The chief veterinarian motioned to me to run my hand over an area around the Rhinoceros’ chin. I could not believe the sensation I felt. No luxury Italian leather maker could burnish a hide this soft, it felt like velvet. Beneath me this lumbering beast snored and jittered, we had just tranquilized him and our team was feverishly engaged in anti poaching protocols — ear notching, DNA capture and tagging — in addition to making medical assessments.
That’s when it struck me: these are actually very soft creatures, in stark contrast to their appearance. This, along with the fact that they are almost blind (their vision extends only a handful of yards) and that they are herbivores with no animal predator to threaten them, makes the current Rhino poaching epidemic all the more galling to contemplate. It made me eternally grateful I had the opportunity to travel halfway around the world to participate in this immersive and authentic way, to hopefully make a lasting, meaningful impact.
We are often inspired to use our skills and resources to travel to make a difference, the challenge is finding the right platforms and projects. In Southern Africa there are a number of platforms that enable and encourage travelers to engage in activities where resources donated — time, money or other — are going directly to the bottom line and achieving a stated goal. I don’t want to disincentivize anyone from donating to worthy conservation organizations — they do great and valuable work — but actually going yourself and contributing in situ is a powerful and invaluable experience.
Rhinoceros conservation is arguably the most crucial wildlife conservation platform, because if we do not act, we will lose the species in our lifetime. The good news is that there are a number of other philanthropic travel initiatives.
Gorilla conservation in Rwanda is exciting and diverse. It’s time spent habituating Gorillas (and Chimpanzees for the more adventurous) along with efforts to reforest habitats that are home to a myriad of primates. Hacking for hours through virgin rainforest only to come face to face with a great ape that shares 98+% of your DNA is, trust me, emotive.
Zambia is making great strides in carnivore research and conservation. In remote, vast, million acre plus wildlife reserves, travelers have the opportunity to be part of a team that darts and collars lions. You work with experts and local anti-poaching authorities, an all around amazing experience.
Large mammal research is particularly gratifying when it comes to elephants. The demand for ivory, and the subsequent poaching, is rising. You can volunteer for a platform that conducts elephants census, allows you to collar them and to follow around community-liaison folks as they engage with rural villagers to effectively incentivize them not to poach, and to realize that they can benefit financially from the wildlife, through tourism, if the animals are being protected.
Social upliftment projects and platforms are just as important as conservation. To ensure that nearby rural communities benefit from wildlife tourism is absolutely key to sustainable efforts. And projects that provide opportunities for the local youth are vital. ‘Buy in’ from the next generation of game rangers, trackers and tourism professionals will help safeguard millions of acres of pristine ecology and the animals that thrive in these areas.
Children in the Wildernessis a multifaceted organization that offers volunteers the opportunity to serve as activity leaders, introducing children to bush veld and greater life skills, and providing environmental education and teaching team building and leadership capability.
These are enlightening, powerful pursuits. The sense of achievement from helping save a species or inspire future conservation guardians is palpable. Travel time is precious, here’s a chance to use it wisely.
Darren Humphreys, in addition to his dizzying fame as a WONDERLUST contributor, runs Travel Sommelier, an elite luxury safari and wine tourism company, with his wife Caitlin.