One aspect that I did not fully appreciate before going on this Parkin Fellowship was the importance of hands-on learning and learning through experience. While it is also vital to learn about topics through books and teachers, being immersed in the topic that you have researched and learned about brings forth a completely new light.
In addition to learning from the instructors and asking questions during our discussion/lecture sessions, we volunteers experienced first hand the physical work that is required to preserve the animals and their habitat. The lessons took place in the lodging area and were taught by the reserve guides. In one session we got to learn a substantial amount about poaching, both in the entirety of Africa and specifically in South Africa. After learning about poaching, we discussed anti-poaching, learning about the tactics currently used and discussing potential methods that would be effective. In another session, we learned how the geology of South Africa affects the types of animals that are seen on the reserve.
The poaching epidemic first came to my attention freshman year of high school when we were asked to write an essay on a topic concerning Africa. As I perused the New York Times articles, I saw one about a rhino that had died due to its horn being hacked off. I wrote a paper on the subject of poaching and explained why we must prevent it from happening over and over again. It baffled me that someone would kill an innocent creature for a substance (keratin) that we humans produce in our own hair and nails. The rangers on Shamwari Game Reserve talked to us about the anti-poaching units and how dangerous a job it is. Seeing the severity of this crisis in front of my eyes is something that articles and books could have never taught me.
Another life-changing experience that I had the opportunity of taking part in was going to one of the surrounding villages and doing community work. Shamwari really tries to emphasize the importance of keeping good ties with all of the locals and helping out wherever necessary. While many entirely blame poachers for the epidemic, much of it is due to the economic status and helplessness of the local people. Most poachers don’t kill these animals for fun, they do it to survive and make money for their families who would otherwise not eat. It is important to not only stop poachers in action but also to try and prevent future poaching. The Reserve tries to educate the locals about the importance of the animals. During my stay in South Africa, I visited one of these villages to help re-paint one of the school playgrounds. While the kids and volunteers could not fully communicate due to the language barrier, it was fun to interact with people whose lifestyles are completely different but difficult to see their struggles that many of us do not have to face. While poaching and extinction may seem like a solo epidemic, it is a result of so many more underlying issues surrounding it. Volunteering here was just a small stepping stone in what I hope to be a part of in the future.