Life at the Sanctuary: the Good, the Sad and the Downright Nasty!


(Photos provided by Vincent Harry)

The Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary receives volunteers from every corner of the globe. The only thing more varied than the different accents are the different expectations everyone has for their experience. No matter what expectations a volunteer may have, they are definitely in for some surprises – whether it is putting out a fire, helping with an emergency veterinary procedure or fighting off mosquitoes on summer nights, a volunteer stay will always leave a lasting memory for those who join the sanctuary family.

We asked two past volunteers to share some of their experiences from their recent stay at the sanctuary.

A volunteer de ticking Charlie . Although necessary the lions hate it, the volunteers have a good time

Meet Ulla from Sweden and Harry from Australia:

Was this your first time volunteering in Africa or South Africa and what was your first impression of the sanctuary?

Ulla: I had been to Egypt and Kenya but it was my first time in South Africa. I was surprised how brown the landscape was, even after the rainy season. I volunteered twice at the sanctuary. When I went the first time in 2017 it was a stressful time in my life at home and when I got there I slept like a baby – a minimum of eight hours a night! I felt such peace there that I knew I had to go back. I am so glad I did as there is always more to learn.

What is it like seeing the lions for the first time?

Ulla: For me, seeing them is not as powerful as hearing them talk to each other. It’s not a roaring but an “urling” sound from the bottom of their belly with the deepest voice you can imagine. That really took my breath away, I felt it in my heart and got goosebumps whenever Gandalf and Tau and Bobcat had something to say.

Harry: It is an experience you never forget. I was overwhelmed and felt like a child on Christmas day. That said, it felt the same way every time I saw them. It was just as exciting to see Bobcat and Gabby the first day as it was my last day.

What was your favourite job at the sanctuary? What was your worst job at the sanctuary?

Harry: I had two favourite jobs at the sanctuary; removing the populus (an invasive tree)

and feeding day. Edward (sanctuary game ranger) and I had a competition to see who could cut down the same size tree with the least swings (I am pretty sure I won). Feeding day was an awesome experience.  It was fascinating seeing how every different animal had their own unique requirements for their food prep, the way we gave them their food and how they ate it.

Taheer, Laeticia and Lisa weeding the lion enclosures

Ulla: My worst job was painting the doors in the 40o African summer heat. It was so hot that the paint dried on your brush before you could even get the job done. There was also a terrible job on my first day at the sanctuary – at lunch we were told we had the task of cleaning the fridge. Everyone was complaining and there was a lot of negativity about the heat and the job. I thought to myself (and I think I said it too) “What the heck? It’s just a fridge – clean it out, wash it, done.” I thought everyone was being a bunch of fancypants but then we arrived at the fridge and I realised what was going on. It was the animals’ meat fridge! I didn’t want to lose face so I got to work but the smell of rotting meat was enough to make me want to throw up! I quickly learned not to judge anyone and had a good laugh afterwards!

What was your funniest experience whilst volunteering at the sanctuary?

Harry: I have two memories that spring to mind. One day I wanted to get a video of Meg yawning so while we were doing animal checks I sat down next to her waiting patiently. She stood up and started to lick her lips, so I got my camera ready to film. As soon as I pressed record instead of yawning she shook her head to get rid of the flies but she did so with her mouth open. My lens and face were completely covered in warm lion saliva!! This felt like something not many people can say have happened.

Then on my fourth feeding day, we were cleaning Bobcat and Gabby’s enclosure. I saw another volunteer, Vanessa, had picked up a rather large “gift” that one of them had generously left behind. I remember thinking to myself “I am so glad I didn’t have to pick that one up.” I was the first person out of the enclosure so I held the waste bin open for everyone to put their lion poop and leftover bones into. Once everyone had finished I didn’t notice that around the edge of the bin there was a large pile of poo stuck on the edge so I slammed the lid shut as normal. This resulted in the poo exploding into my face from the downwards force of lid. I couldn’t immediately wash it off either because I had my rubber gloves on that were already covered in poo. Everyone was in fits of laughter watching me run around but it’s safe to say I was the only person who didn’t enjoy this experience.

The volunteers take a game drive at neighboring game reserve ‘Mongena’

Did you make friends whilst volunteering and are you still in touch with any of them?

Ulla: I sure did, and it feels wonderful to meet people who think about wildlife in the same way. Thanks to social media nowadays it is easier to keep track of each other.

Harry: Yes! I stayed at the sanctuary for three weeks and each week a new group of people came through and I have stayed in touch with nearly all of them. Vanessa, Bridget, Latecia and Lisa and I all still have a WhatsApp group that we still send each other messages in a few times a month. Our paths will definitely cross again in the future.

What do you feel you learnt from your experience, and what value do you think there is for other people in volunteering?

Ulla: There is so much to learn about wildlife and its protection and conservation in Africa, or anywhere.  Learned about history, culture, people (not only South-African people), land erosion, conservation, animal behaviour, language (lots of new vocabulary), importance of asking questions and doing research before judging and many, many other things. Volunteering is a way of travelling where you can get real life experience and see the different challenges and reasons for doing things certain ways in foreign environments.

Harry: I learnt more than I ever could have imagined, not just about each of the animals, but from each person I met while I was there. In my second week we had people from Germany, Switzerland, America, France and Australia all having dinner together each night sharing stories from home. Seeing all of these different people and cultures come together under one roof because of their love and dedication for the animals and Kevin’s message was something truly special. I learnt about each animal’s individual personality and what they liked and disliked almost to the point where I felt like they were my friends. I encourage anyone who is considering volunteering to do everything in your power to just do it. It was without a doubt the most rewarding three weeks of my life and I cannot wait to return very soon.