Sophie's Gap Year Diary – Volunteering at an Elephant Sanctuary
My latest instalment is a bit more exciting because I am now writing from South Africa, where I've been volunteering at an elephant sanctuary for nearly 3 weeks – oh how time flies.
Don't be nervous
Naturally I was a bit apprehensive before coming out here. It would be my first time travelling alone and the longest I had stayed away from home before, but now I know that none of my concerns (read my 5 Gap Year Fears article) were worth worrying about. I've made lifelong friends, the country is absolutely beautiful and the elephants are just the cherry on top of a very delicious cake. You'll never know everything about your trip before you arrive, but it's best just to accept it and enjoy the adventure.
What does volunteering with elephants involve?
The park that I'm working at runs a very active volunteer programme into the research of African elephants. The job of the volunteers is essentially to record as much data as possible into the behaviour of elephants in partial or full captivity, with the intent of making life as comfortable as possible for them when, for one reason or another, they can't be released back into the wild. The research carried out is shared internationally with other reserves, sanctuaries, parks and zoos; and they're also appealing for a change in South African law to provide minimum living standards for captive elephants.
The elephants themselves are all rescued, either from culling programmes, circuses, zoos, or just as orphans. Obviously the ultimate aim is to release them back into the wild, but for those who can't be released, life here at the park isn't too bad either. They have a 'free roaming environment,' so even though a few tourists come to visit, the elephants aren't forced into anything they don't want to do, and they can essentially roam anywhere they choose.
As far as my personal experience goes, I've loved every minute of working here. The days are fairly long – we start at 6:30, cleaning out branches from the boma (which is where the elephants spend the night), and then have a break for breakfast before starting again at 8:30. We are then scheduled in for various shifts until 6:30 in the evening. We could be watching the main herd of elephants in the field, the bachelor herd in the orchard, entering data into the records, taking photos for the park's social media sites, or making dung paper to sell in the gift shop (a personal favourite) – the day is really varied, it never gets dull.
Occasionally we are put on a really early morning observational shift, starting at 5am, or an evening shift which lasts until 9:30pm. Once a fortnight we also carry out an all night observation – this involves drawing times out of a hat to see who gets the short straw and is out of bed at 3am...(touch wood).
All good things must come to an end
I've only got a week left until I go home but the time really has flown by. In fact, if you're thinking of volunteering or travelling anywhere I would definitely recommend staying a bit longer than I have! It might seem like a long time but trust me, once you're here you won't want to leave! My time here has been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone.