It is important to be mindful of our footprint when we travel; to consider how we impact the communities and lands we visit. In this photo essay, Amanda Villarosa encourages us to think about how we relate to animals and wildlife in particular, and provides some very concrete advice to help guide our experiences. She shares:
“Research and educate yourself about the places you want to see, the activities you plan to do, and the places you intend to stay … Try to be in touch directly with the people you will be volunteering with, rather than use a third party agency. Make sure to confirm that your money is going where it needs to and that you aren’t being fooled by places that act as conservation organizations but in reality have unethical practices. A hands-on wild animal experience is both priceless and expensive …”
What inspired you to travel to Zimbabwe?
As an animal lover, I had been curious about wildlife conservation for quite some time; what exactly does conservation entail and how could I help? I initially booked the trip solely to volunteer – to help out where needed and experience a different type of travel. I was in a specific time in my life where I was desperately searching for guidance and likeminded people. I wanted to remove myself from everything I knew back home in the US and immerse myself into something completely unknown. I wanted to preoccupy my mind with positive thoughts and also be challenged. But more than anything, I was eager to put my care and love into something that needed it more than myself.
Following my passion and interests, I found myself in the middle of the Zimbabwean bush at Imire Rhino & Wildlife Conservation, a privately owned, 10,000 acre game park that gives curious animal lovers like myself the opportunity to step into a unique and unforgettable volunteering experience. Similar to other conservation parks, Imire exists to nurture the battered, conserve the undamaged, and educate all those who ask ‘how’ and ‘why’. I guess in some way, I felt that by helping something else, I’d also be helping myself.
“I believe that it has become our responsibility to not only help animals survive, but thrive as well.”
Describe your time there. What were the landscapes like? What kinds of wildlife did you see?
I grew up in Los Angeles and live in New York City where space is always limited and your surroundings can feel too close for comfort. The open land in Zimbabwe is something I had never experienced before. Waking up to the sounds of Mambo the lion roaring or the sight of Tatenda the young black rhino grunting for his food quickly turned around any lingering nerves. Volunteers and staff would gather each morning at 6:30 a.m. to head out into the park for daily duties. We alternated between feeding and handling the black rhinos and tending to the elephants, both of which Imire considers to be semi-wild; the elephants have all been rescued and the rhinos are hand-reared for breeding program purposes, with the intention of reintroducing them into the wild. Other animals including zebras, warthogs, giraffes, and antelopes could be seen roaming free throughout the bush at all hours; the elephants and rhinos, however, require 24-hour handlers and guards in order to protect them from the daily threat of poaching. Each day brought about new lessons in animal safety and game park maintenance. A typical afternoon consisted of observing animals’ feeding and social behaviors, burning dead brush, cutting down invasive plant species, removing poacher traps, rebuilding border fences, and my favorite, playing volleyball with the children at the local schools. We’d end each day walking across the park, following behind the elephants or rhinos, as the sun set over what felt like an endless open space.
What drives your passion for animals and wildlife conservation?
My mother used to tell me that I was quite nurturing as a child, holding your jacket if you wanted to run in the mud or grabbing you a band aid if you scraped your knee. Feeling nurturing towards an animal is no different – there has always been an undeniable connection.
There were very few things that I knew about conservation, but what I did know was that I had a steadfast curiosity and desire to help. I believe that it has become our responsibility to not only help animals survive, but thrive as well. Steve Irwin once said, “If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched… Humans want to save things that they love”. Perhaps that’s where my passion stems from – an aspiration to speak for those who can’t, knowing that there has to be a reason why we coexist.
“Instead of paying a tourist company to ride an elephant in Thailand, pay to volunteer at a sanctuary that rescues elephants from the circus. Instead of paying to pet lion cubs and pose with Bengal tigers, pay to work alongside a professional conservationist who tracks lions through the bush.”
What do you do when you travel to minimize any adverse impact you may have on the environment and on wildlife, and what can others do?
Research and educate yourself about the places you want to see, the activities you plan to do, and the places you intend to stay. Volunteering abroad is not a free trip. Try to be in touch directly with the people you will be volunteering with, rather than use a third party agency. Make sure to confirm that your money is going where it needs to and that you aren’t being fooled by places that act as conservation organizations but in reality have unethical practices. A hands-on wild animal experience is both priceless and expensive – our contact both fatal and inspiring. Instead of paying a tourist company to ride an elephant in Thailand, pay to volunteer at a sanctuary that rescues elephants from the circus. Instead of paying to pet lion cubs and pose with Bengal tigers, pay to work alongside a professional conservationist who tracks lions through the bush. These are all things that I’ve learned after the fact, and volunteering in Zimbabwe helped me realize that it’s important to look behind the scenes.
What did you learn from your experience?
As humans, we hold a great amount of power, but at times we struggle to decipher how it can best be used. Conservations, national parks, and sanctuaries exist as a result of people using their power in positive ways. Within these establishments are animal handlers and keepers who possess an unwavering appreciation for the animals they care for. I was lucky enough to observe this first hand, and came to realize that the differences between animals and humans are few. The handlers and animals had remarkable relationships with one another, and observing that was an acute reminder that we are all connected. The animals relied on the humans for daily support – supplemental food in the morning, poaching protection at night – and the handlers relied on the animals for companionship. The elephants were able to identify who they belonged to and recognized the gentleness of their approach. The rhinos whined in their bomas if you didn’t greet them each morning with an excited hello. Each animal had a personality – a quirk that differentiated one from the other. Once you got to know the unique creatures, you suddenly felt a great desire to protect them.
“[Imire] has reminded me of the power we hold to change things for the good. At the end of the day, we have to do what we can to conserve what we love.”
Imire gave me a valuable lesson in selflessness, helping me to understand why it is our moral obligation as humans to conserve the world around us. It has reminded me of the power we hold to change things for the good. At the end of the day, we have to do what we can to conserve what we love.