I love my volunteer work with the Wildlife Conservation Network (WNC). I am lucky to get to take passionate, committed lovers of wildlife to conservation projects all over the world. One of the key promises WNC makes to its supporters is to provide them with frequent, quality opportunities to engage with the conservationists “upfront and personal.” We do this both here at our headquarters in the Bay Area when we invite the conservationists to visit and we also sponsor one or two trips per year to take our supporters to visit the conservationistsʼ projects overseas.
Recently, I went on my second trip with WNC. This year we traveled to four countries in Africa: Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Mozambique. In three of the countries we stayed with the conservationists who head up the Wildlife Conservation Network projects. The WCN partners we visited were:
– Uganda: Dr. Gladys-Kalema Zikusoka who works with the endangered mountain gorillas
– Kenya: Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamiltion, the worldʼs leading expert in elephant conservation and Belinda Low who works with the endangered Grevyʼs zebra.
– Mozambique: Dr. Colleen Begg, who works to save lions in Niassa National Park
Wildlife Conservation Network, headquartered here in the Bay Area, is dedicated to ﬁnding and supporting “wildlife conservation entrepreneurs.” WCN seeks out innovative and community-based conservationists around the world and provides them with the capital and tools they need to carry out their work.
When a person becomes a WCN partner, they must do a few things, including working with an endangered species, employing only indigenous people, living in the host country year-round, and establishing educational and community programs around wildlife and environmental conservation. On this trip, I acted as a tour guide for WCN partners. The purpose of trips like the one that I lead is to allow WCN partners to see what moved them the most. For some people it is the children of the local communities, for others the endangered species, for some it is rebuilding villages… it varies from person to person. Then, once back in the states, they can fundraise to help the cause.
The overall highlight of the trip was being able to spend time with the scientists who are saving these magnificent species. It was also wonderful to be able to spend time with the local people and the children in schools.
Uganda: We spent three days tracking gorillas in mountains of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest at 7,500 feet. I have never been more exhausted, sweaty, filthy, or muddy in my life, but I had also never been happier. To come up upon a 400 pound silverback silently staring at you is humbling, awe-inspiring and breathtaking. Iʼm a photographer and it was a constant battle whether to capture the moment with my camera or just sit and stare in awe.
In between our treks with Gladys, a doctor in Uganda who works to help gorillas, we were invited to visit a local community meeting. Gladys heads up the group called Conservation Through Public Health whose mission is to conserve gorillas by ensuring the health of the local people.
We attended a meeting of about 75 villagers who are working to find ways to improve the cleanliness of the local water distribution systems in order to prevent sickness. When we arrived to the little hut in the forest where the meeting was held, the meeting organizers had brought in “special guest” cushioned wicker chairs for us (as opposed to the wood chairs and benches they used for themselves) and put a little tray of cold bottles of Coca Cola next to our chairs. Never let it be said that there is no hospitality in the primitive African rain forest. We were so impressed by the villagersʼ dedication, commitment and professionalism toward improving their communities. They all do this on a volunteer basis and speak with pride and conviction about their successes and challenges.
On our last day in Uganda we had a chance to visit the schools in Buhoma, the area where we stayed. Each time we entered a classroom, from kindergarten to high school, the children would immediately stand and begin singing a welcome song to us. These children live in some of the most impoverished conditions in the world. Their schoolrooms consist of a dirt ﬂoor, one chalkboard, and, if they are lucky, a little table that acts as a desk. Still, they sang to us with joy and were as polite and gracious as any children Iʼve ever met.
Rwanda: Our funny and spirited guide, Francois, is highly in demand in this part of Rwanda as he was Dian Fosseyʼs lead tracker and right-hand man. Of course, no one is allowed to touch the gorillas, but on our trek in Rwanda one of the baby gorillas actually came up to our most senior member (a delightful 70 year-old woman) and touched her leg. She told me afterwards this was the highlight not only of her trip, but of her life (well, maybe except for the birth of her children and grandchildren).
Other highlights in Rwanda included meeting with Dr. Eugene Rutagarama, Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program, meeting Berra Kabarungi, Director of Women for Women International in Rwanda, and attending a ceremony with President Paul Kagame actor Don Cheadle from “Hotel Rwanda.”
Our trip to Rwanda culminated in a visit to the Genocide Memorial. It is a small museum set amongst gardens and a mass grave for 250,000 of those who were murdered. During the genocide the Hutu extremists dug mass graves to hide their vile killings. Afterwards 250,000 bodies of the more than 800,000 who were murdered were exhumed and transferred to the mass grave at the memorial. Inside, the museum recounts the history and horrors of the long-standing conﬂict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. The last room is dedicated to the children who were murdered, showing a larger-than-life picture of the child and a descriptive panel such as this one:
Name: Francine Ingabire, Age: 12, Favourite Sport: Swimming, Favourite Food: Eggs and chips, Best friend: elder sister Claudette, Last words: “Save me mumma.” Cause of Death: Hacked by machete
It is not possible to exit the museum dry-eyed.
Kenya: Before flying to Samburu to meet with Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, we stopped for a tour of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, later run by his widow, Daphne. The elephant orphanage in Nairobi takes in baby orphan elephants from all over Kenya and raises them together until they are old enough to survive on their own. We watched the baby elephants feeding from bottles, playing
with each other, and goofing around like normal kids.
When we first landed in Samburu we met Bernard and Alfred who had brought us a delicious picnic lunch to enjoy before we embarked on our safari. As we drove to our lodge for the next five days, we were escorted by elephants, lions, giraffes, wild dogs, baboons, Grevyʼs zebra and camels.
Soon we arrived at Elephant Watch, where Oria borrowed a little tv so her warriors employees could watch the opening game of the World Cup between South Africa and Mexico. We were invited to gather around the tv with her staff and partake in the festivities. Of course everyone was rooting for South Africa, except one of our donors, the very same 70 year-old woman who had been touched by the gorilla. She had been born and raised in Mexico. Some of our happiest and most touching moments of the trip were sitting there with the Samburu tribesmen in the middle of nowhere, worlds apart in life experiences, yet coming together for a few hours to share in the spirit of the moment.
Our final stop was Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique. After a 15 year Civil War which ended in 1992, Mozambique is rebuilding itself and in the northern area of Niassa the wildlife populations are now flourishing. Niassa isnʼt for the first-time safari-goer, however. Unlike Tanzania or Kenya, where you step in your LandRover and within a few minutes you are amidst abundant wildlife, here you actually do go on safari, the Swahili word meaning “journey.” Although the park supports elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, sable, eland and zebra, getting to them and finding them in this lush and overgrown wilderness area is somewhat more problematic than driving up to them at the Ngorongo Crater in Tanzania. The upside is that once you spot something, you can be guaranteed that you will be the only vehicle for miles around.
After two nights at Lugenda and our first leopard spotting, we headed to the even more remote camp of Keith and Colleen Begg, WCNʼs newest partners. The only way to get to their camp is by canoe along the Lugenda River. We arrived two hours later and were immediately taken to visit the local school where the children ran out to greet us and sing to us. Another hour drive took us to the Beggʼs camp where they live with their two young children, Ellie, age four and Finn, 18 months. Their “home” is a tent pitched on top of their LandRover to protect them from the lions, which they study as part of the Niassa Lion Project.
This was our first night camping in tents as there are no lodges nearby. I was a bit concerned for my donors as this was not their typical “level” of accommodation. But after sitting around the campfire on the banks of the river enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal, listening to Keithʼs and Colleenʼs stories
about living in the bush, showering under the stars, and sleeping in the pristine air, we all agreed the next morning this was best experience of the whole trip and we only wished we could stay longer.
Anyone who has been to Africa knows that it is not the easiest place to travel. And while the WCN trips tend to be more “upscale,” we still spend most of our time in the bush with the conservationists. So, that means rugged roads, hours sitting and waiting to find wildlife or wait for them to “do something,” basic food, hot and/or humid weather (depending on the season), and, particularly in Uganda and Rwanda, exhausting hiking and uneven terrain. Not to mention having to let go of any shred of pride when the guides have to push you up the mountain by your derriere.
Four days before we left, British Airways went on strike so instead of flying London to Entebbe, we ended up flying Emirates: San Francisco to Dubai and Dubai to Entebbe. Although it took an extra several hours, it was well worth it. We spent the night in Dubai and had a chance to explore this fascinating city, not to mention getting a good nightʼs rest paid for by the airline.
While many of our flights were charter flights, the main stumbling block will come when you have to transfer through Nairobi. Both of our major delays occurred there. But, you soon come to learn that in Africa you just “make a plan” and go with the flow. This is not a trip for the impatient.
Who would you recommend this experience to?
You do not need to be a WCN supporter to go on one of its trips. They are for anyone who considers himself or herself to be a global citizen and cares about indigenous people and their environment. If you have a passion for adventure, a love of wildlife and compassion for other cultures, these trips are for you.
The next WCN trip will be an exclusive trail riding expedition to the remote Bale Mountains in Ethiopia with WCN partner Dr. Claudio Sillero, the worldʼs leading expert on Ethiopian wolves. The trip begins November 16, 2011.
For questions regarding Wildlife Conservation Networkʼs Donor Travel Program, contact Sherry Paul at email@example.com