When I was a young girl, I lived in Kenya. I spent long days at Masai Mara game reserve, a massive wildlife park (and popular tourist destination) where the animals roam free. I watched the lions sleeping in the hot afternoon sun; the gazelles, fleet of foot and on the watch for cats; and the zebras swishing their tails, a black and white tangle of shivering flanks. The boars rammed each other in the tall grass. A herd of elephants circled to protect a single calf. As the sun started to set, the nocturnal animals emerged: the hammer-headed fruit bat; the aardvark with its long snout and shuffling gait; the bush baby with wide, staring eyes and a whip-like tail; and the civet who’s musk is used in the fanciest perfumes.
There is a dirt road through the park and visitors are told to stay in their cars. I had a hard time with that. I begged my mom to let me get a photo standing by an eight-foot tall termite mound. I pleaded for a chance to walk next to the striding giraffes, to jump like the impala, to investigate a knot of galumphing toads. On the one occasion my mom actually did let me out of the car (after a lengthy scan for lions), I was so excited I tripped over a rock and broke my toe. I was always fascinated with animals, but being there, seeing the dizzying diversity of creatures first-hand, left me sure of my destiny: one day I would be a scientist.
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is the organization that protects Masai Mara, and many other wildlife habitats in Kenya. They work as stewards of national parks and reserves, oversee conservation and management efforts, educate local populations about the importance of biodiversity, and support a variety of wildlife research projects. They also work to prevent poaching and to prosecute the poachers they catch.
Poaching is an ever-present threat, and for good reason. There is a thriving black market for elephant tusks and cheetah hides (among a multitude of other animal products), and there are many poor people, desperate for a meal ticket. But poaching isn’t the only threat these animals face. Climate change has brought drought and more severe weather. Development has encroached on delicate habitat. Tourism often leads to irresponsible and dangerous human/animal interactions. A 2009 study showed that the numbers of giraffes, warthogs, impala, topi and hartebeest at Masai Mara fell by more than 50% between 1979 and 2002.
Seeing these animals in their natural habitat changed my life. It opened my eyes to the incredible power of nature, something I never would have fully grasped living in the northeast United States. KWS is working to ensure that these animals in this diverse and beautiful part of the world will be there to change the lives of my children, and my children’s children. KWS welcomes volunteers of all backgrounds and works closely with prospective visitors to find suitable placements.
Taking care of the land and the animals has a direct impact on the local human population.Volunteering with KWS means helping an entire ecosystem, from the bush squirrel, weaver bird, and great white rhinoceros to the human family.