“AN EXPERIENCE LIKE NOTHING ELSE”: VOLUNTEER REFLECTIONS ON LIWONDE

“The payoff is immense”: Maxine reflects on her wildlife monitoring placement in beautiful Liwonde National Park…

I had dreamed of working with wildlife or in conservation

For someone whose only African experience to date had been a beachside package holiday to The Gambia, I had no idea what to expect from a biodiversity monitoring placement in the heart of a national park in Malawi. Like many people, I had dreamed of working with wildlife or in conservation as a child and, some twenty-five years later, decided to take a career break to travel. 

I became aware of Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) through its partnership with The Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife charity I had long supported in the UK. Most of the people I spoke to back home had no idea where in the world Malawi is, but the more I read about it, the more I fell in love with the country before even stepping off the plane. 

That’s not to say there wasn’t a culture shock – there certainly was. The heat, the dust, the bustle of town, the colourful clothes, the rhythmic babble of a foreign language. But the team at LWT were incredibly helpful at greeting me and settling me in. After a few days’ orientation in Lilongwe (which is surprisingly easy to navigate for a capital city), and a fascinating tour of Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, I set out on the four-hour drive to Liwonde National Park.

Coming straight from the commercial hub of London, my guest lodge in Lilongwe had seemed somewhat basic. In hindsight it felt all the more luxurious on arrival at the volunteer camp. But as I quickly came to learn, this is all part of the acclimatisation process in Malawi. As soon as I remembered I wasn’t in the UK anymore, I realised I had everything I needed – electricity, lights, a shower, gas stove, fridge – and felt completely at home with the team there. I was well looked after by the volunteer coordinator. If you’re lucky you’ll also get to meet the passionate Olivia (resident cheetah expert and head of research), and perhaps witness the skills of LWT’s Head Veterinarian, Dr. Amanda Salb, at work.

The research focus at Liwonde is the reintroduced carnivore population. A typical day of monitoring would consist of getting up around 5.30am, having a quick snack and coffee, and heading out for the first drive by 6am (when it is mercifully still cool). The success of the carnivore programme means that, for safety, Liwonde is a drive-only park (walking out is not permitted). So we would drive the park routes for four or five hours with the telemetry set, trying to pick up the radio signals of any collared individuals and follow them until we (hopefully) got a visual. 

Most mornings started with tracking an unusually large group of cheetahs, before heading north to try and locate the lions. On the way you’re likely to see impalas, waterbucks, sables, warthogs, baboons and elephants – and a whole rainbow of birds. It’s like a daily private safari. The middle (and hottest) part of the day is spent back at camp where you might be engaged with other research tasks such as checking camera trap footage or ID-checking individual predators. Otherwise, this is the time to cook, read, play games or take a siesta before the afternoon drive, which usually takes another three or four hours.

Other than the larger wildlife, you’ll share camp with geckos, ants, solifuges and a troop of baboons, although none of them cause issues (except the ants – wrap your food well!). My placement started in mid-September, when the temperatures had already started creeping up. I’d recommend lots of loose-fitting clothing and some safari trousers or shorts – beige or khaki colours are best. Sunglasses and a baseball cap are needed for the sun, as is sunscreen. Take a few water bottles to fill, and keep the ice cube tray in the freezer topped up! There is always the option to pick up a fridge-cold soda at the park gate for an end-of-the-day sundowner.

In addition to the usual biodiversity monitoring activities, you never know what else might be going on at Liwonde. I was lucky enough to be involved in the collaring of a young cheetah who would soon be breaking away from his mother and siblings. After sedation, Olivia showed me how to take a DNA sample, fit the radio collar and take ID photos. This was a real highlight of my experience as cheetahs are my favourite animal. I was also unexpectedly treated to a real-life cheetah hunt one evening, witnessing the bittersweetness of a successful impala kill. My stay also included the annual ranger run; a 21km run through the park in solidarity with other African Park rangers across the continent. Thankfully I wasn’t asked to run, but to record the finish times and take photos – which meant I got to watch the start of the event from the vantage point of a helicopter!

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my time in Malawi, but the LWT wildlife monitoring placement was more than I could have imagined. I felt part of the team, and once trained I felt like I was making a small but very real contribution to the conservation efforts of LWT in Malawi. Plus, I learnt a huge amount about the wildlife of Liwonde, and the threats to wildlife and habitats throughout the country. This was more than an activity holiday. It was hot, sweaty, dusty and not always glamorous. Certainly a far cry from the David Attenborough documentaries I grew up watching. But it was real and immersive and even more captivating. I loved every single day there and didn’t want to leave. The fiery sunsets, the morning bird calls, the glimpse of a spotted cat through the trees, the rest hours spent playing games and chatting with friends, the late-night braais, the treat of an ice-cold drink at the end of the day. Every small thing is a reward for your efforts, and the payoff is immense. If you are unsure about whether this placement is for you, I would urge you to do it. It is an experience like nothing else and is sure to leave an impression on your soul.