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  • Writer's pictureBeth Jennings

Tonje’s Story

It’s always so great to read other volunteering stories about similar experiences to ours. Tonje has shared her story which you can read below:

Volunteering – An African Experience – There are few things more gratifying than giving your time – energy – money and passion to a person – animal or cause that is bigger then you perceive yourself to be. To do a “good” deed – not because you have to but because you want to. Learning the art of giving at a young age is a gift that pays you back many times over as you mature. It was with all the right intentions that a young woman set off for Africa to give of her time and her heart.

Guest Writer

Tonje Stromstad

The first time I went to Africa was five years ago. I went to work as a volunteer in Namibia – with the Harnas Wildlife Foundation – and this place was great. They save animals and love them so much. That was the time I thought all places in Africa really loved their animals. How wrong could I be?

The next year I went to a place in South Africa. I went there because of the lions, and I spent a lot of time with them. I fell in love with every one of them. I was with them every day, and I loved to sit at the end of the day just to hear them roar! I was there for two weeks. After a while I found out that the owner had a hunting company on the side, where he took clients to kill all kinds of animals, including Lions.

I could not understand how he could save lions but also kill them. I soon realized that he did not save the animals – he was actually buying them, selling them and breeding them. This was the time I saw that there are not only good places who have lions in Africa – but bad ones as well.

This is a place not worth talking about so much – because after all of the negative talk about it – they no longer have a volunteer program.

However, when I was there, I met a woman who I got to know. I later went back to South Africa so I could meet her and volunteer again.

The Reality Of Tonje’s Second Volunteer Experience

This is Tonje’s second experience – volunteering in Africa. After I went home, I talked with another woman who told me she would open her own rehabilitation centre and that she would care for lions and other animals. Since I had met this woman at this other park and I thought she was a really nice person, my best friend and I decided to go as volunteers to her place in South Africa (Ingwe Wildlife Centre).

We were so exited and thought that she would rescue animals and give them all a second chance. When we got there, we were taken very good care of and we all became friends. We were shown the animals right away and I could not wait to spend some weeks there; I thought I was in heaven. Of course I did, I was surrounded by lions.

When we arrived, they had four tawny lions at age 6 months, two white lions at age 3 months, four cheetahs cubs that she raised for her friend, and three tigers that were 4 and 5 months, which I heard had come from a horrible zoo. These animals stayed at the nursery next to our house. They also had bigger lions and tigers located a ten minute drive from the volunteer house.

The farm was really beautiful and at first we loved to be there (or we kind of did the entire stay) but there were some episodes that we reacted to. For instance, one day the owner arrived with a box and inside there were four lion cubs only ten days old. They were so cute and, for me, that was a bitter-sweet moment. A part of me was happy that we got them, whilst the other part could not stop thinking about their mom. The owner told us that they had to take them away from the mother, otherwise the father would have killed them. I believed her, again. A few days later, we went on a game drive on the farm, which is when we saw the mother of the cubs; she had her head pressed up against a tree, and you could see her heart was broken.

I became so sad when I saw her, she didn’t even notice that we were only a few meters away from her. That was the moment I started to realize that there was something that didn’t add up with the owner’s stories. The other adult cats were all living in tiny camps. Most of them didn’t even have a bush or a tree so they could hide; just sand and a little bench to lie on. Two of the camps were a little bit bigger, but not big enough. The owner told us that she would sell most of the big lions, so that after a while she would have the space for her own.

We asked about the small cages/camps and she told us that as soon as she got more volunteers (money), she would make them bigger. The cages on the farm were also not that big, but for the babies I think it was not that bad, I was more worried about the bigger animals who spent all of their time in the small enclosures. I felt very sorry for the three tigers. One of the tigers was dangerous and attacked us when he got out so, during my time there, he was outside the small cage only two times. He looked broken, and I can understand why. He was locked up every day in that small cage, with nothing to do. I still feel so sorry for him and I will never forget him. They are no longer at that place, they are back in the zoo now (I suppose).

When it comes to the Cheetahs, one of them was sick and he had to go to the vet a lot, during which I was often with him. I became really close to him and he became my favourite. I spent most of my days with him. One day the owner came and put them all in a wooden box on the back of her pickup. The owner of the park told us they were going to be sold as pets to sheiks in the Middle East, and when she saw that sad look on my face she said that I should not worry, the sheiks did treat them like Gods! I just could not relax knowing they were going to be pets in the Middle East; for me, that is not the life of a Cheetah.

Another day a man just came to the park and said he wanted to see all the male lions because he wanted one. Again we were all worried. He, the owner, and one of the volunteers went into the garage where they kept the smallest babies and the rest of us stood outside and tried to hear. Then they came out and told us they wanted one of them. My friend and I got upset and the owner looked mad when she talked to us. She said the lion would have a good home there with this person and that she owed this gentleman a favour, so that’s why she gave the lion away. That night there was tension between us, and my friend talked more with the owner and tried to explain our feelings to her, however, I don’t think she ever understood why we cared so much.

We were friends and still she lied to us about why she had the lions, and about the father killing the babies which I believed her about, even though some part of me said I should not. When I was at her farm I asked critical questions about the things I saw, but she was very skilled at getting you to forget your concerns and I never received any real answers. I also questioned why she took volunteers to other breeding parks and why she took volunteers to go riding on elephants when it’s known worldwide that you should never support that industry because of the treatment of the elephants.

When I was there she told me she would get a tiger soon, because she always wanted one – and she was going to get a caracal or two. She got one Siberian tiger and two caracals from Letsatsi. I have heard bad things about the treatment of the animals at Letsatsi, and still she supported them by buying animals from them so they can keep on breeding animals and earn money! And why does a rehabilitation centre buy exotic animals?

When I went home we still were in touch, and my friend and I started to get emails and Facebook messages with questions about the place; we did not answer at first, and we sent the managers emails with questions about our concerns, about the future of the animals, and the sizes of the cages, but we never received a reply. We kept on sending, but still no reply, and last summer the owner tagged me in some photos [on Facebook] and I sent a message to her and asked her not to tag me, as I could not support her breeding lions. She wrote back a nice reply that she understood and that I had my full right to think that.

At this point we were still friends, but when people contacted me I said they breed lions, and have them in small cages/camps. I still said that the owner was a nice person, but that I could not recommend the place because of that. When the owner found out, she suddenly blocked both my friend and me from her pages on Facebook and I did not hear from her again.

I started to realize that I had to speak up for the lions, and that they were more important than she and I. After a while I also understood that she would not make the camps bigger and that she would eventually have to sell the lions, because she did not have enough space for them. She told me she did not breed, and still I can count around 30 lions the last two years, and now she does not post photos of them anymore because I suppose she is afraid that people would see how many lion cubs she actually has.

I’m just glad that I finally saw the truth, but I am still worried about all of the other volunteers who travel to Africa to help save the lions, when the reality is that they end up supporting people and place that take advantage of lions and other animals, making them tame pets that one day will most likely end up killed in the canned hunting industry.

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