Wild Voluntourism: One Story of Working with Big Cats in Namibia
Published by The Atlantic on September 25, 2011. To read the original article, click here. It was pitch-black as I walked to my cabin after my first day of volunteering at a big cat sanctuary in Namibia. Reflecting on my day as I navigated the contours of the dirt path, I recalled grueling work in the bush. Morning devoted to cutting raw horsemeat in preparation for afternoon feedings, outings to which I was not invited, relegated to cleaning a vast aviary where I shoveled dirt and bird feces for several hours, their stains imprinted on my clothes for days to come.
And then, redemption: my first lion roar.
On its first vocalization, the beautifully intense symphony of roars seemed dangerously close. Sound waves spiraled into the night until they reached the tip of my nose, where they seemed suspended in space and time. Fear took over, conjuring a bone-chilling image: a pride of lions, manes and tawny fur brushing against each other, bounding towards the promise of my human scent.
But the thorn-ridden savannah stood perfectly still. A belated moon rose overhead, casting faint light over a stunning yet uneventful panorama: lions had not escaped their enclosures in a man-hungry frenzy a la Ghosts in the Darkness. These were captive lions, marking makeshift territories.
For several weeks, I experienced the ebbs and flows of life as a volunteer. Just after the first rays of sunshine pierced the screens of our cabin walls, my fellow volunteers and I tumbled out of bed and into a day filled with activities, fueled by unbridled enthusiasm for wildlife and lukewarm coffee. Instructed by Frikkie, a fearless Namibian native who reminds me of a maverick I once knew, a stoic Texas cowboy whose passing was surely marked by a coyote's melancholy cry.
Frikkie divided our teams into daily activities: the fortunate were sent on lion walks and cheetah runs, where volunteers encourage captive animals to behave like wild ones so that they might one day be set loose. How re-wilding efforts are accomplished stirs heated debate among conservationists and poses risks to the animals and individuals involved.
More "mundane" activities revolved around feeding and animal caretaking, staple tasks that ensure healthy, happy wildlife. I learned how to carve raw meat out of grotesque places, including donkey and horse heads. Appreciating an animal's mood and adjusting accordingly -- these were more important tricks that I gleaned along the way. They tapped into long-dormant human instincts, the type that protected our ancestors against predators when all species competed for survival.
On a sunny winter morning, I became one of the lucky few to witness a live animal release.
The dusty white vehicle quieted its engine. To its right, some 50 yards away, were several trucks, their interiors filled with anxious volunteers rifling through backpacks for cameras, attempting to secure the ideal vantage point. On the other side of the truck was a large wooden blind. Another ten volunteers pressed against its camouflaged exterior, eyes glued to rectangular window panels.
Frikkie paced the vehicle's perimeter, surveying the surrounding brush and acacia trees, careful to rule out the presence of any other predators. Taking a deep breath, he lowered the rear hatch of the truck and inspected the rope knotted to a hefty wooden crate.
Having checked it twice, he made his way towards the passenger door, propping his lean body against it. He threaded the rope through the window to the organization's resident leopard expert, before bolting towards the driver's seat. He pulled the door shut and waited.
The rope, now taut, tugged at the crate door, unintentionally provoking the wild leopardess waiting inside. With one sweeping motion the crate door sprung open. The leopardess bellowed, her fury vibrating into the desert air. Cameras clicked atop joyous grins.
And then, in an indiscernible flash, she was gone.