Sean Tyler used his Winter Term to volunteer at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center in Hoedspruit, South Africa, which focuses on the conservation of rare, vulnerable and endangered animal species.
After traveling 18 hours from Austin to Johannesburg, Tyler caught another flight into Hoedspruit (Afrikaans for Hat Creek), a small town near the northeast border of South Africa in the Limpopo province, where he billeted for three weeks at Nungu Camp.
“I was lonely when I first got to the camp because most conversations were in Afrikaans or French,” Tyler said. "But I got used to it eventually."
Work started at 4:45 a.m. with preparing food for the cheetahs. All 98 cheetahs must be fed a specific weight of meat and a specific amount of supplement.
“We went to the first enclosure, and I put down three bowls for the king cheetahs. Being that close to an apex predator and staring it in the eyes is a life-changing experience,” Tyler said.
Tyler added that there was never a sense of real danger as volunteers had custodians at their side the entire time, who knew which animals were “mischievous” and which ones the volunteers could interact with.
Once his team had visited all of the big male cheetahs and the slightly smaller females and cubs, they returned to the butchery where massive crates of the smelliest, maggot-infested meat was loaded onto the back of their truck. Out on the preserve, they backed the truck up to a large pile of bones and unloaded the heavy crates of food. Tyler said he was confused at the absence of any wildlife nearby.
“Reading my mind, the curator told me to look up where hundreds and hundreds of the largest birds I’ve ever seen circled just above our heads. We dumped the extremely heavy crates onto the pile of bones and gunned it forward. Then a massive swarm of black and white descended, and in a flash all the meat we had just unloaded was gone,” Tyler said.
The rest of Tyler’s time at camp was spent in similar ways, waking up early in the mornings, preparing food for the animals, feeding them, and cleaning their areas.
He also participated on game drives into a nearby reserve. In addition to the many different animals, the guide also pointed out the common plants and trees in the area and identified invasive species of plants.
“This was very interesting as it made me realize how interconnected everything is. If invasive plants are introduced to the area, they need to be removed, or they upset the delicate ecosystem,” Tyler said.
At the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Tyler learned about the various animals being rehabilitated, including cheetahs, a honey badger, many different bird species, and several lions.
“Depending on the physical condition of the animal, they decide which animals can eventually return to the wild, and which will need to stay in captivity in order to survive,” Tyler said.
A visit to a local school was also on the agenda. Tyler attended first grade classes where children were instructed to color a picture of an elephant and write a sentence about it. The volunteers then judged each paper and gave prizes to the students.
“In my opinion, this is where my life was truly affected. The extreme happiness of those kids at getting some new pencils and pens, or a coloring book, just put my life in perspective. It basically taught me that many of the psychological first world disorders we battle with day to day are unknown in this world where these children have so many basic needs to worry about. My attitude to life was changed permanently that day,” Tyler said.
His experience at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center inspired Tyler to launch his own 501(c)(3) foundation, Leopard’s Rest, to make a difference to the rehabilitation and conservation of animals in South Africa and provide basic humanitarian supplies to the people in the region.