From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (

Against the tide of bogus voluntourism in South Africa: a case study from the Western Cape

South Africa has been gaining a reputation as the home of bogus wildlife voluntourism projects. At the worst end of the scale are profiteering scams that abuse unsuspecting volunteers to walk, pet and raise lion and other predator cubs whose only purpose is to enrich the owners and be killed in a canned hunt as soon as the animals have outgrown their cute and cuddly stage. But there are genuine volunteering alternatives too, set up by locals and satisfying local need for help with wildlife research and conservation. A small project in the fynbos of the Western Cape shows how it is done.
Dr. Alan Lee, a South African biologist, is currently hosting a group of seven volunteers from South Africa, Switzerland, the UK and USA at Blue Hill Nature Reserve to assist him for two weeks in his efforts to research and conserve the unique wildlife of the fynbos.

“The volunteers helped me with big cat, small mammal and camera trapping, with analysing thousands of camera trap photos, and conducting a general biodiversity assessment using flush surveys”, says Dr. Lee and adds that “much of this work is time- and labour intensive and can only be done in groups. With only a couple of days training, I can turn laypeople into valuable research assistants, enabling me to do projects that I could not do by myself or that I simply lack the time for.”
But it does not stop just there. Dr. Lee aims to publish two peer-reviewed scientific papers as a result of the project, one on temporal patterns of abundance of medium- to large-size mammals from camera trap records, and the other on the Hottentot buttonquail, an endangered bird species endemic to the fynbos. This will add two more useful pieces of the puzzle to what is known about South African wildlife in academic and conservation circles.

Dr. Lee enlisted the help of international volunteering non-profit Biosphere Expeditions in order to recruit his volunteers and help with the logistics of the project. Fellow biologist and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions Dr. Matthias Hammer says that “Dr. Lee’s project is a showcase of how wildlife voluntourism can and should work, and we are very proud to be associated with it. Peer-reviewed publications are the litmus test for genuine research and getting two out of a two-week project with seven volunteers shows exceptional, goal-oriented focus. It also corroborates what we call our stamp-collecting argument: That voluntourism in wildlife conservation works, because tasks are simple, but laborious and therefore often ideal for the involvement of volunteer citizen scientists. Add to this genuine local demand and community involvement through Biosphere Expeditons’ placement programme, hosting Khomotso Rammala, a recent biology graduate from the University of Limpopo on the project, and you have a small, but significant project that swims against the tide of charlatan and bogus voluntourism in South Africa”, concludes Dr. Hammer.

The next expedition to Blue Hill with Dr. Lee and Biosphere Expeditions will take place from 2 – 16 October 2016.
In collaboration with the Landmark Foundation, the project focuses on monitoring two of Africa’s iconic cats: the threatened Cape mountain leopard and the caracal, in an effort to mitigate conflict with farmers and thereby contributing significantly to cat survival and their conservation. Working in the unique biome of South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom (fynbos) – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s only biome contained within one country – the project also conducts larger biodiversity surveys, focusing on cat prey species such as antelopes, as well as small mammals. The project’s ultimate goal is to develop a remote monitoring technique that will better inform landowners of the status of their prey wildlife and predatory cats, identify potential conflict areas, and use the knowledge gained to mitigate conflicts.

At 1.2 million square km, South Africa is the world’s 25th largest country. It is incredibly biodiverse, with habitats ranging from forest to savannah, grassland, thicket, karoo, desert and fynbos. South Africa is also very rich in wildlife, and is a favoured Big Five safari destination. The core of the study site is the Blue Hill Nature Reserve, a 2,300 ha CapeNature stewardship nature reserve with mountains ranging from 1,000 to just under 2,000 m and under the care of the Lee family trust. CapeNature is the Western Cape provincial conservation department in charge of the network of nature reserves of the Western Cape. The property was purchased in 2009 by Chris Lee, a retired geologist who has been awarded the Draper Memorial Award for contributions to South African geology. The land was previously used for cattle ranching. It was incorporated into the local community conservancy in 2010 and officially declared a nature reserve in 2013. The trust has an obligation to manage the land for biodiversity under a management plan administered by Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, the state organisation charged with managing the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve.

Blue Hill lies on the western side of the massive Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve and wildlife is free to move between these protected areas. The Baviaanskloof area is one of outstanding natural beauty, owing to its spectacular land forms, a diverse array of plants and wide variety of animals. The area is also part of the Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site.


Here is a photo from the camera trap taken at the cage the night after it was deactivated! The associated video shows the leopard spooking at the entrance, and not going through… but trust our luck….


From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.

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