“The lion is right next to the truck,” our monitor whispered. I stopped scanning for tracks, and raised my head to look around. Sure enough, the lion we had been tracking was about 15 yards away, with nothing but the African bush between us. I took the opportunity to pull my head back into the truck’s cab. Eventually, he turned and disappeared once more into the forest.
I was definitely out of my comfort zone.
The scene was Tembe National Elephant Park in South Africa, monitoring endangered species as part of a volunteer team. What prompted me, a pushing-60 suburbanite with a desk job, to travel halfway around the world to reach a remote park sharing a border with Mozambique? It was the farthest stop on a journey that began with a book.
I read “Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America” for no other reason than I wanted some nonfiction to kick the cerebral cortex into gear. The title baffled me. What history? I thought elephants belonged in Africa and Asia, not America.
But “Behemoth” led me to the Elephant Sanctuary of Hohenwald, Tenn., whose website I visited mainly to look at the animal webcams. I started clicking around and the next thing I knew I was adopting an elephant. The online stories of the “girls” who retired to TES were extremely moving, full of tragedy and despair, hope and salvation.
From there I progressed to reading about their volunteer program and entertained the idea of committing my time (and probably more) to supporting their efforts by helping raise public awareness of the plight of elephants, in captivity and the wild. Was I ready and able to undertake something like that?
For a long time my life had revolved around raising my two sons. Somehow my boys were grown and gone and I was left with a rather large hole in my sense of self. For so many years I had been “Mom” and while I will always remain so, the identity it had given me took a much more passive role in my daily life. Though we enjoyed the empty nest syndrome, there was always the nagging feeling that something was missing besides the kids.
I decided to volunteer, and think of this now as the moment a curtain was drawn back. In my volunteer capacity I’ve discovered how gratifying it’s been to see the growing awareness of the sanctuary’s mission, to know that I am part of an effort to make a bad situation better. In this age of the selfie, I realized that connecting to something larger helped fill the void that was gnawing at me.
As part of the sanctuary’s conservation education program, I learned that poaching is the fourth largest criminal enterprise in the world, pushing pachyderms to the brink of extinction, funding terrorism and killing people, too. Why did something so far away bother me so deeply?
The elephants’ problems are emblematic of larger issues. Poaching and loss of habitat threaten many species, and foretell an age of dwindling natural resources. This was anathema to my conservation-oriented, animal-loving self, and eventually I could no longer sit on the sidelines.
After more than a year of saving and planning, my son and I departed for a two-week conservation project in Zululand, South Africa. It was hard work – long days, 100-degree temperatures or worse, and scorpions in our hut. Water was limited, as the El Niño that gave Western New York its mild winter has visited a devastating drought upon South Africa. Some game reserves lost precious wildlife as hippos, amphibians and other animals struggled to stay alive. It was one of many things outside my experience that I encountered during my stay.
When it was time to come home I was exhausted but proud of the work we did. I came home a wiser, profoundly more appreciative person than the one who left. I know that I tried my best to make a difference. In the end, volunteering was the path to discovering that giving is what truly matters.