South Africa / Volunteer

Kruger Big 5 Conservation Program Founder Answers Your Questions on Volunteering

Ntobeko Ntombela

Ntobeko Ntombela

August 21, 2019

If you’re looking for a real African bush experience while volunteering abroad, then our Big 5 Wildlife Conservation in South Africa program is for you! The greater Kruger area is the premier wildlife haven of southern Africa and this program is vital for the conservation of the precious species who call this region home.

We were lucky enough to get Stuart Isham Fairbairns, the Project Manager on the ground at our Big 5 Wildlife Conservation program in South Africa, to sit down and talk to us about his life in conservation and the impact of this program.

Where are you from and how did you get into this industry?

Big 5 Conservation program - Stuart farbain and Wife Stacey

I’m from the Island of Mull in Scotland and have a background in marketing. When I got into that industry, digital marketing was relatively new, we had to make it up as we went along. I jumped into it, studying white papers and learning on the fly. I started by working in the realm of social media, setting up a new location for a London company based in Cape Town South Africa. “Social media?” I asked myself, is that people sitting together reading newspapers? Despite my lack of social marketing experience, fortunately, my business acumen served me well.

I later joined a well-established marketing agency called ClickThinking that was bought up by a bigger company called I-Prospect (part of the Aegis Media Group). Initially, I established a new social media department and later identified an opportunity to unify above, through and below the line marketing approaches and disciplines in order to give our clients more strategic and streamlined marketing campaigns. Working with two impressive and pioneering fellow colleagues, Nici and Reinhardt, I took on a role that had previously not existed, Integration Strategist. Working with 6 individual agencies from TV to Radio, Out of Home, traditional and Digital sectors I compiled combined strategies that saw huge success on a global scale. At that time, TravelBud’s partner organization, who manages the Wildlife Conservation program, was one of my clients.

My wife Stacey is a trained and very successful interior designer who at the time was running a design company. Both of us had come from conservation backgrounds. Back in Scotland, my parents established and ran a whale watching company (Sea Life Surveys), which was one of the first in Europe, later giving life to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), an influential scientific entity. I worked as a marine guide for many years aboard our various boats. Stacey’s mum works with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Stacey had been actively involved for much of her upbringing. We always wanted to get back into the conservation realm and we were both reaching the end of our desire to remain in the corporate world we approached the organization’s founders to discuss possible opportunities.

Africa's most sacred animal - the Rhino.

Rhinos – Credit to Samuel Cox. When we first met with Greg and Andrew, we were not sure what to expect. We arrived at an unassuming pizza restaurant, Greg and Andrew had brought their wives and children and immediately the ‘family-feel’ of the organization was apparent to us and we felt at ease. At the time Stacey and I were planning to get married so we couldn’t commit. 

Upon arrival at the project location, we were initially set with the task of winding down the existing conservation projects as we had met the commitments that we had initially (some 8 years earlier) set with the reserve management and ecological teams. Further, we were also charged with finding a new location to establish projects where we could take our powerful project impacts. What became clear to us was that an area in need, where we would be able to assist in the Greater Kruger area of South Africa. 

In order to ensure the sustainability of the projects, over a 6 month period we ensured all project requirements were finalized and/or handed over to the reserve management teams, inclusive of our well-established education programs in the local communities. At the inception, or building of any projects that we run throughout any of our locations we ensure that true sustainability is at the core of our projects. For community orientated initiatives ownership of each project goes to the local people, empowering them to continue generating impact sustainably. This was overseen by the management of the reserve who take overall ownership and to this day continue to support these wonderful projects in KZN.

Once done, we packed our lives once more, putting our rucksacks back into ‘Maggie, our reliable Opel Corsa for the 10-hour journey north. 

We believe it’s very important that people understand the importance of sustainable project construction through empowerment and ownership, furthermore the consultation and inclusion of local authorities and tribal councils. Something we believe in strongly.

Stacey and I actually set up this entire program here at Kruger, along with the various other we have here. We started very modestly with just a few staff, today we have a lodge that can house up to 100 people. Inclusive of a newly built comfortable en-suite tented camp, which can house 14 people. We have 20 permanent staff members that live on-site. Quite some growth, needless to say, our projects are running very well and we are making a great impact. There is however a great deal still to do!

The Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) is a collective name for the large private reserves that about Kruger National Park. In 1993 they came together and agreed to drop their fences opening them all up to Kruger and thus allowing the animals to roam throughout a much greater area and taking the Kruger National Park land mass up to 2.4 million hectares. This was a great win for conservation!

This also means that you have private landowners owning land open to Kruger where animals can roam freely, which brings about its own problems and is a story for another day.

What long-term impact are you most proud of?

We ourselves are not specifically a scientific entity, we are experts in volunteering and internships. That’s what we do, that’s what we’re very good at. I can proudly say we are one of the best in the world at it, that’s my opinion. Our attention to detail, the experience we give volunteers and interns along with the output of our work is exceptional. That’s why Stacey and I joined the company, in the first place. A company that does what it does for the right reasons with strong ethics. That is something to be extremely proud of.

Catch often unseen behaviour on game-spotting night drivesA huge amount of our bookings are peer to peer, that just shows you how much volunteers and interns enjoy their time with us, sharing it with others and giving us great feedback. We take our feedback very seriously and use it consistently to grow and improve what we do. “Be the best and you’ll get the business”. We have recently won more awards for our projects, this being based purely on the feedback from our volunteers and interns.

Within our research projects, we contribute toward studies being conducted by scientific partners who are trying to achieve conservation goals with specific wildlife species and further support the overall ecology of reserve areas and wildlife habitats. As experts in volunteering and internships, we can do the essential ‘man-hours’ to gain and provide essential data. In order to provide consistency and quality of data collection and processing our on-staff scientific team work closely with all volunteers and interns on a daily basis.

As of this year, we have begun conducting in-house studies utilizing a combination of a substantial scientific database that has been established over the past 5 years along with data collection in the field. This gives us a greater requirement for volunteers and interns to join us and make an impact! Studies can be requested by a specific reserve that wants to know a particular study about their own animals etc, or alternatively if an intern has a requirement for their studies that fit into the work we do, and finally contributions to studies external scientific partners are conducting we can assist with a related study to help reach an common end goal. 

We’ve upped our scientific internship programs, adding new and exciting internship opportunities as well as bringing on staff full time and highly experienced scientific internship supervisor. Interns usually come for 3 – 6 months during which time they will have a specific focus and study to complete which is established and agreed through a combination of the intern’s study wishes, the work we are conducting/in-the-field opportunities. Each intern receives a combination of regular on-site supervision and support along with any additional external supervision they may have (university, etc). We are very proud of our internship structures and know that we provide an unparalleled experience affording opportunities to conduct real studies that support academically, careers and interest subjects.

This is just a glimpse of what just can expect to see on this program.The interns will have very specific focuses, as for example, they may come with a focus from their university that they have to meet. For instance, their question could be: What’s the best way to monitor leopards, in order to identify population numbers and distributions in any given area? We know that a large part of that requirement would be camera traps (motion detecting cameras) because they’re nocturnal and incredibly elusive animals. You don’t necessarily see them all that often (however we have recently had incredible sightings!), but you do through camera traps and other methodologies. Thus through our experience and expert teams provide insight and support that helps each intern achieve what they set out to.

We want to be getting deeper and deeper into the impact we make with our projects, especially when it comes to the conservation of species and the habitats which they occupy.

As part of the project, we have a commitment to our scientific partners and to the reserves, but equally to the volunteers and interns. Volunteers help our interns, our scientific partners, reserve management and ecological teams by collecting and providing a wealth of data contributing to essential studies, so it’s become almost a full circle where each part of our projects construct plays a vital role in the conservation of ecosystems and wildlife.

What is the end goal for the Program?

To create healthy and sustainable habitats for generations to come. 

It’s really understanding the land and animals you work with. We’ve got some dire situations in the world right now, you need only think of the plight of lions and rhinos, these became globally known and appreciated issues, however, there are many more that people are unaware of, and are equally important. People aren’t aware of the danger the African lion is in. Giraffes are threatened, they will go extinct if we do not contribute our time and efforts to essential work that pushes to protect these iconic animals that are integral to healthy and balanced ecosystems. Put simply, these animals will no longer be around, our children may not get the opportunity to see many species that can easily be taken for granted today.  

Elephants – Africa’s favorite gentle giants.You lose one animal and it will have a powerful effect on the rest of an ecosystem. Awareness is a big factor and is another element sewn into our projects, to educate on the real situations from wildlife large to small, grasses and trees to bumblebees and how they all fit in. We get media-fatigued so easily as a society, social media has had a large role to play here.

If you’re not careful about the way you put a message out there in the world, you can easily lose people along the way and we have to strive to be better at that as an industry. At the same time, we must consider the social climate we live in, as such you can’t really blame anyone for their reaction towards certain things. We have become a species of headline readers and react based on what we believe we see, it is becoming more and more imperative that we dig a little deeper and understand situations correctly – this is the responsibility of the reader. However, on the other side the responsibility of those that represent information, organizations like ourselves have an opportunity to clearly present solutions to issues such as wildlife and areas they call home.

We all read campaigns that look to save the rhinos, or lions, elephants or children in the local community, to the stage where we are largely desensitized by the messaging. 

We look to not only share the information but further bring people from all over the world to volunteer and intern with us to see it first hand, learn the real scenarios and situations, to make an impact and take that ‘picture’ of Africa home to share with their peers the true and real situations in Africa. Whilst in need of help, there is hope and there are ways to help, it is just a matter of getting involved. 

If you think about it, the only thing people get told about rhino poaching is that we need to donate, what about if you’re not in a position to donate? Then what?

Well, you come and join us, in any capacity, as a volunteer or an intern. Experience it first-hand. Raising awareness and changing perceptions. That’s what we wanna do. That’s what my wife and I, are trying to do. Both locally and globally.

We put a huge focus on the whole volunteer experience and we tailor that so that every volunteer leaves and becomes an advocate of the true African experience. Not the children with distended stomachs and flies around their faces that you traditionally see in the media. We want to share the color and music of Africa that can be heard even in the wind on your cheek, the sun on your arm, the roar of a lion or the impressively loud buzz of a dung beetle flying by. The majesty of Arica.

How do you avoid the negative connotation associated with volunteering in Africa?

This is an area where we put a great deal of effort and focus. We have an ethics committee who make sure that we’re consistently on track with our policies and approaches. One such example is our Child Protection Policy that all volunteers, interns and of course staff are bound by. It is a substantial document, covering a multitude of aspects with the specific intention of protecting children and other community members. This is so important, especially when working with children. It’s how you approach them, not taking selfies with kids, no kids acting like they’re gangsters, none of these are allowed as they do not portray the real Africa and you can see the opportunity for the wrong messaging being shared, misrepresenting Africa where this type of policy is not in place. It is easily done, in the time it takes to capture a photograph, however, it is just not allowed at all. Respect and honor are, along with sustainability, at the core of all that we do.

Project Presenation at Dumela Lodge, We often hold talks a the lodge where we speak about issues facing the industry and how we can be the solution.We regularly have volunteers coming to Africa with important donations for our projects, like pens, reading books and educational materials. It sometimes comes up that they want to give these donations directly to the kids themselves, however, we must say no. We are eternally grateful for donations that are brought, they are important additions to the work we carry out. However handing out gifts creates the wrong mindset and is not how things work when looking to help sustainably, for the long run. 

Firstly anything handed out has to fit into our programs and will be handed out when the time is appropriate, such as graduations, back to school packs, reward, and incentive. All of our community programs are designed to be as effective and efficient as possible. As example, if we were to hand things out to the local community as and when we have it, we must consider what that community member will do the next time they need something, they will most likely reach out their hands expectantly, rather than looking to, or knowing how to earn it for themselves. Thus the old saying “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Dumela Lodge staff meeting

Our amazing staff here at Dumela Lodge are so important to ensuring the success of each and every volunteer’s experience and they never let us down.Every evening in the lodge, we have presentations on topics from rhino poaching to cultural sensitivity and more. This is designed to instill knowledge and provide new or differing perspectives on topics that may just change your perceptions. We want to create informed, responsible and sustainable volunteering and internships, we don’t just throw money at problems. We have debates, which are fantastic and we put people with similar beliefs or opinions on opposing sides and they debate, whether they believe in the side of the argument they are on or not, is not important, it is the opportunity to see things from a different perspective and explore opinions with like-minded individuals. It’s so vital for all of us to question and alter our understanding of the world and issues that take place within, it is a healthy and revealing process. What that does for people’s perceptions is incredible, it makes them have to think upside down and backward, everyone loves these sessions, including the project teams!

It makes volunteers and interns think about the fact that there is a reaction to every action. If you can send people back home to the UK, US, China or wherever they come from around the globe, and in their everyday lives they start questioning these things – it means we’ve made a lasting impact on them! Who knows what that might lead to, maybe they themselves go into conservation, etc. They’ll hopefully have to look at the word in a more ethical, sustainable and correct way, which is one of our ultimate goals.

Which type of person is this program best-suited for?

Volunteers pose for a selfie at a campsite.

Volunteers pose for a selfie at a campsite.We get a great spectrum of people, we start from age 16 and there really isn’t a cap. If you’re an interested person who’s keen to get involved then you can almost surely contribute to the program. On this project specifically, you’ll get your gap year students who come for a variety of reasons, career breakers who are more middle-aged and also those that are retired and want to give back, to experience Africa from a different perspective, it is a fantastic mixture of age groups, ethnicities, cultures, beliefs a great coming together of like-minded individuals working together to make an impact! 

We get quite a lot of students actually studying in the research and/or conservation fields, scientifically-minded students, these often come on an internship above volunteering as it contributes toward their studies. At different times of the year, you’ll get different focuses. So obviously depending on the major school or university breaks, the tide turns. 

What’s the most unusual person you’ve had on the program?

Blyde River being gorgeous as can possibly beI

t’s difficult not to fall in love with The Greater Kruger area when you have a scene like this, real-life Lion King.Every single volunteer and intern that arrives, we have a meet and greet where we ask them where they come from, what they do, what animal they most excited to see, etc. We share the same thing with them and thus we all get to know one another. Additionally, this allows them to kind of explain what industry they’re coming from.

We, as the program organizers, are also involved in that meeting, especially the program leaders, we sit and listen and see how we can best use each individual and their expertise. So we listen to the different skills that are there. We then decide how we use their skills best for the program. Everyone has something unique to bring to the projects and we look to empower and encourage people to be themselves and share their skills with us. We try to bring that into the program.

We never change each individual project much, in that the most important thing in scientific research is consistency and quality. But we might find someone that can help us with something specific. For instance, if we have an analyst or accountant, we know they’d be most likely great at Excel, which is bread and butter when it comes to data. So we might ask them to help in generating a formula that makes it more efficient, etc. Then they can also potentially help in training and support another volunteer or intern who might struggle with excel. Volunteers and interns get the opportunity to support one another. Often we have people that have been with us for a number of months and are able to easily help others with completion of the work, this really helps us to achieve even more impact in any given time, whilst also empowering those individuals and boosting their confidence. 

We recently had Anna Burdzy, Miss Universe Great Britain 2017 who has such passion for wildlife and conservation, Anna was a strong contributor to our projects and further did a voice over for a powerful call-to-action video we compiled for Earth day this year. We’ve had a cat psychologist, builders, farmers, we’ve literally had every type of person you can think of. I really respect the young kids who come here with no relevant experience. 

What is your favorite part of the program?

My favorite part, that would be the people for sure. I love development, helping others grow, develop, find themselves and build themselves in their personal capacity or in their careers. Helping my team, helping the volunteers and the interns. I’ve spent a lot of time working with my team to help uplift them, and seeing where they are months and years later is so fulfilling for me because then they’re capable of helping everyone one else and that’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve here. We’re trying to help them get as much as they possibly can out of the programs while still contributing a lot to the program, which is incredibly difficult but it’s worth it.

Big 5 Wildlife Conservation program in South Africa - watching Elephants roam in the Kruger Area

Watching these land giants roam the Kruger is such a special feeling, not much can compare to it.

As for me, I do a lot of negotiations with reserves, scientific organizations, and partners that help with the growth of our programs. I often sit down with experts in their field, for instance, Dr. Michelle Henly of Elephants Alive, and various other incredible people that are doing groundbreaking work throughout Africa and the world to protect wildlife and habitats. Hearing from them how much our organization is contributing towards conservation and awareness is literally drop the mic kind of stuff for me. If we can make that kind of difference and rub shoulders with these giants, that’s it you know. Living the dream.

What makes the Kruger Area so special?

Kruger park Giraffes

Living in the African bush constantly reminds how precious mother earth is.

Well, it’s one of the world’s premier wildlife havens, it’s ridiculously stunning! I’m sitting in my home office right now looking out my window and in front of me are three giraffes in my garden. We’ve got one bird bowl on the ground and two up in the trees which the giraffes are drinking from as I say this. I have the Blyde mountains in the background, it’s unreal, surreal even!

We’ve got the Blyde River Canyon here so come sunrise, those cliffs just sing with the most beautiful orange colors. It’s Lion King every day. There are massive beautiful open skies that are just breath-taking. The craziest thing is that all of what I have just explained is every day here, and that goes for the whole expansive area. I come from the Isle of Mull in Scotland, which has zero light pollution, skies that are clustered with stars, it is heaven, this area competes with that any day, in fact perhaps better as the sun here is not merely a light bulb in the sky!

Dumela Lodge Kruger Park

Our awesome volunteer house where our guests get to interact with like-minded people from all corners of the globe.

At Dumela Lodge, where we’re based, we hear lions and hyenas every night. Elephants rumbling, that’s just normal, you’re in the wilds of Africa. But you’re still in South Africa, which many who’ve traveled the rest of Africa, call it ‘Africa-lite’, so wifi and many other western luxuries are available to you at the lodge.

Every single person who lives in this community is involved in some sort of conservation work, we don’t just talk about it, we actually do it and it’s incredible to see how far we’ve come in that. I am very proud of where we live. I am honored to be a part of this incredible program and I implore every one of you to join us, you won’t regret it. I look forward to meeting you soon.

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