By Zoë Cox-Putker
It only really hit me when I was standing in the Heathrow Departures Lounge completely alone. I was going to Zimbabwe for four weeks to interact mainly with elephants and other wild animals I had only ever seen in zoos. I felt a strange mixture of excitement and terror, but as the journey would take me 19 hours, I had plenty of time to relax. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my summer than with my favourite animals.
In July this year my adventure began, volunteering in Zimbabwe for a program aimed particularly, but not solely, at the conservation of elephants and rhinos. This involved us (me and nine other adventurers) getting up close and personal with these semi-wild animals. We stayed in a beautiful lodge and Tony – the Volunteer Manager ensured we became, and remained, one big family.
Most of my time was spent doing an incredibly wide number of tasks from fixing the boundary fences (after the white rhinos escaped!), taking down old boma’s (holding pens for animals), teaching various subjects to the children at the local primary and secondary school and building elephant platforms. We worked from 6am until 5pm every day except Saturday afternoons, but despite that horrifying thought, it never felt like work. Every day was eventful and one big adventure. Forming close bonds with the other volunteers and with Tony and Bright, the task manager, meant that carrying out the different jobs made even the hard labour enjoyable.
Sadly, in 2007, three of the black rhinos at Imire Game Park were killed and their horns were cut off by poachers, despite having already been dehorned legally. This tragic event opened my eyes to the threat of poachers and the ruthless way in which they are willing to obtain rhino horns for medicinal use in Asia, especially as conservation is crucial to the survival of the species. Bright spent every day with us and taught us a lot about these creatures. These facts, intertwined with a lot of bad jokes, made them unforgettable!
Imire also has five beautiful elephants, one of which thinks it is a buffalo and spends all her time with the buffalo herd. The leader of the four elephant herd is an enormous male called Mac but he is surprisingly gentle and remarkably intelligent and looks after the incredibly cute young elephant, Kutanga, very well. My favourite, Toto, is a giant and I spent as much time with him as I could, riding him across the Game Park as the sun was setting over Imire, which was both exhilarating and awe-inspiring.
The truth is I lack the space to talk about all the amazing things I experienced in Zimbabwe. Not only was it educational but it was full of life-changing adventures. I will never forget the people I met there or the masses of information I learnt about all the different animals in the park, about conservation and the Shona culture. If you want to see my photos and hear my stories about the program, find me! It truly was the adventure of a lifetime.