Working with wild African animals was my teenage dream. I studied biology, ecology and animal behavior in college but eventually switched lanes to enter the more financially viable but decidedly less fun field of healthcare. I was finally going to live out my wildlife fantasies by volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in Africa. There are multiple places to do this and frankly, most are unethical AF. I don’t want to “walk with lions,” (which perpetuates the unethical breeding and canned lion hunt industry) selfie myself with cuddly cheetah babies or do anything that isn’t truly necessary for animal rehabilitation or conservation. I spent months doing research on various sanctuaries and found myself volunteering at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary.
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N/a’an ku sê means “God will protect us” in the San Bushman language. It is pronounced “non – koo – say” by the way. The owners of this sanctuary are Dr. Rudie and Marlice van Vuuren. Marlice was raised on an animal sanctuary alongside the tribal San Bushman people. She fluently speaks the Bushmen language. Rudie and Marlice started Na’ankuse with the mission to not to only care for injured or orphaned animals but to study and mitigate the factors leading these situations. AKA “Human-Wildlife Conflict”. Sanctuaries can’t accommodate an infinite number of animals and the goal is to reduce the need for sanctuaries at all.
They aim to conserve the land, cultures and wildlife of Namibia through encouraging participation, education and scientific research. N/a’an ku sê is many things but primarily it is an animal sanctuary within a private game reserve. There are many animals such as giraffe, zebra, red hartebeest, eland, springbok, jackals, warthog, cheetah and leopard to name a few that live here.
The “Farm” as it is known,’ is the heart of the sanctuary where volunteers live and work. Many animals roam freely here and some are amusingly naughty like the sheep and goats.
There is a school for the San Bushmen children and a Lifeline medical clinic. Volunteers can choose to do wildlife, medical or school volunteering and if they have enough time, a combination of all of them.
As a long time Angelina fan, I found this really cool. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie chose N/a’an ku sê to become a partner of the Shiloh Jolie-Pitt Foundation in 2011, to honor their Namibian-born daughter Shiloh. In 2017 the Shiloh Wildlife Sanctuary was opened to rehabilitate elephants and rhinos injured or orphaned by poaching.
The Naankuse Lodge is for non-volunteer guests who want to participate in some activities while staying in a lux eco-lodge lodge. All profits are directed back into supporting charitable projects. To help support the sanctuary, all leftover food is recycled into animal food. As if that’s not cool enough, the lodge offers job opportunities and education to the San Bushman who are a marginalized community in Namibia.
Read More: Ultimate Namibia Tour
Clearly, I’m crazy for animals. This was my dream…ethically interacting with wildlife. I loved this experience although everything wasn’t always perfect as I’ll explain in the next section. First, I will explain briefly what it was like.
The first activity for all volunteers is orientation with Corné. He is a character (pictured below in a group shot with the ladies). Charming and passionate, he is the perfect person to lead the volunteers. We had a tour and watched a slideshow about N/a’an ku sê learning about the things we would be doing as well as a somewhat terrifying lecture about the various snake and spider species we could encounter and how to identify the poisonous ones (there were so many and there was no way I would remember!).
We were given basic wildlife safety guidelines such as knowing that wild animals will usually run away and that we are likely to encounter animals that have been rehabilitated, released and coming back for a visit. These animals are used to humans and typically will not run away and in fact, as in the case of one particular porcupine…will run towards you seeking out a belly rub.
We were assigned to small groups of 4 people and each Sunday, the groups were assigned to a weekly rotation of activities. The coordinators attempt to keep things fair by rotating everyone through the fun and “not as fun” activities equally. Unfortunately, it is not a perfect system since people come and go each week so groups change and activity schedules change. I found myself missing a couple activities in my 2 weeks but the coordinators were able to help. It is better to spend a longer amount of time here if you can.
Wolfy, a semi-tame jackal often came to visit, shamelessly looking for food.
Wolfy was adorable but annoying (and ferocious) when he pestered us during food prep. He swiped a hunk of chicken from me here. I wasn’t about to try to get it back!
Pictured below are some of the animals we feed and interact with. Most have been rescued from the illegal pet trade. Clockwise: The Fantastic Four (Meerkats), Beetlejuice the Polecat, Genet and Zola, the baby Duiker
I never knew warthogs could be so affectionate and adorable. This is Specky, who pulled at my heartstrings when he squeaked and begged for attention when you walked by.
We found a surprise one day…meerkat babies. As if the parents weren’t adorable enough.
The following week would be similar with enclosure cleaning, game counts, baboon walks, but I added cheetah walk and horseriding.
I knew nothing about these animals before my visit and now are my favorite animal. They are critically endangered in Namibia and endangered elsewhere in Africa. Feeding these guys was a highlight for me. They are beautiful and ferocious, led by an alpha female who is the only one that can breed. Hence their low numbers in the wild.
FYI if you want to help the Wild Dogs while drinking wine (win win!!!) check out Painted Wolf Wines, produced in South Africa and sold all over the world.
Farmers often shoot baboons and then take babies to the sanctuary. They are bottle fed by humans until old enough to be integrated into the troupe. The older females love having the babies and it is good for the troupe. Sadly, they can never be released because the government considers them pests and these baboons are now habituated to humans. They have a good life here with morning and afternoon “walks” where they play, climb trees and swim while jumping on us, grooming us and way too often, peeing on us. You get used to it I swear. I designated a shirt as my “baboon” shirt. This shirt didn’t go home with me.
Another facet of baboon care is caring for the babies. There may not be a baby there or there may be several. When I was there, a 6-week old baby female had to be bottle fed every 2 hours and babysat continuously. This was a heavily sought-after “job” and I was fortunate to have 2 “shifts” with the baby, named Natasha. I ADORED her, as did everyone.
This is the closest I will ever come to wanting a baby.
This is understandably a popular activity. The cheetahs are in a similar predicament to the baboons. Because of a large number of private farms in Namibia, the human-wildlife conflict often leads to cheetah shootings. Farmers aren’t always heartless bastards and often take babies to the sanctuary. Government red tape regarding permits leads to months of paperwork that prevents the cheetahs from being released quickly. Cheetahs are unique amongst big cats in that they become habituated to humans in only 3 months. Once that happens, they cannot be released because the chances of deadly human-wildlife conflict is now increased. A wild animal that has no fear of humans PLUS now associates humans with food is not a good thing for either humans or the cheetah. Therefore, the sanctuary must provide the best life possible.
Namibian law requires one hectare (2.5 acres) of land per large carnivore and no touching of large carnivores by volunteers. The owners don’t want volunteers coming here for the wrong reasons and we were not permitted to take photographs of ourselves with the cheetahs. Their position is that images of humans together with wild animals encourage what they are fighting: exotic pet trade, exploitation of wild animals and the assumption that a research-based sanctuary facility is the same as a petting zoo. Although I was sad not to have one of these photos, I respect this philosophy.
Every afternoon two cheetahs were taken out walking with a small group of volunteers and a Bushman guide. No leashes. Being close to these gorgeous but potentially deadly animals was such a privilege. In my case, it was more of a run than a walk as we found ourselves actually chasing them. Something I never thought I would do…run after the fastest land animal.
These were some of my favorite activities because it was both fun and educational. It was like going on a mini safari game drive through the game reserve part of the sanctuary. The coordinators would teach us about the local flora and fauna and during a game count, we systematically counted the various animals we saw during our drive in one sector of the reserve. This was done so that the predator/grazer ratios could be monitored by the research team. We had a particularly lucky day and not only saw giraffes but got really close to them.
There were many animals not pictured including mongoose, tortoises (all sizes), sheep, caracals, dassies, and vervet monkeys which are adorable little assholes. There are random projects you may get pulled into like anesthetizing and moving a problematic oryx. I have much of this documented in my Instagram stories which you can watch here: Namibia Instagram Story
Naankuse has multiple research projects at the sanctuary and they have partnered with other facilities throughout Namibia in very innovative ways. Volunteers and non-volunteers can also visit these places.
The Neuras Wine and Wildlife estate is dedicated to the conservation and reintegration of wildlife within their 14,400-hectare (35,000 acres) estate. Guests can experience wine-making in the desert. I for one MUST visit this place sometime, being the wino that I am. I tasted this wine and it is delicious!
This wildlife reserve is two hours south of Neuras and bordering the Namib Naukluft Park. Fences have been removed and the land fully rehabilitated to provide a refuge for many species such as cheetah and hyena. N/a’an ku sê runs a Spotted Hyena Research Project and a Rapid Respond Unit, helping to reduce lethal carnivore removals by working directly with landowners across Namibia.
In 2010 14 African painted dog pups were excavated from their den at a very young age at the Kavango Cattle Ranch (KCR). N/a’an ku sê has since raised these wild dogs with limited human contact at the sanctuary. These pups were successfully released onto the Zannier Reserve in June 2018. Pictures of these gorgeous animals are below. Also at Mangetti, is a project monitoring elephants in northeastern Namibia.
In 2016 Zannier Hotels partnered with the N/a’an ku sê Foundation to create a large nature reserve of 9,000 hectares (22,000 acres). The relocation and reintroduction of species such as rhinos, elephants and caracals a few examples of successes here.
As you can see, the basic sanctuary volunteer experience is only one aspect of a large network. If you have the time, I would recommend visiting or volunteering at the various research sites. Some volunteers spend 2 weeks at N/a’an ku sê then one week at Neuras and another week at either Mangetti or Kanaan.
I hesitate to write anything negative because I truly support the owners and their mission. I also adored the coordinators. They are wonderful, smart, fun, dedicated people. I don’t want anything I write to detract from this.
I heard grumblings about the food but overall I think they do a remarkable job. They provide meals for vegetarians, vegans, lactose-free and gluten-free as well as “regular” meals. I don’t know how they manage this. It was confusing at times since the food wasn’t always clearly labeled. We had to be careful to only take the meal we requested or else some people were left with nothing. I think some streamlining of this system would help avoid hangry human to human conflict. Somedays the food was just edible and some days it was delicious.
I didn’t expect the Four Seasons, so that’s not the issue. I knew lodging would be modest. There are two places to “live” at Naankuse, The Bush Camp and The Farm. The Farm is where the activities and animals are so it is more convenient to be here. Bush Camp, however, is nicer, and is where the staff live. They reportedly have better food as well. The “tents” at Bush Camp are more like cabins with airy en-suite bathrooms and doors that lock. At the Farm, there is a dorm and there are tents.
I ended up in one of the older tents. These are permanent tents raised on a wooden platform with beds so it isn’t sleeping on the ground, thankfully. The bathroom is outside and shared with one other tent. I admit I was terrified at first, walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night but I got used to it. There is no electricity. Flashlights are a necessity. My tent was especially small. Other tents were actually 2 tents connected so that there was a bedroom area and a shelving and luggage area. I had half the amount of space of most tents. Thankfully, I was never given a roommate so that helped with the space issue. The tent I shared a bathroom with was only occupied part of the time so I essentially had my own bathroom.
I suggest that when somebody signs up, they are given the list of available housing options with various prices. They should be priced accordingly to level of desirability. This is not how they do it. Everyone pays the same price and some people get better housing than others. This is not how lodging anywhere in the rest of the world works and it provokes resentment. Those willing to pay more should get better housing. Those who want to budget should get budget housing. I think instituting a common sense system like that would take away much or the ire felt by those who saw others in much better lodging situations.
This is a place that favors the young and that is not meant to be derogatory. Young people have gap years, aren’t settled in life and therefore have more time to do things like live at a wildlife sanctuary for months. And yes, I’m super jealous!!! The average age here was between 18 and 22 hailing mostly from Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands with a handful of English and Aussies. There were a few people in their late twenties, fewer in their 30’s, even fewer 40’s and a handful of brave seniors.
This makes for a sort of “summer camp-like” experience. I love young people and formed many friendships with people 20 or more years my junior and I had a blast. You have to be young at heart to come here in the first place and the “older” folks I met were all legends. Everyone got along really well, despite age differences. Karaoke night was actually a blast once you had enough alcohol.
There were a few “toxic” volunteers that were looking for jobs there. I would not wish to volunteer there again with those kinds of people working there. The employees there this past spring when I volunteered, were all wonderful and I can’t say enough food things about them. I hope things stay that way!
I was very impressed by the commitment to conservation and nature. Animals are not exploited. Nothing here is wasted. The bathrooms are solar powered. The water from bathrooms is recycled into sprinkler system (do NOT walk under these). The leftover human food is recycled into animal food. The leftover animal food is left at the outskirts of the farm for the jackal or porcupine or whatever creature wants it. All glass, paper and plastic is recycled. Purified water is provided in a huge tank where everyone can fill their reusable bottles.
Overall my experience was fun and rewarding, despite the frustrations. It’s not for everyone and it may be not what you are expecting. You will not always be cuddling animals. It is sometimes hard work with a schedule involving early mornings. Your lodging is spartan but comfortable enough. The food is not what you want all the time. If you can deal with this, you will have an unforgettable experience.
You will learn more than you can imagine about various animals, ecology, human-wildlife conflict and the world of conservation. You will leave with a greater appreciation for the people who work in this industry and the unique major challenges they face. I don’t doubt that the money we spent to stay here is well spent. Not to mention, you will make new friends, have hilarious and heartwarming experiences with various animals and see some of the most stunning sunsets in the world. The understated magnificent beauty of Namibia is reason enough to go!
Have you volunteered with wildlife before? I want to hear about it. Also, feel free to contact me for any questions about Naankuse.