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!!!