My plans never seem to go…well, as planned. My heart has been set on living and working in Africa for a long time, but if you’d asked me at the start of 2016 when I would go back, my answer would have been ‘in at least a few more years’. I wanted to travel the world for a bit longer (say, until the end of my twenties) before I really began to concentrate on getting my career up and running. Then, after spending a couple of months backpacking in Asia following my year in Australia, combined with a few other factors (including this one), I had a sudden change of heart.
Travel, while entirely enjoyable, suddenly seemed meaningless to me. I’ve always been one of those (often annoying) ‘I want to save the world!’ people, and I had a sudden feeling that that’s what I should be doing. Lazing on beautiful beaches, snorkelling with marine giants or hiking volcanoes are all amazing experiences, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a waste of time, time that could be better spent on ‘saving the world’. While I may not feel now that my travels were a waste of time, back in April, while I was in the Philippines, I wasn’t exactly happy.
Yes, despite what social media may portray, it is entirely possible for a traveller to be miserable (and it’s entirely okay, too). Let’s get real here for a second.
So I began to think back on my previous times in Africa, and I yearned for those days, days that I really was well and truly happy. Cue a long google search with a single viable result: a temporary position as assistant to the Rescue and Rehabilitation Manager at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi.
Malawi? To be completely honest, I wasn’t 100% certain where Malawi was, but that wasn’t going to stop me. Thinking back now, I guess you could say I was running from what was really going on in my head at the time.
It wasn’t until I was back in Australia a few weeks later that I even heard back about my application. Ironically, it was approximately 1 hour after I had accepted a job in a hotel 2 hours north of Perth that I found out I’d made it to the second round of the application process. It took another few weeks before I found out I had somehow managed to get the job, even though I was so sure I had bottled the Skype interview. I was to be in Malawi in a month’s time! Luckily, my boss at the hotel was really understanding, and was actually happy for me.
Holy shit. I couldn’t believe it. I was going back to Africa.
In the end, what was supposed to be a three month position turned into four, then another 9 weeks in the stunningly beautiful Liwonde National Park monitoring a wild vervet troop for a pilot study by the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust. I had some amazing experiences, I learned more than I ever thought I would, I met some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met (miss you guys!), and I lived in constant proximity to wildlife (my idea of heaven).
However, was being back in Africa the cure to my problems? No, it wasn’t. I thought that just by being there, I would feel better. But, unfortunately, that’s not how life works. There were plenty of times when I wanted to curl up into a ball and pretend the rest of the world didn’t exist. There were times when I didn’t want to watch the monkeys, or walk in the stifling heat, or interact with another human being. Africa didn’t magically take my unhappiness away, although most of the time it was a fantastic distraction.
Now that I’m home, I’m sorting my head out. There’s no place or experience that will “make me better”. I have to work on that myself no matter where I am.
Woah, this post took an entirely unexpected direction! Let’s get back to why I started writing this in the first place. I want to share with you guys my greatest experiences from my time in Malawi. Here goes!
Health check on Simba
LWC has two resident lions who, for health reasons, cannot be released into the wild (UPDATE: sadly, both were put down in November 2017 due to their worsening health). Simba was born in a French zoo where he lived for several years before being bought by an animal trainer. Years of cramped living quarters and loneliness were finally ended when the authorities stepped in and took him. He was then brought to Malawi to live out his days in a largenatural enclosure with Bella the lioness to keep him company. This handsome boy isn’t getting any younger, so regular health checks are essential. I was lucky enough to be a part of several checks on Simba during my time at the centre, and got to help weigh him, clean him and assist the vets (one of my best experiences of 2016). LWC has a strict hands-off policy with all their animals, so this is the only time Simba is ever touched by humans.
The way it should be, in my opinion.
Of all the monkeys I worked with at LWC, Syren was by far my favourite. A beautiful little yellow baboon, Syren was named for the loud calls she would make at passing humans. She was very humanised when she arrived, looking for attention from staff and volunteers. After her quarantine period was finished, she was moved to the Main Primates area to be integrated into a baboon troop. That’s where I came in. Weeks of observations and one-on-one introductions followed, and it was incredible to watch the progress she made. At first she was very nervous, especially of the bigger baboons (wouldn’t you be?), then her playful side emerged. Finally, it was time to release her into her new family, and it couldn’t have gone any more smoothly. I couldn’t help but smile every time I walked through Main Primates and saw her playing, eating or just relaxing with the rest of the troop.
All female primates at LWC are given contraceptive implants – just like humans – that last up to 3 years. Like any good wildlife centre, no (deliberate) breeding happens here. However, just like any boy-girl group, accidents do happen. In Kongola’s vervet troop, two of the females became pregnant before they were implanted. Two swollen bellies waddled around the enclosure, until one day there was a teeny tiny baby instead. I still don’t understand how something can be so ugly, yet so gorgeous at the same time. The only way I can describe it is ‘an adorable version of Voldemort’. I had to stop every time I passed the enclosure to see if I could spot mum and baby. However, the wondrous occasion also led to several days of stress and work for me as two other females kept stealing the baby. Mum was too scared to take the baby back because she was lower ranked, so several times we had to step in to make sure the hungry baby got back to where it was supposed to be.
Another integration I worked on while at LWC was that of Frank and Gaia, two young blue monkeys, into the group of six already residing at the centre. Frank, the younger of the two, is the funniest monkey I’ve ever seen in my life. Seriously, I used to keep a list of the funny things he would do while I watched them. Gaia was like a big sister to him, and integrating the two at the same time probably made it a bit easier for them, though the integration itself wasn’t exactly the smoothest. Max, a sub-adult male, Houdini-like escape artist and the bane of my Malawian life, decided that chasing Gaia was the best game ever. She didn’t agree. Poor Gaia was absolutely terrified of him, and always made things worse for herself by becoming vocal and running away every time he came near.
Then one day, Gaia disappeared from the enclosure. The next two days were probably the most stressful of my life, as we searched the blue monkey enclosure as well as the neighbouring ones. Every volunteer and staff member were on alert in case she was spotted around the centre. Then, suddenly, there she was, sitting on the platform being groomed by Maggie, the grandmother of the group. I have never felt relief like it.
It wasn’t until she disappeared again a week or so later that we discovered she had never left the enclosure. She had managed to find a hole in the ground underneath a log, and was hiding from Max, often for long periods at a time. Slowly, she began to relax a little more around him, and didn’t disappear so much. Frank on the other hand, well he’s been having a great time!
I feel so lucky to have had an amazing six months in Malawi. A perfect first step along my chosen career path, I don’t regret taking that leap back in the Philippines, even if it wasn’t entirely for the best reasons.
The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre is an amazing organisation that does incredible work protecting, caring for and rehabilitating Malawi’s wildlife. It is the only centre of its kind in the country. If you are interested in volunteering with African wildlife, I highly recommend you check out their website at www.lilongwewildlife.org. Even if you’re just passing through Malawi, you should stop by and take a guided tour of the centre to see the work they do. You might even spot some of the animals in this post! If a visit to Malawi is not possible right now (though personally I think it’s worth the effort!), you can adopt one of the animals, or just donate through the website above. Like I said, they do amazing work, are very ethical about handling the wild animals (and keeping them wild!), and need all the help they can get.
I hope someday to return to Malawi to see the progress my gorgeous animals have made.
Have you ever made a spontaneous, path-changing decision while travelling? How did it work out?
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.