As a research volunteer in Liwonde National Park, Katie Jones experienced life in the bush while contributing to conservation efforts in an area once decimated by poachers.

The wildlife sightings in Liwonde are stunning and at moments it was just the research team surrounded by lion prides or elephant herds – making the encounters feel even more incredible! The small volunteer groups also allow everyone to get involved and truly become a part of the research team.

The work

You get to go ‘on safari’ twice a day at sunrise and sunset! There isn’t a better way to start the day than seeing a cheetah strutting along the flood plains. Or driving back to camp after a busy day to see a herd of elephants in the river as it reflects all the beautiful colours of the sunset.

During drives we collect data in various ways to help inform the parks conservation strategies. Telemetry equipment is used to find the direction of collared animals and often leads to sightings. Some of my favourite moments were standing on top of the vehicle with the equipment to get better signal for fixes, although it probably felt a lot cooler than it looked.

Camera traps provide a good chunk of the data for monthly reports, especially for hyenas. Back at camp, while sorting through data and camera trap photos, it’s always fun to see the nocturnal animals – or mugshots of the team…

Every day is different! On ‘quiet’ days with less charismatic wildlife, I became interested in everything from a purple crab on the road to pink trees. All species are important for biodiversity so are also monitored by LWT – and everyone can collect data easily by using the app iNaturalist. As volunteers we all became quite competitive over who could get the highest species count. I learned so much and my journal quickly became my own field guide filled with fun facts, questionable drawings, and unforgettable memories!

My experience

It’s so difficult to pick favourite moments, but some of the best animal encounters and unforgettable memories were:

  • Being a part of the team the day the wild dogs were reintroduced – it was incredible and still feels surreal! As the wild dogs were still in the boma during my first week, I also got to help with the final stages before they were released and help to monitor the carnivores as they settled into their new home.
  • Seeing two lionesses from Pride B attempting to hunt a warthog gave me such an adrenaline rush! Even though it’s common knowledge that lionesses do the hunting I was still shocked by the dominant male’s (LM3) laziness as he just watched them.
  • Elephant encounters were probably my favourite. I loved learning to read their behaviours, as it helped to understand their moods and showcased their intelligence.
  • We spotted some spotted hyenas! After only seeing them on camera traps for many weeks I was starstruck when we saw three cross the road and quickly disappear again.
  • Although I didn’t see a black rhino, we saw tracks and scat along the road and knowing there was one nearby gave me goosebumps. Yes, you’ll get excited about footprints and poop!

The list could go on forever! However, wildlife and animals are unpredictable, so it’s always good to go on drives and even planned operations with low expectations. You really appreciate sightings more if you only expect to see impala every day! I was lucky enough to be a part of other projects including vulture monitoring and lion collaring – it was amazing seeing the work that goes on behind the scenes.

As I was volunteering during the rainy season, days could be even more unpredictable, but the thrill of driving through rivers and the beautiful landscape never disappointed. The bush is the best place in the world and the team are great so there’s never a dull moment!

The Camp

The whole team at LWT was so supportive and welcoming! I was added to a WhatsApp group before even leaving England – this helped me feel less nervous about my first time travelling alone.

Once I landed in Malawi, I was greeted at the airport by one of the placement coordinators and drove to Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in the capital, where I stayed for one night. I met lovely volunteers from different places and backgrounds, who excitedly shared their stories of sanctuary volunteering. Two of the volunteers were also coming to Liwonde to volunteer for a couple weeks – we chatted during the four-hour transfer the next morning and became close friends.

I felt at home at the research camp within days. We had loads of fun making family dinners – everything from beans on toast to Malawian nsima.

The camp has a maximum of five volunteers and during my six-week stay, I only had to share a room for a couple of nights. Other camp residents include yellow baboons, vervet monkeys, and geckos. As a bit of a Harry Potter fan, I was very excited to see a tailless whip scorpion just relaxing by the room.

In between drives, we would relax at camp and sort through camera traps and data. The early starts also meant it was socially acceptable to nap during the day. The office was the coolest spot at camp, so most of the time we’d be in the office to relax and sort through data. There were no drives on Saturday afternoon and Sunday – a chance to catch up on work, sleep, or arrange a boat safari with one of the lodges.

Before my flight home, I stayed for a couple of days at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre and helped at the sanctuary. It was amazing to see elusive animals like hyenas and servals, and help care for them. I’d recommend doing a bit of both volunteering experiences – research and sanctuary – and get as involved as possible!

Volunteering with Lilongwe Wildlife Trust is perfect for anyone with an interest in wildlife! You’ll see African wildlife from a new perspective and help make a positive impact.

Photos: Katie Jones, Callum Gray, Tilly Sant’Ana, Natacha Budniok, Jonas Strahberger