With a staggering diversity of wildlife, stunning scenery and the chance to get close to large mammals, South Africa is internationally renowned as one of the most popular African destinations.
Earthwatch runs three projects in South Africa, giving volunteers the chance to work alongside scientists with intimate knowledge of the area and its wildlife. On an Earthwatch expedition, volunteers get hands-on with the conservation of the habitats and species that make the country famous, allowing for an unforgettable experience that most tourists can only dream of.
Robben Island, in Table Bay, a few miles from Cape Town is steeped in history, having been a leper colony, a naval base and a notorious prison which was the site of Nelson Mandela's incarceration. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a hotspot for seabird diversity, with many species endemic to the area (found no where else in the world).
The African penguin declined in numbers by a massive 90 per cent during the 20th century and is classified by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable. It was abundant on Robben Island in the 1600s, but by the 1800s the species had become locally extinct. In 1983, however, the penguins recolonised the island and the breeding population expanded well. The island is now home to 6000 breeding pairs.
The main threats facing these penguins include oil spills (such as the spill in June 2000 which led to a large-scale rescue operation involving the removal of 40,000 penguins from Robben and Dassen islands), competition with modern fisheries for food and being ousted from their breeding sites by Cape fur seals. In order to understand these threats and how they can be reduced, it is important to be able to identify individual penguins and undertake long-term monitoring
Volunteers on this project help the scientists to carry out population surveys on the penguins and a range of other seabirds to assess breeding success. They will help with nest monitoring, reading band numbers on previously banded birds and undertake counts of a range of wildlife found on the island. They will assist with developing a new automatic recognition system by taking digital photographs of spot patterns on penguin chests. Volunteers will also collect data on the bank cormorant, another endemic species which is classified by the IUCN Red List as Endangered.
In South Africa many carnivores occur outside of protected areas in commercial land; as a result, human-carnivore conflict is common. This project focuses on the hyaena and attempts to establish how carnivores are coping in these unprotected areas. The three research sites are located within 30 miles of the Pilanesberg Massif, northwest of Johannesburg and include Pilanesberg National Park - a dramatic park situated in the remains of an extinct volcano. The habitat is classic African bushveld savannah comprising of grassland dotted with trees.
On this expedition volunteers assist with assessing hyaena populations, collecting data on the carnivores and their prey both during the day and at night in various areas with different levels of protection. The data gathered will help to improve understanding of the challenges facing the species and to help with future conservation efforts.
Dr Timothy Clutton-Brock and colleagues have been researching a study population of meerkats in the Kalahari Desert for 13 years to investigate the evolutionary causes and benefits of cooperation in mammals. As a result, the population is habituated to human presence (used to being in close proximity to humans). This allows Earthwatch volunteers a unique opportunity to get unusually close to these endearing mammals.
Volunteers learn a range of skills, including radiotracking, focal sampling, GPS referencing, weighing meerkats, carrying out invertebrate and plant surveys and investigating the activity of social bird colonies including weaver bird and pied babblers.
South Africa Essentials
Languages: Afrikaans, English, IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Se Tswana, Swati, Tsonga, Venda.
Currency: South African Rand (ZAR)
Climate: Although South Africa is classed as 'semi arid', it has a range of climatic zones from the desert of Namib to a subtropical climate in the east of the country.
Did you know?
South Africa is particularly rich in plant biodiversity, with over 20,000 species of plants, which is about 10 per cent of the world's plant species.
The vegetation of the Cape Region of South Africa, known as 'fynbos' is so unique that it is classed as one of the six floral kingdoms found on Earth. It is the smallest and biologically richest of these kingdoms, with more species per unit area than any other. There are an estimated 9000 species of plants in an area of 90,000 km2. A staggering 69 per cent of these species are endemic to the area. In comparison, the UK is 3.5 times larger but only has 1500 species of plants, and fewer than 20 of these are endemic.
South Africa has 11 official languages and eight non-official languages.