), South Africa
- Tembe National Elephant Park, South Africa
- Manyoni Private Game Reserve, South Africa
- uMkhuze Game Reserve, South Africa
Other locations where you can see African wild dogs include:
- Kruger National Park (KNP), South Africa
- Mana Pools and the Lower Zambezi Valley, Zimbabwe
- Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
- Luangwa Valley, Zambia
- Laikipia, Kenya
- Ruaha National Park & Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania
- Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa
Ecotourism plays a very important role in wildlife conservation while providing you with the opportunity to see these incredible species up close and personal. That being said, there is a limit to how close an individual should get to a wild animal before it becomes unethical and unnatural.
When choosing any of these other locations, please do your research to see whether the wildlife conservation organisation or the safari tour operators are reputable and are not breaking the rules to provide tourists with unnatural guest satisfaction. Wildlife lives matter; do it the right way!
Tolga Aktas is an aspiring wildlife biologist, explorer and wildlife photojournalist. You can follow his research and adventures with wildlife on www.waysofthenaturalworld.wordpress.com.
Main image credit: Tolga Aktas.