The Tuli Block in Botswana is home to predators and elephants alike, and offers a true bush experience to wildlife enthusiasts. Volunteering with the Tuli African Research Project gives an opportunity to move beyond safari reserves and experience the life of a field researcher in a vast, unfenced wilderness. Sarah Campion spent 3 months at the project and here is her story:
“It was always my dream to work with the wildlife in Africa and experience the animals in their natural environment. Being at Tuli allowed me to fulfill this dream and gave me experiences I will never forget. Getting so close to such amazing animals, knowing that they are completely wild is such a privilege, and being able to live amongst them like you do at Tuli is just incredible. In addition to that, being part of something which is trying to ensure the future of these animals for generations to come is a satisfying and rewarding experience. Being on the project for 12 weeks gave me the opportunity to completely adjust to life in the bush, get stuck into the project, understand it, and become more and more attached to Tuli and its wildlife as the time progressed. Being there for so long also meant that I had many memorable experiences and came home with some fantastic memories. Here are just some of my most memorable moments and highlights on the Tuli Conservation Project.
Tuli lioness darting
I was privileged enough to witness the darting of one of the Tuli lionesses, Sabatana. She had a radio collar on which was due to come off as the battery life of the collar had come to the end. It really was an amazing experience; to be so close and even touch such a magnificent animal was just incredible. The whole process, from waiting to see if she would respond to the call up and come to the bait we had positioned in front of us, to seeing her suddenly appear in the spotlight and then watching her come round from the anesthetic, had such a tense yet exciting atmosphere to it and the whole event was definitely a highlight.
My first elephant sighting
Seeing an elephant in the wild for the first time is a special moment. My first sighting came 4 days after arriving in Tuli, and it was so exciting. They are incredible animals and to be so close to them in their natural habitat was amazing. And the sightings didn’t stop there – If you go to Tuli you will be sure to see elephants! I had so many amazing sightings.
Elephants by Starlight
There is something special about seeing elephants at night – it is a completely different experience to seeing them by day and one which stays with you. I have one particular memory where we were sitting by the fire at camp having just finished dinner and we heard some elephant activity coming from behind the huts. We shone the light to see if we could see them and it was then that we saw how close they actually were. The next thing we saw was a silhouette of one walking right in front of us! We sat silently and just watched it pass by camp – amazing. We then walked up to the camp entrance and discovered that the camp was surrounded by elephants! We stood listening for a while to the sound of them breaking branches, munching, and communicating, and then heard lions roar in the distance! We got into the vehicle and decided to follow the sound of the lions to try and find them. Unable to locate the lions, we ended up sitting in the vehicle amongst a herd of about 50 elephants all surrounding our camp. We sat silently under the stars just absorbing the moment. It was magical!
Sometimes we would hear the elephants behind the huts at night as they moved through the Mopane trees to feed. I would often lie awake listening to them munching, breaking branches, and communicating to each other, and sometimes got a glimpse of them through the gaps in the side of the huts from my bed!
Sleeping out was one of my favourite activities. It’s just us, our sleeping bags, and the sounds of the bush. One of my favourite parts about it is that we’d get to watch the sunrise in the mornings. It is stunning and watching dawn break over the bush is a really beautiful thing to see.
The male lions arrive at Tuli
I was fortunate enough to be at Tuli when 3 male lions came into the area and started to settle down and form a territory. After a couple of weeks of trying to track them down using the telemetry and following tracks, one evening we finally got a sighting! We had seen some fresh tracks so we decided to follow them while using the telemetry equipment as one of the lions had a radio collar on. No one knew how the lion would react to the vehicle as they had not been in the area before so there was an air of nervous excitement amongst all of us. We followed the signal which was leading us into the thickets. At this point the tension was building because we were now doing some serious off road driving and needed to be able to get out quickly if he didn’t respond well to the vehicle! We all had our eyes peeled and then suddenly we saw him – WOW! It was amazing. He was beautiful and we were able to get really close. We then heard him roar right next to us which was awesome! It was such an intense sound and it echoed around the bush – it gave me goose bumps! And we didn’t only hear him roar, we actually saw him roar and you could see him put his whole body into making the sound, from his mouth to the tip of his tail. Thankfully he didn’t seem too phased by our presence and we were able to follow him for some time. He was calling to his brothers, who we heard call back from far off in the distance. We then heard some elephants trumpet and one of the females actually chased the lion away! She then suddenly appeared in front of us from the bushes, stopping when she saw us – she trumpeted and gave a few warning signals as if to say ‘if you don’t move you’re next!’ Needless to say we got out of the way rather quickly!
We followed the lion all the way to Eagle Entrance (where we saw the tracks initially), listening to the contact calls made by him and his brothers. We then watched him walk through Eagle Entrance towards Eagle Rock where his brothers were calling from. There was no road for us to drive down, so we let him go and watched as he walked away. It was amazing. To see a lion in its natural environment, knowing he was there because he’d chosen to be, and watching him go about his normal activity was such a privilege. And the added factor of not knowing how he would react to us certainly got the adrenaline pumping!
The lion sightings continued, and hearing them call and roar at night became a common occurrence at camp. The sound was amazing, so intense and it definitely became one of my favourite sounds of the bush. There were a couple of evenings when we heard them calling and decided to jump into the vehicle and go and find them. One very memorable night was when we followed the lions for a while and ended up bumping into a herd of elephants along the way.
We were literally surrounded by the herd and as it was dark it was hard to see where all the elephants were which certainly added to the tension! We then heard a lion call from behind us, turned around and saw him walk behind the vehicle! Another one then called beside us and we saw him to our left. It was amazing! They were stunning and we were so close! We were surrounded by elephants, with lions either side of us, it was a surreal moment but exciting nonetheless!
Another night when we heard them calling at camp, we took our sleeping bags (as it was cold!) and went out to find them. We followed them for a while, just watching them go about their night time activity. It was amazing, at one point we turned the spotlight off and just listened to the patter of the lions’ paws walking next to the vehicle. It was incredible.
It wasn’t only the sightings of the lions that were exciting. One memorable moment was when we had come back after being out in the morning to lion tracks in camp. The tracks were fresh, from the previous night! It was clear that the lions had walked through camp, past our huts while we were asleep. However the most memorable encounter was when there was a lioness by the showers! An unnerving yet memorable evening for sure, and a true reminder of how wild it is at Tuli and how you really do live amongst the animals.
I was extremely privileged to be at Tuli during the arrival of the 3 male lions. The lions there are seriously hunted, and there are only 17 known lions in the whole of the Tuli Block, and only 2 lionesses in the core study area, until now. The arrival of the males brings hope that the lion population at Tuli could turn around, and the population will grow in numbers, and I feel fortunate to have been there at this exciting time of change.
One of my favourite parts of Tuli was the camp setting and the lifestyle that came with it. Living with no electricity, having few luxuries, sleeping in a hut, showering outside and cooking/eating by an open fire each night is surprisingly easy to get used to and is a very enjoyable way of living!
Along with having fantastic sightings and amazing experiences at Tuli, volunteers are very much involved in the data collection that forms the basis of the project. It’s this information, which is sent off for analysis and used by researchers, that helps lead to a better understanding of the environment and wildlife, so that effective conservation takes place in this stunning part of the world.”
Volunteers can join this project for a stay of 2-12 weeks, organised through African Conservation Experience.
Phone: +44 1454 269182