It was an overcast day at Antelope Park in Gweru, Zimbabwe when I first met Lauren Waterfield – an American girl, who after working in the corporate world for a number of years is now giving herself a career break to travel the world. Together we were enticed to this random location in the middle of Zimbabwe by the idea of volunteering alongside the king of the jungle. This second installment of Meet A Lion Conservation Volunteer highlights another amazing volunteer with a heart of gold who is spending a lot of her travels being socially responsible and becoming involved in different voluntourism projects.
Meet Lion Conservation Volunteer: Lauren Waterfield
Lauren Waterfield is a thirty year old American who gave up on corporate life after 7 years of working in the financial sector in both the States and London in search of something more. She has been on the road for 5 months so far and hopes to be so for the unforeseeable future. She gave up on blogging once she realized how slow WIFI is in Africa, but you can read about her past exploits at her blog, Cheerios and Milk, who knows maybe she’ll pick it up again one day.
1. How did you find out about ALERT & Antelope Park?
On my first trip to Africa in 2008, I did and overland trip that ended in Victoria Falls. Having had an obsession with lions I jumped at the chance to walk with lions. I had done some research prior to the trip into the organization as I wasn’t sure how I felt about walking with lions in the name of conservation, was it really just exploitation? This is how I found out about ALERT and their four step approach to releasing lions back into Africa’s national parks as well as how dire the situation for lions was becoming in Africa. I felt like I wanted to know more about what they were doing. I went on the walk with Batoka and Bhubesi in Victoria Falls when they were just 7 months old. There was a volunteer on our walk and I chatted to her about the opportunity. After my walk I was sold, sold on ALERT and the fact that I was going to come back to Africa to volunteer with them. I finally made it back to Antelope Park this past May and I even got to check up on Batoka and Bhubesi!
2. Why did you choose voluntourism as a way to spend your vacation time?
For me this really isn’t a “vacation” in the traditional sense. I quit my fancy finance job back in February to take time for myself to travel. I knew my first stop was going to be Africa and now I finally had the time that I had been lacking when I was working to volunteer with the lions for a longer amount of time than I would have been allowed while working.
3. What is your favourite memory of your time at Antelope Park?
That is such a hard question to answer. It is hard to pinpoint one moment in the midst of so many GREAT moments. Almost daily I had to step back and say to myself “is this my life, am I really doing this right now!?” As much as I loved everything at Antelope Park, my last two weeks there I had the amazing opportunity to care for three new cubs that were born at the breeding program. I spent my entire day with Disa, DaLa and Dingane for two whole weeks, feeding them, cleaning them, playing with them and most of the time just watching them sleep. It was exciting to know that these cubs are the future of the program. The moments I spent with those three little fur balls were among some of the best moments of my life and I will never forget that feeling.
4. What was your favourite activity and why?
Oddly enough, my favorite activity was meat prep and feeding the lions. I was a little turned off by it at first, but then at some point I just got over the smell and started enjoying it. I think I enjoyed it because it was not something I would ever do in my “real” life, but I think mostly it was the one thing we really had to do for the lions for their survival. It was a great feeling riding around in the back of the truck stopping off at each enclosure visiting all of the lions, dragging heavy bags of offal for them, the build up of the excitement of the lions was palpable. Then releasing them back into their enclosures, watching their natural instinct take over, picking out which one was most dominant, watching which ones would hang back and wait their turn. It was all very exciting to me and it made the task of preparing the meat worthwhile in the end.
5. Were there any aspects of the volunteer program at Antelope Park that you felt could be improved?
I did feel at times there were too many volunteers at one time. It is great that there is so much interest in the program and volunteers raise so much awareness and funds for continuing the work at Antelope Park. However, I felt at times their needed to be a better balance. When there are too many volunteers not everyone has the same experience and may not get to do all of the activities or really get the time to talk to staff and really understand what it is all about and what we are all working towards. If a volunteer leaves Antelope Park without this knowledge and hasn’t become a true advocate for both lions and ALERT then it is an injustice to both.
6. What did your time at Antelope Park teach you that you didn’t already know?
Some tangible things Antelope Park taught we were patience and lions. Patience for people who are different than me, patience in taking the opportunity to learn something from them. The most important thing that Antelope Park did was arm me with facts, facts about lions and the situation that they are facing that can’t be denied. They have armed me to go forward and spread the news to people who don’t know or don’t believe that wild lions could be extinct in our lifetime if something isn’t done. I don’t know if I can put into words most of the things that Antelope Park taught me, mostly it just changed me. Looking into the eyes of a lion every day was the greatest privilege of my life. If you ever have the opportunity to stand face to face with a lion and look it in the eyes, you will be changed because they are the most beautiful eyes and they pierce right to your soul, stirring it forever.
7. Going forward, in what ways will you continue to support and advocate for the plight of the lion?
It will always be a part of me now, I know I will continue to share my passion and knowledge with people for the rest of my life. Knowledge is the greatest weapon so spreading awareness is one of the greatest things I can do. I will also be returning to Antelope Park in February as an intern for four months. I am hoping to continue to grow that wealth of knowledge and make a difference where ever I can. Being on the ground working towards the conservation lions would be a dream, but I will always be an advocate no matter where life takes me.
Click here to read the previous installment of Meet a Lion Conservation Volunteer, featuring aspiring Canadian veterinarian, Justine Williams.