For many people the opportunity to volunteer with animals in South Africa is something of a dream. Africa is well known for it’s safaris and game parks like Etosha or Kruger, but to actually volunteer with big cats is something else. For me this is no different, although it wasn’t something I was initially planning when I visited Africa.
Many times when I travel my plans change. But this just means I experience something I wasn’t aware of before I arrived. This was the case on my trip to Southern Africa. Due to several coincidences I was travelling East from Cape Town instead of my original plan of coming from the opposite direction. However, this meant I was able to learn of a very special place in the Eastern Cape. Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary.
Panthera Africa is a big cat sanctuary that, like many similar places in this part of the world, receive much of their funding from international volunteers hoping to work with the animals for a few weeks or even months. Whilst many people hoping to volunteer in South Africa look for positions teaching English to school children that never appealed to me (despite it being my actual job!). However, the chance to volunteer with animals in Africa was something else. I contacted the sanctuary and organised to spend the last two weeks of my African trip with them.
I flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town already excited for my chance to volunteer with animals in South Africa and the opportunity to be living with the big cats. After meeting Martin, one of the volunteer coordinators, at the airport we were driven to the property in Stanford, some two hours from Cape Town. Once there, we were treated to our first tour of the facility. Including meeting the animals themselves.
In total Panthera has 27 animals plus five house pets (four dogs and a cat). The animals consist of lions, tigers, caracals, leopards, cheetahs and three black backed jackals. Within minutes of being shown around we were sat barely two metres away from a purring cheetah. There are not many things I have experienced on my travels that are better than that.
The following morning I had a full day to get to know my new surroundings and joined a public tour led by Sydney, another member of staff. There I heard many of the stories of the animals and how they ended up at Panthera.
Over the next two weeks I got to know most of the cats – spending time with them, enjoying random chats. After a few days I called Neptune, a stunning white lion and king of the Panthera pride, and he turned to face me. Getting acknowledged by a lion is not something you can really prepare for. Neither are the other experiences such as calling Max, the handsome caracal, and then watching as he leaps from the bushes to come say hello. Or greeting Rays the magnificent tiger and receiving a chuff in response. Then there is the roaring.
From 6 o’clock in the evening until we woke at 6am we could hear the lions just a few hundred metres away. I could listen to it all night and it’s impossible not to feel something powerful standing in the middle of it all.
Wildlife conservation in South Africa is a big thing, although not everywhere is entirely ethical. Many sites offer interaction with the big cats, which is a big selling point to many visitors and creates an enormous income. Where Panthera Africa differs from many sanctuaries around the world is that they are a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word. This means no interaction, including by the permanent members of staff, and no trading. All of the animals there were donated from various other sites around South Africa and further in Baguira’s case, a lion all the way from Argentina.
From first hand experience I can tell you that all of the animals that live at Panthera have as good a life as possible after what they have had to survive in their early stages. Some of their stories are truly horrific and heartbreaking. However, now they have large grassy enclosures to enjoy and the company or the staff and volunteers at Panthera Africa who genuinely love and care for them.
It says a lot that people return year after year to volunteer. Many using this as their sole holiday abroad. There’s a lot of hard physical work involved, as you would expect from a volunteer job on farmland. But personally I enjoy that, and all of the work goes towards helping care for the animals and ensuring they have a bright future.
Panthera are limited in what they can do but as awareness is growing towards the problems these magnificent animals have to contend with, hopefully it will mean a better life for their ancestors in the future.
To find out more about the work of Panthera Africa and volunteer with animals in South Africa, visit their website: https://pantheraafrica.com/