I have said it time and time again, giving my time to lion conservation volunteer efforts at Antelope Park was one of the best times in my life. Not only did I get to be a part of something incredible – attempting to save a species from extinction – but also I had the honour of meeting and working alongside some incredible people from all over the world. Upon returning from Zimbabwe, I asked a handful of other volunteers what they thought about their experience – in this series I share their answers, to let you see that I am in good company in thinking that the lion conservation efforts at Antelope Park is an incredible way to get involved in some socially responsible travel. In each “Meet a Lion Conservation Volunteer” post I will highlight a volunteer or two and share their opinions on the program.
Meet the Lion Conservation Volunteer: Justine Williams
Justine Williams is a 21 year old student at the University of Calgary taking a B.Sc Zoology. She is also a coach and player in the sport of ringette, works at two veterinarian clinics, is an aspiring veterinarian and the author of the website For The Love Of… which further documents her time at Antelope Park.
1. How did you find out about ALERT & Antelope Park?
I found out about Antelope Park prior to discovering ALERT. It started when my friend, Alex Alfaro, and I started looking into volunteer trips abroad which would have a primary focus on animal care. Our various Internet searches kept directing us to the African Impact site. The various options of placement included volunteering, and we found several programs working with the wildlife in various parts of Africa. After considering our options, we settled on what seemed like the project with the most hands-on animal time, but also had a focus on conversation and research, which led us to Antelope Park.
Prior to our departure to Antelope Park, I did my own investigating on the program and facility and discovered that there was more to the program than simply walking lions and cleaning enclosure The program itself was much larger than a commercial aspect. ALERT was the driving force behind Antelope Park, and was critical int he research and reestablishment of the lion and subsequently the reason why it was possible for me to visit such a location working with the symbol of Africa.
All of my knowledge and initial exposure to Antelope Park and ALERT was minimal before I arrived, and my research did not do the program justice. However, Antelope Park did an excellent job of introducing and explaining the philosophies behind both programs and for those volunteers who were less informed, we brought “up to speed” on the real reason why ALERT and Antelope Park exist.
I have always been big on “giving back” and donating what I could. As a student, financial support of charities and foundations is not something that is necessarily feasible at this point in my life. By donating my time, I am able to fulfill my desire to be part of something big and help deserving groups and foundations out. Also, always having the desire to travel and the desire to give back, combining the two and going abroad to volunteer my time was just an easy decision for me! I would rather spend every vacation day volunteering and knowing that I am helping the greater good by giving something that is so easy to come by: my time!
3. What is your favourite memory of your time at Antelope Park?
This is a difficult question and one I still struggle with even months after returning home from Antelope Park. I don’t think I have just one, so I will share a couple.
The lions. Hands down, without a doubt, the lions are incredible. From the cubs who come and greet you at each lion walk and affectionately let you know that they are pleased to see you, to the adult lions who became a welcome chorus of roars at every sunrise and sunset. You learn each lions personality that you work with, and they get to know you, and so together you build a relationship and it makes working at the program at Antelope Park more meaningful. As a result, every lion walk is special and unique, beginning with a greeting from your favourite lion or two, to watching them stalk different prey in park, with the picturesque African sky as a back drop. What isn’t to love about that?!
One of the things that I did not expect, and I assume many other people did not expect either, is how quickly you can love a place, the people and new friends. Antelope Park became home within hours and you do not realize how much you miss something or someone until it is gone. After Alex and I had gone to Victoria Falls for a week in the middle of our stay at Antelope Park, Jealous had come and picked us up from the bus station in Gweru. He drove us back to Antelope Park and upon our arrival he said words which will I will never forget: “Welcome Home”. Something so simple was so meaningful and even though I missed Antelope Park and my heart longed to return, the second we arrived back, was when I realized that it was truthfully our home. Better yet, a home isn’t quite a home without people to share it with and I was fortunate enough to share it with 20+ volunteers and even more staff who I came to love as family. There were a few people who I got to know well and spent a lot of my time with at Antelope Park including Ellie, Lauren, and Sarah. These 3 people made mine and Alex’s farewell unforgettable, and to this day, it still brings me to tears. Over the course of our stay, we had many trademark dance moves and sayings between our group. On our final morning, Alex and I were prolonged our goodbyes, and with tear stained cheeks, we were urged into our vehicle so we did not miss our bus to the airport. With uncontrollable emotions, Alex and I got into our vehicle beside Sarah (who was on her way to an orphanage) and looked out the window at Dan, Lauren, and Ellie. Dan had his hand placed on one side of the glass with mine and Alex’s on the other, while Lauren and Ellie danced with tears in their eyes in the middle of the road. They all stayed in the road until we disappeared into the distance. It takes a true friend, and in my case, friends, to make something that could be so simple, so much more meaningful.
4. What was your favourite activity and why?
Everything! You have to make the most of your stay when you are half way across the world! Truthfully though, I have 2 favourites.
1. Lion walks. This is where you learn about the lions, their behaviours and personalities: who likes to stalk and from which side, who is cheeky, sneaky and givens naughty looks more often. You also build on your relationships with them and they learn to expect you every morning and evening, and show how happy they are to see you by rubbing up on your legs and begging for attention. And, as if being with the lions is not enough to overwhelm you in the first place, you get to watch them chase and play with each other, and plan attacks on absentminded zebra, wildebeest and impala. Each lion walk is a new experience, unlike any before, and the cubs are always surprising in their laziness, excitedness, cheekiness, brattiness friendliness, and expertise.
2. Research. A critical aspect which is a reason why Antelope Park is as successful as they are in their conservation efforts is the time they spend collecting data on the lions in Stage 1 and the time they spend observing behaviour of the lions in Stage 2. Visiting the lions in Stage 2 at Ngamo was an experience unlike anything I have ever experienced and it proves that the program established by ALERT is working. The lions in Stage 2 are self-sustaining and successful as a pride and as individuals. It is always awe inspiring to go out in a covered pick-up truck early in the morning and watch as the lions devour a recent kill, greet and socialize with each other, and take care of each other and their cubs. Proof of the success? Wakanaka, a cub born in Stage 2 by captive bred lions has been taught by these captive lions to hunt and kill like a wild lioness. Absolutely incredible.
5. Were there any aspects of the volunteer program at Antelope Park that you felt could be improved?
The only thing I feel that could be improved about the volunteer is more disclosure. The program is expensive to begin with, especially for a volunteer program but it is boasted that all of the funds are used directly for accommodations and food, or go straight back into the program. As a paying volunteer, would appreciate to know what the budget of the program is at Antelope Park, exactly how much of what I pay is used and for what, and how much of the placement fee is given to ALERT. I had expectations that although the fee was quite expensive relatively speaking, that I would know exactly where it would all be going, and I still wonder where all the money went and why the placement fee was so expensive. By no means does this mean that I am skeptical of the integrity of the program and those handling the finances, and I 100% believe that the money is being used appropriately. However, as a volunteer, it would be nice to know if 50% goes directly to ALERT or is 75% of the fee is used to accommodate me, and if the fee could be reduce to attract more volunteers.
I was ignorant to the problem facing the lion population before I arrived in Africa. We were told this is common of most people because admitting that the population of lions is declining and threatened, would threaten the tourism industry, which is the primary source of finances in Africa. It was eye opening and quite frankly, shocking, that the population of lions has dropped so dramatically from 200 000+ to ~20 000 in all of Africa. Antelope Park showed me how much developed nations are sheltered from issues around the world, and how the truth is kept hidden. It is also overlooked because some people believe that because it is an animal that is directly affected, that the issue is minor and not worth the attention of higher powers. However, this is a misconception as the impact of losing the lion completely would destroy financial situation in Africa. This is because most of the tourist coming to Africa come to see the animals, and of those who state that they are coming to see the wildlife, the overwhelming majority state that they are coming to see the lion. Losing the lion would mean losing a large portion of the tourism industry, ultimately crippling the economic situation in Africa, which is already unsteady, leading to a downward spiral which one could only assume would be bad news for all of Africa. Lions are more important that being a symbol of Africa!
7. Going forward, in what ways will you continue to support and advocate for the plight of the lion?
I hope to collaborate with my fellow Canadians that visited Antelope Park, particularly Miss Mellyboo herself, and plan a fundraiser to raise money for ALERT to help the lions. Further, by reaching out to more people via social media resources (i.e.: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) and affiliations with companies (i.e.: my affiliation with African Impact, and Mellyboo with Nomad Tours) will help educate and bring awareness to travellers and the population at large about the lion and the situation threatening their very existence.
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A big thanks goes out to Justine for providing me with these amazing answers and photographs and continuing the fight to help save the species through educating others. Check out her blog For The Love Of where she gives an in depth look at her experience at Antelope Park.