Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Meeting Bella

Bella yawning (c)Derek and Susan rankine


Written by Susan and Derek Rankine

In May we spent two weeks volunteering at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi and had a fantastic time.  We were supposed to go last May but unfortunately had to cancel the day before we were due to leave because Susan’s mum was ill but after having to postpone our trip for another year it was definitely well worth the wait.

We found out about the centre through the Born Free Foundation and of course knew that Bella, the lion rescued from a Romanian zoo, lived there.  Unfortunately we could only go for two weeks because of work commitments but many volunteers, who are mainly young people, stay much longer.

The centre was much bigger and better laid out than we had imagined, with lots of tree cover for the animals and had a river with nature trails which was a nice surprise considering it is located in a city. This can also unfortunately lead to urban noise especially at weekends from nearby humans!

The Wildlife Centre has a house where the majority of volunteers live in a mixed dormitory but at our age this was definitely out of our comfort zone so we stayed in a lovely bamboo chalet with private bathroom which they built last year, this is to try and attract more “mature” volunteers, which is a good  idea.

You work from 8am to 5pm Monday to Saturday with an hour off for lunch, but you do get plenty of breaks and normally finish a bit earlier.  You are allocated morning and afternoon duties depending on what work needs done.  The main daily tasks include chopping up big sacks of fruit morning and afternoon for the monkeys and a few antelopes, then you go round the huge enclosures to feed them.  There are smaller night rooms where monkeys who are injured or being integrated in to the larger troops in the main enclosures are kept. These are swept out and cleaned every morning.  It can sometimes be a bit smelly but we got great satisfaction making their living space lovely and clean for them. You can also get the chance to feed the rescued carnivores including a leopard, serval cat, crocodiles and even a python.  The centre rescues lots of baby animals, mainly monkeys and these have to be fed and cared for by the volunteers.  When we were there we got to bottle feed baby vervets although they now have no human contact and can be fed through the wire fence.  They certainly know where to come when the bottles of milk arrive!!  The main aim of the wildlife centre is to get as many animals back to the wild as they can and they stop human contact as soon as possible.  This is the reason we chose this project because it is ethically run and the animal’s welfare is put first.  We were extremely impressed with how well the animals are cared for.  There are so many unethical volunteer projects which claim to be doing their bit for conservation but they are doing the complete opposite by allowing volunteers to be “hands on”. 

We didn’t have to cook for ourselves which was great and our chef Joseph made the most amazing food in a small kitchen with limited supplies.  We have travelled to Africa many times staying in luxury accommodation on safari and also in basic tents on a previous volunteer project but this was the best food we have ever had.  We are both vegetarian and because meat is very expensive in Malawi Joseph mainly made vegetarian meals which were perfect for us. Everything was homemade, even the bread.  We ate better than we do at home and are really missing his cooking.

The centre also does a lot of work with local communities and school children.  We saw lots of visitors, mainly children, during our time there.  It is such a fantastic place for them to visit and hopefully the message will get through that the wildlife in Malawi is really special and should be protected.

But of course the highlight of our trip was the animals!!!  We loved them all, it was so great to be able to spend some time with all of the different types of monkeys and watch them going about their daily business and how they interacted with each other. We have never had a chance to do that on our safaris so it was really special. (volunteer info here)

Beautiful Bella

Bella playing with tyre - Derek and Susan Rankine

There was one animal who stole our hearts, beautiful Bella.  We completely fell in love with her from the first day we saw her.  We visited her every spare minute we had in between working, she absolutely loved human company. She would follow us up and down the fence line and rub her head against the fence when we spoke to her.  It was a truly unique experience with a wild lion.  Near the end of our two weeks she was ‘purring’ when she saw us and maybe we’re getting a bit carried away but we thought she knew us.  She has touched us like no other animal has ever done, and believe me, we are totally obsessed with animals, we much prefer them to most humans!!!  We were both totally distraught at having to leave her and can’t wait to go back next year to see her again.

We were also lucky enough to be there when the centre had a big party to celebrate its 5th birthday.  It was also great to meet up again with Alison Hood from Born Free who had attended.  The centre has certainly come a long way and achieved so much in the past five years and everyone involved should take huge credit for this.

We would recommend this volunteer experience to anyone, you will have a fantastic time and gain memories which will last a life time. And finally a big thanks to Johnny, Kate, Michelle and the rest of the Lilongwe team for making our stay so special.

Susan and Derek

Watch the latest video of Bella below

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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