Chloe Garrigues is a conservationist from Worcestershire, UK whose life changed dramatically when she took a year out to volunteer in South Africa (SA).
She completed a BSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, during which she went on a field course to SA, where she was first introduced to the Nkombi Volunteer Programme. This project was set up to give students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience on a working reserve, where they assist with all aspects of wildlife management. They aim to inspire their guests to be passionate and responsible about conservation, through showing them the beauty of wildlife.
Chloe returned to Nkombi after graduation, came back to the UK for the first part of her MRes, then completed her second half back in SA. It was here she met her fiancé, Luke and is now living on a reserve, with a long-term volunteer position in ecotourism at Nkombi.
What kind of research did you work on for your Masters in SA?
I did my project on the importance of education in conservation, looking at how much students knew before their field course to Nkombi versus after, such as research techniques and conservation issues.
Did you find that education was an important aspect of ecotourism?
Yes! I noticed a huge difference in all aspects – from understanding the research techniques to conservation issue knowledge like rhino poaching. I have also seen this with ecotourism in general, when returning students bring out their families for our winter and summer specials. Obviously the families may not be as interested in conservation, but I always notice a huge difference in their understanding by the time they leave.
Do you have a main passion or cause that drives you?
I would say the fight against rhino poaching is my main passion, but that is probably because it is what I have been most exposed to. When I previously volunteered with baboons I learnt about the stigma in SA around them – they are seen as vermin, which is why a lot of them are orphaned, farmers shoot them. So they are another one of my passions, I think they are massively misunderstood as a species.
As volunteer coordinator at Nkombi now, what responsibilities do you have day to day (when you actually have volunteers there)?
Pretty much every activity they do I am with them, so it depends on the schedule for the day. Usually in the morning I will make sure everyone is up and ready to go, then if we have new volunteers I make sure they know how to make breakfast and where everything is.
I then take them out into the bush to teach and carry out techniques for the various research projects we carry out, such as Veld Condition Indexes, Large Mammal Surveys, Water Bird Surveys and Behavioural Observations. This is normally from about 7am, then I bring them back for lunch. If anyone wants to do an activity over lunch, I sort that out – whether it’s going for a walk, a swim or a picnic in the treehouse. If anyone has any questions or doesn’t feel comfortable for whatever reason, they can come and speak to me.
I also organise the cooking and cleaning rota, and make sure everyone knows what they are doing. You would be surprised how many come out and don’t know how to cook!
Luke and I are working from the moment we step outside, so we have a cut off point at 9pm where we stop socialising and go back to our own cabin. But to summarise I basically make sure everyone is getting along, they are happy and making sure the activities run smoothly. Then every other week I take the volunteers to Sun City to show them around and relax with them, which is pretty nice because it’s part of my job but also like a day off for me!
What would you say are the best and then the hardest parts of the job? Is it hard to keep up with the amount of people you meet or do you find yourself forming friendships?
I would say that the best part is meeting so many different people that are like minded and share my passion and love for animals. They also tend to be quite laid back and not materialistic, otherwise they wouldn’t come and live in the bush! So I really enjoy the social aspect and learning from them as they might come from a different background, but I also like teaching them what I know.
The hardest part I would say is having very little space to yourself; we have our own cabin but we used to still share a bathroom and kitchen with the volunteers. It is almost a 24/7 job, so sometimes you do get really tired and wish you could clock off early and relax, but you can’t really do that here as you are with the volunteers all the time. Plus even though I am happy I am not always the best at hiding if I am tired!
It’s not too hard to keep up with everyone; we get a lot of returning volunteers, and in this environment you are immediately thrown into seeing everyone from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep. So it’s pretty easy to get to know people quite closely, and because everyone has the same interests it is rare you meet someone you don’t get along with.
What has been your favourite accomplishment or project you have gotten to work on so far in your time out there?
That’s a really hard question as I feel like I have done so many amazing things. I loved being part of the horn trimmings in Pilanesberg, as that was such a huge operation. After learning about the better chance of survival rhinos have after trimming, as well as the amount of poaching Pilanseberg has suffered, to see a rhino there with a horn is exciting but I also fear for their survival. So to be part of the operation in a National Park (the first to do this ever), that is definitely one of my proudest moments.
Also being on the reserve during lockdown where we have hardly any staff (who also have weekends off), this leaves only five of us working at times. So to be part of helping the reserve through COVID-19 is something I will always be proud of as well.
Any advice for those who are thinking about a career in ecotourism like yourself?
I would say don’t be too specific in what you want to do in terms of conservation, species or even country. Try to be open minded but also do your research on what jobs are out there and what they entail! I never specifically planned to work in South Africa but things just turned out this way!
Thinking of a job in ecotourism? Head over to our ecotourism jobs board.