Thursday, January 28, 2016

Leaving My Heart in Harnas

I had to say good-bye to Harnas Wildlife Foundation yesterday. I simply do not have the words to explain how special this place was for me. All I can do is list some of the highlights from the last four weeks:

  • Taking walks and playing with 9 baby and 3 teenage baboons
  • Going on exercise walks and cuddling with 5 young cheetahs
  • Radio tracking a missing cheetah
  • Feeding 23 wild adult cheetahs and holding a bowl of meat so a tame cheetah could eat it
  • Hand-rearing a baby impala
  • Hearing lions roaring
  • Feeding 72 baby tortoises
All of these experiences are so vivid in my mind, but I only have time to write about one so I'm going to tell you what it was like to exercise the 5 young cheetahs. The 5 young cheetahs had so much energy in the morning. Their enclosure wasn't big enough for them to run, play, and chase each other, so we would take them out for a walk/run. One person was assigned to each cheetah and a staff member came along too. We took them outside the farm yard into a fenced area so if they tried to run away, they wouldn't be able to go too far and we would be able to find them.

None of the cheetahs tried to run away while I was there. We had each one on a leash, so if they wanted to run, we had to keep up with them! At lot of days, it was really hot, so running wasn't very appealing. Every time my cheetah looked like it might be thinking about taking off, I always thought "Uh-oh!" I could just see myself falling down and getting dragged along by the cheetah. But that never happened. Most days, the cheetahs weren't interested in running and some days they were kind of lazy and wanted to lie down in the shaded area. That was OK with me!! There's nothing like sitting on the ground, surrounded by beautiful young cheetahs!!!

There are so many more experiences, but I can't remember the details right now. All I know is that Harnas will be forever in my heart.

It wasn't just the animals that made Harnas memorable for me. The people were amazing too. The staff members made me feel welcome and taught me so much about caring for animals. As volunteers, we worked hard, but we felt appreciated.

And then there were the other volunteers. I got to know many of them, and they really made me feel like I was part of the group. My fellow volunteers made me smile, laugh, and cry. I got really close to a few of them and trusted them enough to talk about being deaf. They did everything they could do to communicate with me. They wrote things down, used their flashlights on their faces in the dark, and explained what the group discussion were about. Some of them even wanted to learn a little sign language. I'm not sure these people know how much they did for me. I truly appreciated them and really wanted to stay longer so I could spend more time with them.

Harnas truly was amazing. The setting. The animals. The people. Once I was there, I wanted more time, but I planned this trip to be one month with each of three rehabilitation centers. The last month passed much too quickly, but now my time at Harnas is up. 

Today, I will be traveling to South Africa. I'll fly to Johannesburg, stay overnight and then go on to Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. This time I'll be working with endangered black rhinos including orphans that have lost their mothers to poachers. I plan to enjoy every second of it!

It's hard to imagine going back to the States at the beginning of March. (No offense to my family and friends back home!) This trip has deepened my feelings about Africa. I've been in two really different places. I've worked with so many different animals. I've met extraordinary people and made some friends that I expect to have for a long time.

Each place is unique in its own way, but something about Harnas made me very, very happy. I feel like I am leaving a piece of my heart behind. And some day I will return for a much longer stay.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Two Different Countries. Two Different Approaches to Wildlife.

AHHHHHHHHHHHH I love it here at Harnas Wildlife Foundation in Namibia. It's sooo huge and there are so many animals here.

The contrast between the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre and Harnas Wildlife Foundation is pretty dramatic. For one thing, Malawi and Namibia are very very different from each other. Malawi was extremely hot and very humid. On some days, the humidity was 100% which is probably why my hearing aid failed.

Namibia is even hotter, but it's very dry. In Malawi, the work was more difficult because it rained so much. Namibia has much less annual rainfall. I haven't seen a storm since I got here and I might not see any rain at all. Malawi was very muddy and there centipedes and cockroaches all over the place. Namibia is sandy and there are lots of dung beetles and biting bugs.

When I got to the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi, I thought it was good-sized, but you could walk around the entire place in half a day. They had a strict hands-off policy for the animals. We prepared food and then made sure it was available in the enclosures, but some animals weren't even supposed to be seen by humans. Most of our time went to the orphaned vervet or baboon babies.

The Harnas Wildlife Foundation in Steinhausen, Namibia is much much bigger, and the philosophy about animals is different. I was blown away and speechless from the sheer size of the sanctuary here. Also there are sooo many animals roaming freely on the farm and living in harmony with each other. Here's a partial list of what I've seen so far: tortoises, peacocks, ducks, impala, duiker, kudu, eland, sheep, banded mongoose, bat eared foxes, porcupine, turkeys, geese, pumba, warthog, owl, dogs, cats, roosters.

Along the edges of the farm, there are large enclosures for some of the animals that can't roam freely--baby baboons, teenage baboons, hound puppies, vervet monkeys, cheetahs, leopards, crocodiles, meerkats, macaws, african treys, chickens, and baby tortoises (I counted 72 babies!!!). Outside of the farm, there are several other even larger enclosures containing more lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, baboons, vervet monkeys, caracals, ostriches.

Some of the animals living in the enclosure can't be released because they have injuries or disabilities. In other cares, the animals are endangered. If they were in the wild, they might be hunted or poached, so the Foundation decided that the safest place for them was in the huge enclosures where they roam freely without being in danger of being kidnaped or shot. They will be fed and protected for the rest of their lives.

Even in the area around the volunteer village at Harnas, there are many grazing animals roaming freely, such as impalas, springbucks, wildebeest, horses, donkeys, and more. The volunteer living situation is also quite different here. In Malawi, we stayed in a small building with several bunk beds. We all slept in the same room, right next to the orphaned monkeys enclosure and clinic. There were only two showers and a toilet to share among the volunteers, and water was always scarce.

In Namibia, there's a volunteer village in the middle of the sanctuary. There are several cabins with 4 beds in each cabin. Showers and toilets are outside in the center of the volunteer village. Water is a problem here too. Shower time is very limited, otherwise there wouldn't be enough water for everyone.

The wildlife centers in Malawi and Namibia are very different, but they have the same goals. First, they are trying to save animals that are orphaned, injured, or confiscated from illegal owners. Second, they provide sanctuary for animals that cannot survive on their own or are in great danger of becoming extinct. For me, it's been really interesting to see the different ways that different organizations in different countries accomplish the same purpose.

When I was planning this trip, I thought a lot about whether I should spend all my time on one project. In some ways that would have been easier--no travel in between placements and less time spent trying to get to know new people and new routines. In the end, I decided to work in three different rehabilitation centers, and now I'm really glad I made that choice. It's not always easy, but I love having new experiences--new places, new animals, new people, new ideas!!!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Leaving Malawi for Namibia

My time in Malawi is ending. This month has gone so fast. Working with the baby vervet monkeys has been amazing. I have seen a lot of different types of primates, and I have learned a lot.

Now I’m preparing for my second month in Africa and my second project in Namibia. I’d love to say I’m feeling ready, but unfortunately I’ve had some bad luck during my last week in Malawi.

One of my hearing aids died This is a big deal. I’ve worn hearing aids since I was a baby. Hearing aids don’t make me into hearing person. I still need to lip read to understand what people say. But they make me less deaf. With the hearing aids, I know that someone is calling out to me so at least I can turn to look at them. 

At first I thought the battery was bad, but even with a new battery, the aid was dead. Second I thought maybe it was a moisture problem. Moisture corrodes the tiny parts in hearing aids and it’s very humid in Malawi. I put the aid in a dry-aid jar that’s supposed to dry out the moisture in the hearing aid. After 36 hours, it still didn’t work.

That crushed me. I still have another 2 months in Africa and two more projects where I have to meet new people and learn new routines. I am not sure that I can get by with just one hearing aid. Volunteers and staff members come from all over the world. Some of them have unfamiliar accents and I am worried that one hearing aid won’t be enough for me to hear and communicate with others. 

I guess I should have thought about a back-up plan for hearing aids. It turns out that many professionals in Africa don’t work between Christmas and New Year’s. My hearing aids are digital so even if I can get a new one, it needs to be programmed. My mother is trying to reach my audiologist in the States to find out about the programming. The next placement is in a very remote part of Namibia, but it seems like maybe there is a service that will deliver there. I’m hoping that I will get a replacement aid sometime early in January.

In the meantime, it will make this transition a bigger struggle. In a short time, I have come to love this place, and I know I will be very sad when I have to say good-bye to the monkeys that have been in my care. I will miss the people too. It took a little while to feel comfortable, but now I do. And now I am leaving. 

I have been checking out my next project. Namibia will be even hotter and more humid than Malawi. I haven’t seen a temperature of 100 in Malawi, but it looks like it will reach 100 in Namibia. The major city in Namibia is Windhoek, but I’ll be in a little place called Gobabis. If you check Google maps, you’ll see it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

That’s probably good for the animals, but it won’t be great for communication. I’m sending this post from a guesthouse in Windhoek. I don’t know if I’ll be able to update my blog for the next month. If I can, I’ll post. But if you don’t see anything from me, don’t worry. It may not be easy, but I’m doing the work I love and I’ll tell you about it when I can. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas in Malawi

Christmas in Malawi was definitely different, but very memorable. There was no snow, of course. The weather here is very hot and humid.

I knew I wouldn’t be having a day off or finding presents under a tree in the morning. Baby monkeys need to be fed every hour, so it was a working day for everybody. But before going to work, I decided to have a video chat with my family back home. When I woke up at 5 in the morning on Christmas, it was Christmas Eve evening back home so that was perfect. 

It took awhile to find the proper connection, but we did and I could finally see my parents and younger brother. It was great seeing their faces and chatting with them. They were curious about what I had been doing so I told them about how I was caring for 4 baby monkeys and some other animals. We chatted for almost an hour. Then I had to rush to grab breakfast before going to work for the day.

One of the staff members made pancakes for everybody. We usually have toasts or whatever we can make ourselves so the pancakes were a special treat, and they were delicious! We had also decorated the hang out room. I cut out some paper snowflakes and we had a small fake tree with a little ornament and one string of lightings. It was just enough to make it feel like Christmas.

After filling my stomach up with pancakes, I went to work with my four little monkeys—Frank, Aboo, Affe, and Trouble. They have to be fed every hour—even on Christmas! I was feeling really good, full of happiness about the work that I am doing. I worked until 3 and then had the rest of the afternoon off—a nice Christmas present which gave me a chance to catch up on my sleep.

After my nap, I was getting ready for Christmas dinner. I checked my phone and noticed there was a post from my older brother’s girlfriend. I wanted to be sure I was getting the message right, so I stopped by the reception before dinner to use the Wifi. That message was the best Christmas present ever. I’m getting a sister! Well, actually a sister-in-law. My big brother popped the big question to his beautiful lady and she said yes. I was so excited for them that I shed happy tears. I love my two brothers, but all my life I wanted a sister. And now I feel like I’m finally getting one, thanks to my big brother!

At dinner, there were presents on the table for each volunteer and staff member. We had picked people for Secret Santa gifts, and my Santa got me a bottle of my favorite beer and a chocolate bar. Even though, I could see the Christmas spirit all around me, I started to feel like I used to feel at home. Everyone was talking and I couldn’t follow the conversation. I know it’s just the way it is, but I could feel the Christmas spirit draining away.

After dinner, there was a plan to go out to a casino and play blackjack. I didn’t want to go out with another large group where I would feel left out, and I certainly didn’t want to lose money. I was about to say I would be staying behind when one of the staff mentioned that she and another staff member would be going to a local bar. She offered to take me along, and I chose to go with her instead of the bigger group. It was a really good decision. I had so much fun chatting with them and the local people we met. After a beer or two, we decided to dance the rest of the night away. I completely lost track of time and fell into bed a few hours before dawn.

All in all, it was a great Christmas—and one I will always remember.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Permanent Residents

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Lilongwe has two goals.  Whenever they can, the staff helps animals become strong enough to return to the wild. But, some animals have problems that would make it impossible to survive. Often those problems are the result of human actions. When an animal can’t be released, the Centre takes care of them permanently. As a volunteer, I’ve gotten to know these animals, so I thought I’d tell you about some of them. 

There are two crocodiles, Shelia and Bushdog, that cannot be released because they’ve have been in captivity for too long and don’t know how to hunt on their own. They are Nile crocodile which can grow up to 6.1 meters long. Ordinarily, they live in fresh water such as rivers and Lake Malawi. Both were rescued. Bushdog had been in a zoo after being rescued from a crocodile farm.

We have lots of vervet monkeys in the centre; we believe there are about 100. They live in big groups called troops. Some will be released, but some can’t go back to the wild because they have been in captivity for too long. Others have physical disabilities. I saw one vervet monkey with only one arm. Most of the vervet monkeys were rescued from people who were selling them as pets on the side of the road.

Monkeys do not make good pets, and often come here because they’ve been abandoned or abused. For example, Sprog, one of the male Vervet monkeys I’ve been caring for, was brought in by a man who bought him at the side of the road for 11,000 MKW. When Sprog arrived at the Centre, he was very dehydrated and malnourished and he had pneumonia. The man did the right thing bringing him in, but he should not have paid for him because that encourages the poaching and trade industry

We also have Blue monkeys. Despite their name, they are not actually blue! The hair on their faces has a slight blue tinge. Some of the Blue monkeys here were rescued from Holland and have been in captivity too long to release. Also, the Blue monkeys are not native to Malawi so we cannot release them into this country.

Two types of baboons live here, Olive and Yellow. The Olive baboons came to Lilongwe as part of an International Rescue Programme, after being rescued from circuses and illegal animal traders. They have been in captivity for too long and are not native to Malawi so they can’t be released.  The Yellow baboons have been mostly rescued from being kept as pets or sold illegally. The Wildlife Centre tries to release the Yellow baboons in the Kasungu National Park whenever possible. Baboons are some of the world’s largest monkeys so they don’t make good pets either.

We also have a few cats here. There are two servals, a small African wild cat. One named Charley was rescued from animal traders when he was just 6 weeks old. He has cataracts which make his vision cloudy so he wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild. The other serval is named Hamu.  He was found on the road and is too comfortable with people.  We are trying to minimize contact with him in the hope that he will eventually be able to go back to the wild.   

There are also a pair of African lions, Simba and Bella.  The female, Bella, only has one eye and joint problems because she was kept poorly in a zoo in Europe. Because of her disabilities and long captivity she cannot be released. Simba was rescued from a circus in Belgium by Born Free.  He now lives happily with Bella. Keeping these cats safe is a big deal because there are only 30 wild lions left in Malawi.

The sanctuary also has two types of antelope, Duiker and Bushbuck. Duiker are tiny, shy antelopes with horns. Some were brought in by people who thought the babies had been abandoned, even though the mother probably just left in search of food. Others have been rescued from people selling them as pets on the roadside. For example, one of our male Duiker, named Doxy, was  sold to a lecturer at Luanar College. A student, who works as a ranger, saw him and called Lilongwe. Doxy was confiscated and brought here.

Bushbucks are medium-sized antelopes with white stripes and dots on their sides. Often we see orphans whose mothers have been killed by people who trade in illegal bush meat.  Fortunately, most of the orphaned Bushbacks can be rehabilitated and released into Kuti Wildlife Reserve.

Last but not least, there’s also a big rock python named Henry. He joined us from the zoo so he doesn’t know how to hunt on his own. He’s 13 years old and 4 meters long. He’s not venomous but he could be deadly if he’s not handled properly.   

Caring for all of these permanent residents is a big job. That’s one of the reasons the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre needs so many volunteers and donations too. For myself, I just feel lucky to be in a place that tries to do the right thing for these animals. Wild animals simply don’t belong in people’s homes or circuses or zoos that can't care for them properly.  Whenever they can, the staff here tries to rehabilitate animals so they can live in the wild.  And, when that's not possible, they give the animals a permanent home where they won't be neglected or mistreated.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Morrisey and Maymoun

December 13 was a very hard day.

I woke up early like I always do. I can't seem to help myself, I always wake up at sunrise or just before sunrise whenever I'm in Africa. Maybe I know my time here is short so I don't want to miss a single moment or maybe there's a special energy from the land in Africa that wakes me up in the morning.

But this morning was different from other mornings. I had a sinking feeling that something was very wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it or figure out why I had this feeling, but it made me very uneasy. I decided to use the WiFi real quick to check my emails, thinking maybe there was something wrong with my family or my friends. But no, that wasn't it.

I was getting ready for my day at the Center, preparing milk for a young vervet monkey named Sprog. And then I noticed everybody looking very concerned and staring at the enclosure where Morrisey and Maymoun were staying. I looked over and noticed one of other volunteers who had been sharing the care of M & M with me. He was holding his head in his hands. I looked down at the floor of the enclosure. Morrisey was lying lifeless on the floor and Maymoun was motionless inside the crate. My heart broke right there and then.

I had no idea what to think. I wanted to run into the enclosure to wake them up, but I had a job to do. I took the milk to Sprog and waited for him to finish his breakfast. My mind was spinning. I couldn't believe it. The two baby vervet monkeys I have been caring for during the past 12 days are gone forever. I had formed such a strong bond with the two babies in such a short time. It seems like I was feeling uneasy because somehow I knew they were already gone before I even saw them.

It really broke my heart, and I had the hardest time maintaining my face and myself. Since I was supposed to care for M & M during the day, I ended up with an easier workday. That gave me a chance to grieve and pick myself up again.

I had to remind myself that working in rehabilitation will always be hard. In some ways, it's almost like being a doctor. Much as you want to, you can't save every animals. Sometimes their injuries are too great. Sometimes they are simply too weak. Sometimes we don't really know what they need. And losing the babies is especially sad.

I thought back to the first time I felt a life end while I was holding a baby bird in my hands. I was only a volunteer at SB Wildlife Care Network, and the staff had sheltered me from some of the hard parts of the job. When I got home that day, I wept. And, on Sunday, I have to admit that I shed some tears for M & M.

The day was hard, but we still have many other animals to take care of and worry about at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre. We simply don't have time to dwell on the losses. So, as the day went on, I reminded myself of all the times we have succeeded. In so many cases, I've been part of the team that nursed animals back to health so they could be released into the wild. Remembering those successes brought a small smile back to my face and a more peaceful feeling to my broken heart.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Mission at Lilongwe

I suppose I should write a little about the place where I am volunteering.

Lilongwe Wildlife Center is a wildlife rehabilitation center and also a sanctuary. It’s important to understand the difference between a sanctuary and a zoo. A sanctuary provides large enclosures where animals can roam freely while most zoos have limited space for the animals. In a sanctuary, there’s no contact whatsoever between animals and humans. Unlike zoos, sanctuaries don’t trade, exchange, or breed animals. The animals aren’t used to educate or entertain people.

Whenever possible, animals at the Center are released back into the wild. In cases where animals really aren’t able to survive on their own; the sanctuary takes care of them permanently. We have two lions here that were rescued from circus or zoo. They both have physical disabilities that make it impossible for them to live in the wild so they are living protected, happy lives here at the sanctuary. 

The people who work at Lilongwe have thought carefully about what it means to be a wildlife sanctuary. There are five parts to their mission: animal care, education, raising the profile of wildlife conservation, habitat protection, and law enforcement. All of these are familiar to me because of my work at the Wildlife Care Network at home.   

Animal care – The welfare of the animals always comes first. The Lilongwe Centre provides the highest standard of care in a natural environment and in large enclosures where animals can have privacy and roam freely. They oppose captive breeding. And they have a hands-off policy, so animals won’t get used to human contact and can be returned to the wild whenever possible.

Education - People need to learn about wildlife and why it is important to protect threatened species.  Children, in particular, need to be educated. Around 60% of the visitors to the sanctuary are children.  They are ultimately the future of Malawi, so if wildlife is going to survive in the future, these children must learn to appreciate and respect the animals.

Wildlife Conservation – The Center hopes to inspire all their visitors so they understand the importance of conserving Malawi’s natural heritage. They also work in partnership with government agencies to raise public awareness.  And they have won international awards for this vital work. 

Habitat Protection - If we can’t preserve wild land, we can’t protect wildlife. Protecting habitats like forests and wetlands is a challenge all over the world. The Center works hard to protect their own reserve and also does community outreach, helping other communities protect the settings where wild animals live.   

Law Enforcement – The Center works in partnership with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife to help enforce the laws that protect wildlife. They also provide sanctuary space for wild animals confiscated by customs or DNPW officials.

I will only be a volunteer here for a short time, but I am very proud to be part of an organization that is committed to these principles. If you want to know more about the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, they have a website—