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Volunteering with elephants in South Africa

In 2017 I had just graduated university and was working as a lifeguard trying to save up for a big adventure, I worked 50-60 hours a week for most of 2017. It got to November and I had finally had enough, you can only inhale so much chlorine before it gets to your head.

After having one of the most draining days at work I got home, opened my laptop and googled volunteering with animals abroad. I stumbled across a project to work with elephants in South Africa helping to conduct research and provide care to the elephants. The entire park of elephants had been rescued from culling operations apart from one elephant who was born in the park. I knew immediately that this was the project I wanted to work on, it had everything I was looking to do and it was one month in South Africa a country I had never been to. I went downstairs and told my parents that I have been saving up and I finally had enough money to pay for the trip including flights, expenses and volunteer fee (which includes accommodation for a month).

This was my first time travelling on my own, I spent the next few months preparing to get my shots, doing some research about the park and South Africa. The organisation I went with are called Oyster, they were really helpful and even put me in contact with some girls who were going with me.

Volunteering abroad with elephants was such a cathartic experience. To walk along with these gentle giants who have been rescued and given a better life in the Knysna park, to roam at ones pleasure safely across the 110 hectares of land was such a once in a lifetime experience. This incredible project has rescued elephants helping them to recover from all their trauma with the intent to release as many as possible back to the wild after receiving expert care and attention.

When I first arrived at the park and was monitoring the elephant's behavior and interaction with each other and the tourist I honestly struggled to tell them apart. I always knew which one was Sally as she is the matriarch (The leader of the heard) however as the days went by I could easily identify every elephant even from very far. The interaction between the elephants was so fascinating to watch, everyone knows how highly intelligent elephants are and after spending a lot of time out in the field I could see their personalities shine through.

Although we were working there, the tasks we had to do made it extremely enjoyable. In the mornings we cut up food for the ellies they eat 5% of their body weight so you can image how much food we would prepare) Another morning task would be to walk them, collect stool samples and test them in the laboratory to ensure their stress levels weren't too high, we also got to make dung paper out of the elephant's stool. Monitoring their social interactions behavior towards each other, which elephants they would communicate with the most and least, how much they would eat, how they would walk with the heard, also playing in the water. We also took part in the 24 hour night study when we were assigned an hour and a half to watch them at night, I took the 3:30 am-5 am and got to see the most amazing sunrise in the park. Not only are there elephants in the park but it is home to small herds of zebras, each morning I would come out of my house and walk past a heard of them.

You can volunteer from 3 weeks to 12 weeks, I went for 4 weeks and I got to have an evening in the Boma which is luxury accommodation, this is just above where the elephants sleep, beware of the very loud snoring! They come and go throughout the night and you can sit on the upper balcony watching them sleep. New volunteers come every 3 weeks so if you stay for a month your first and last week will be overlapped with another group of volunteers. The group of girls I volunteered with all came on their own from America, Canada, Germany and the UK, we all got on amazing and spent a lot of time together and spent every weekend hiring a car driving around the garden rout, taking surfing lessons, a tour of the biggest safari eating out at some wonderful restaurants and drinking and eating at the most amazing Vineyard and swimming with seals.

They say an elephant never forgets you and volunteering at the park means that these elephants have a possibility at a better life. The research that is ongoing at the park is incredible, helping to oversight the research was one of my favorite parts of the experience as I wanted to help improve the welfare standards of the ellies and Knysna Park was the perfect place to do it. This is the first elephant research center in the world that is dedicated to improving the welfare of captive elephants and if you are looking to volunteer this is the perfect place to do it.

The great thing about this project is that you get close to the elephants in a way that you would never be able to experience on safari. You get to know them and, incredibly, find that they also get to know and trust you as well. It is perfect for anyone who has a passion for elephants. This was a short movie I filmed in the park

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