Updated: Jul 18
If you could not tell I love to travel and I love nature and wildlife. Therefore, it was a dream to go to what is probably known as the pinnacle of wildlife, Africa. After some research me and my partner settled on Na'an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary, as we believed it to be ethical but also exciting. This was not just to go on a safari to see the “big 5” but to be a volunteer. We wanted to help, get hands on and actually contribute to helping some amazing wildlife. So in mid-September 2022 we flew off via South Africa to Namibia to volunteer at this incredible wildlife sanctuary. I thought I would tell you about my experience, so you know what to expect and to perhaps help you decide if it is a place you would like to visit. I would say this blog post is fairly long and if you are interested in a certain section to skip to it using the sub-headings to get the information you need. Here my Na’an ku se review.
Na'an ku sê
Na’an ku se is located in Namibia, which is on the south-west coast of Africa. I won’t go into too much depth of Na’an ku se history, as you can find most of it on their website. However, It was founded by Dr Rudie and Marlice van Vuuren to “conserve Namibia’s wildlife, landscape and unique cultures”. The wildlife sanctuary part started in 2007 to give animals a second chance. They quickly started to get involved with “Rapid Responses” to reduce human-wildlife conflict in the area and went on to adopt the vision of “An Africa where humans and wildlife can live and thrive together.”. This with their mission “To conserve the land, cultures and wildlife of Namibia and rescue species threatened by an ever-shrinking habitat.” made it an ideal place for us to check out.
I spent my time at the Na’an ku se Wildlife Sanctuary based near Windhoek the capital of Namibia. However they do have several other bases or camps, which you can go to volunteer and experience. From the Lifeline Clinic to help with people to Kanaan in the desert and more. They offer a wide range of different locations and volunteer experiences, which I recommend you check out to select the right one yourself. They seemed quite flexible and if they have spaces it seemed relatively easy to change while you are there if you decide to go to another one of Na’an ku se locations. If you do wait until you are there you will be likely to get up to date current encounters from the other volunteers that might have gone to them.
The Na’an ku se Wildlife Sanctuary has a number of small and large animals from meerkats to lions, which all require food and care. Namibia is also sparsely populated, so you are among the wilderness, which again is full of wild animals. They are also partnered with the Zannier Reserve, which the members of Na’an ku se help to manage. This is a massive 9,000 hectare wildlife reserve that is home to some amazing animals including Elephants, Giraffes, Rhinos, Lions, Steenbuck, Oryx, Jackals and more. You really get to interact with some incredible animals in all sorts of ways. This mix of animals gave us another push to go for the trip, as it meant we were bound to get some great interactions with these animals.
Now you can donate and adopt an animal to help them out or you can do what I did, Volunteer. This lets you get hands on and give back, while getting a bit of a holiday. Now there are a variety of options to choose from and you will have to see what they have running when you decide to go and make the right choice for you. Having said this here is a quick overview of some of the options while I was there:
This is what I did and I would recommend. You take care of the animals they have at the sanctuary, as well as being involved in the research and monitoring of the animals surrounding the sanctuary and at the Zannier Reserve located nearby. You primarily do this at the Na’an ku se Wildlife Sanctuary located near Windhoek but they have acquired more sites, so you might be able to do your volunteering there with different animals.
This is essentially what it sounds like. This volunteering option is designed to give you an idea and help with the protection of the Rhino’s on the reserve. You spend the time shadowing the anti-poaching team learning how they protect the reserve and animals to keep them safe. It is a great experience to get to know how the anti-poaching unit works and you will gain a great amount of respect for the people working there.
If you want to get hands on helping the community and the people of Namibia this can be a great choice for you. You will head to the Lifeline Clinic based in Epukiro and become part of the team giving free primary health care to thousands of patients. Help the indigenous people of Namibia and get experience of the life their community faces today.
Wildlife Rehabilitation and Captive Care Experience:
An educational experience that gives you hands on experience with the wildlife rehabilitation and care of the captive animals. You get to see the amazing animals in Namibia but also get given seminars to grow your knowledge. They do not run it all year around but if you are keen to get relevant rehabilitation and captive care experience this is a great option.
Another educational experience and a great one if it is in your professional field. This is what my partner did, so I have a bit more idea of what goes on. Essentially, similar to the option above you get some hands on veterinary experience, as well as a number of seminars to increase your wildlife veterinarian knowledge. You get to shadow the on-site veterinarian and veterinary nurse and learn how they try to take care of the animals in Na’an ku se care, as well as the wild animals in Namibia. The experience is open to both veterinarians and veterinary nurses, so if you are in this field and want to get hands-on experience with wild and zoological animals it is a great option.
This is just a brief overview of the volunteer experiences I am aware of as of writing this and those I saw some people do whilst I was there. I also believe it is possible to do some of the volunteer options at a number of their locations but you will have to confirm with Na’an ku se on that.
When I was there they also offered a great number of additions to make your experience extra special. I won’t go into too much detail here but listing them you can; go on a night time drive, sunset tours, Cheetah walks, meet the San people, go to the premium lodge for lunch, go to Windhoek and more. Again I would recommend you check out their website to see what they have going on and talk to Na’an ku se team when you arrive to get yourself on any additional trips. I went on a few and found them all entertaining, well done and enjoyable.
What is ethical?
The big question, to me at least, is whether it was ethical and I believe it was. The people there certainly seem to care about the animals, the locals and the community as a whole. They show this in their operations of hiring locals, building schools, hospitals and housing for them. Also, in their teachings and actions at the sanctuary. When you go you get an introduction presentation that highlights this with their goal to end human wildlife conflict and educating everyone, including you and how you can help with this. They also give you information and facts about the animals but also the misunderstandings in the culture and how it takes time to change.
The animals seemed healthy and those in captivity have much more space than I have seen in the UK. They also have an inhouse vet team able to diagnose and provide veterinary care. In regards to the wild animals and those in the reserve they monitor them regularly to see the numbers in the area, their activities and general health, so their health and requirements can be assessed. They also support the anti-poaching unit, which is vital to prevent harm coming to the incredible animals on the reserve.
They understand that some people see this as a bit of a holiday and want to capture pictures of some amazing animals. Yet do not want to encourage people to come here just to try and get “close”, as this is often done unethically, not to the benefit of the animals and can be dangerous. They detail how no large cat can really be safe with humans due to their instinct, so do not let you get in with them. Therefore, when you see anyone on holiday next to a big cat, please known the big cat is typically cruelly trained and even sedated. They also explain how most people do not read the caption on social media, so even if you explain there is a reasonable explanation for being so close to an exotic animal it is often not considered. Due to this they ask you not to share pictures so close to these animals and primarily them in their natural habitat. They are reasonable though and understand that if you do get some photos close to an animal to keep it for yourself or showing close family and friends who you can explain this all too. I would certainly say it was an ethical place and one that cares deeply for the environment, wildlife and the society of Namibia.
The accommodations for volunteers were quite basic. They were essentially wooden framed huts with a tin roof and a tent-like material infilling to the walls and stretching over the roof. There is also an outside section with tent material walls but no roof covering, which housed the toilet, shower and a sink (if it is raining and you go to the toilet you will get wet). Me and my partner were housed together in a three bed tent and the attached bathroom. However, I believe most people are housed in a shared single sex accommodation with one or two other people and then have a communal single sex shower and bathroom facility. Inside our tent was a light, a dual plug socket,a small safe, a small table and storage cabinet. The only thing to be aware of is due to Namibia essentially being a desert, water can run low sometimes (but it is perfectly drinkable) and they can have power cuts. We did run into a slight water shortage but only due to another tent leaving their tap on overnight. Other than that it was perfectly adequate.
Overall our experience was good. We had no issues with the accommodation other than it did get a bit cold at the start of the week. The guide did state if you go to Namibia in the winter month you would need thermals and a sleeping bag. As we were going as the season was going into the summer we thought it would be fine but were slightly wrong. The first few days and nights we had the last cold snap and it was incredibly cold. Even clothed with two duvets and an additional cover it was still very cold to sleep at night and in the early mornings. Luckily this did not last long and within a few days it was normal pyjamas and a single duvet. Having said all this, I would say my top tip is, if you want to shower do that before dinner and before the sun goes down, it is a ton warmer and much nicer.
You spend a lot of your time at the communal hut where you eat and socialise. This is covered on three sides and open to one but you get more than enough cover from the sun and rain if there is any. You will be in here quite a bit, having three meals and time to socialise in the evenings. There are usually a pack of cards and uno laying around but if not I would be surprised if one of you new friends do not have one. They also have a snooker table which you can play for 1 Namibian Dollar. In the afternoons and evening you can play the games and drink. There is not much WiFi access but you certainly get enough in the communal hut, although it does lag a bit when everyone is in there. I know some people did pick up a local sim but I would say forget the internet access and just enjoy the experience.
Again this is a volunteering holiday and the food is relatively basic. Having said this you do get three hot meals a day (except sundays, as they do sandwiches on sundays). They have toast and some other selection in the morning, then at lunch and dinner there is usually a hot option (one vegetarian and one meat to pick from). They can cater for most diets and tailor the quantity of meat and vegetarian food depending on what you select (you are able to switch when you are there). They have a tuck shop that opens for half an hour at lunch time and sells some chocolate bars and pringles if you want some additional snacks. They also have a bar you can buy drinks from (alcohol included), which you can store in the communal fridge with your name on it. If you choose the optional trip to Windhoek you can go to the shops there and bring back further treats to enjoy.
Now for the good bit on what you get to do. Well while I was there you would typically do a mix of two activities a day with some single activities spread over the entire day. You get to do a mixture of tasks, some that you feel like you are helping and others that feel like a reward that Na’an ku se are nice enough to give you. You will probably like the fun activities more than the labourish ones but for me the feeling of helping out was quite rewarding. You get put into a team at the beginning of the week, which you will do all your activities with, so you also have the chance to make some friends.
I believe they change the activities and tasks depending on the time of year and what requirements they have at the time but here is a quick overview of the tasks I got to do:
Food Preparation: This for most seemed to be the worst task. I didn’t mind it as it is one of the tasks you feel you are actually helping. Essentially you spend the morning cutting food up for the various animals, preparing it all in the relevant containers (a lot of the food is for the adult baboons). If you get lucky like I did you get to feed the baby goats too.
Small Animal Clean: This is dependent on what animals they have in but there are a number of small animals that require care. When I was there they had Rabbits, Meerkats, Mongoose, Warthogs, Goats, Sheep and a Genet. You spend the day going through their enclosures to clean them out, ensure they have water and are fed. The goats roam around the place during the day, so you also have the pleasure of herding them up at the end of the day (it is a bit like goat hide and seek).
Carnivor Feed: Na’an ku se have rescued a number of animals that unfortunately might not be able to go back into the wild or at least not yet and they need feeding. When I was there they had Lions, Leopards, Brown Hyenas, Wild Dogs, Cheetahs and Caracals. This involved the preliminary grim task of preparing the large chunks of meat and chickens and then off to feed the animals. A co-ordinator will take you to the animals, give you a few facts about them and then you get up close to them and feed them. It is amazing to see them jump to get their food and it is certainly a unique experience.
Research: This was my favourite but it does change depending on the day and time of the year. However, you get to do a number of things such as changing trail cameras, checking sites of activities (lion kill sites, etc.), going through the reserve looking for the elephants or Rhinos (counting and identifying) and categorising the photos from the trail cameras into folders of each animal and dated. I am sure this does change depending on the requirements of the team when you are there.
Horse Clean: This can be a variety of tasks, from cleaning the stables, pen, storage room to brushing the horses and sorting out the equipment. While I was there we cleaned out the storage room, filled up the food containers, picked up the horse mess and brushed them, cleaning the brushes afterwards. This is another one where you feel like you can do some good work.
Yard Work; Again this can range on what needs doing at the time but can be putting up fences, completing repair work and overall general work required in the yard to keep it running. Another labourish task but you are helping the sanctuary keep going. When I was there we were putting up a temporary fence, so they could pour concrete to create a watering hole for the horses.
Horse Ride: This is often done after lunch after doing the horse clean and it is a great experience. You essentially get to saddle up your horse and go for a ride around the sanctuary. This lets you get closer to the wild animals surrounding the sanctuary as they believe you are another animal. When I done this I got incredibly close to a wild giraffe, which was unbelievable. It is another great experience if you are confident enough to get on a horse.
Baboon Feed: This one is messy but is quite fun to do. Baboons are considered pests in Namibia but Na’an ku se do not want to put them down and want to take care of them. Therefore, they have a number of huge pens for them to live in. It is a messy affair but you basically stand on the back of a truck and chuck food over the fence to the hundreds of baboons. It is quite fun looking at them running for their favourites.
Baboon Walk: A unique experience where you get to walk the young baboons on their daily walk to get them some enrichment and exercise. Although I would not say they are too interested in us (humans) they do often grab onto you to carry them to your destination and you can sometimes play with them. You get to watch them play and actually interact with them.
Rhino Rangers: In the morning you can sit on the back of the trucks and go around the whole Zannier Reserve. You get the opportunity to see some of the incredible animals there and enjoy the scenery. They use it to go around to check the electric fence to ensure it is working correctly.
Nature Walk: Another fun experience where you go on a walk into the wilderness around the camp. When I went we were going to change a trail camera and the coordinator guiding us taught us loads about the local wildlife, tracks, scatt and pointed out the incredible wildlife in the surrounding area.
Anti-Poaching Dog Training: This was incredibly fun. You go to the Anti-Poaching Dog unit and one of the dog handlers goes through what they do and then gives you a go. They show you how they train their dogs with agility but also to sniff out common items poachers use. You don’t just get to watch but also get to actually run their dog through the agility and some training exercises.
As you can see they have quite a lot of experiences and tasks for you to get involved in. It is also not all labour and not all fun and games. It is a great range that lets you help the wildlife and the team at Na’an ku se but also get incredible encounters you will want to tell your friends and family about.
These are the activities they had running when I was there but I do believe they change depending on the requirements at the time and the number of people there. I believe just before I arrived there was unfortunately a wild fire on the reserve, so some of the volunteers were helping with the prevention of future wildfire spread.
If you are there for a short time or want to do certain tasks over others you can swap. Having said this, I do not believe they generally want this because it can make running the sanctuary more difficult and it is dependent on the number of people left to do a certain task. It is important to remember that the animals are put as a priority, so they need to be fed, cleaned, have their water refilled and ensure the welfare tasks are complete. Therefore, do ask and listen to the coordinators and stick to the task you are assigned to.
Now although I have explained some of what to expect above I would like to detail a bit more about my experience. Overall it was great, I enjoyed it, I would go back and I believe it was ethical. Yet I understand it might not be for everyone, so here is some further information on my experience there. I found the trip very interesting and informative, they gave a few seminars over the two weeks I was there (On rabies, ivory trade, Na’an ku se and the San tribe) and on the animals in their care and native to Namibia. I would like to say how friendly the coordinators were, they made the activities fun and interesting and were always happy to answer any queries. They also got involved in the evenings playing snooker, playing cards or volleyball. Even once when I got side tracked from an activity and started speaking to the in-house photography and film specialist who gave me a crash course in photography and some helpful suggestions. The only issue we had was confirmation on the night drive. We had signed ourselves up for it but no one seemed able to confirm if it was going ahead, luckily it did.
One of the main reasons you might want to go to Namibia is the wild animals you get to see and there are plenty. I am sure I am missing quite a few but here are some of the incredible animals I got to see in the wild; Impella, Oryx, White Rhino, Zebra, Spring Hare, Rabbits, Steenbuck, African Elephant, Black Back Jackal, Corrie Bustard, Porcupine, Ostrich, Cudooks, Mongoose, Meerkats, Baboons, Giraffe, Egyptian Goose, Ground Squirrel, Guinnefowl, Corrie Bustard, Warthogs, Springbok, a number of lizards, a number of birds and more. They do have more animals there that you have the chance of seeing such as lions, cheetahs, leopards and more (many people I met did get to see the lions). I also saw the animals they have in enclosures including Lions, Painted Dogs, Cheetahs, Leopards, Brown Hyenas, Genet Cat, Meerkats, Mongoose, Rabbits and Chickens. If you want to go on a volunteering holiday where you get to see and get close to a ton of animals I would strongly recommend Na’an ku se.
Another concern is whether it was safe. Now I do not think I can say too much on this. Yes I felt like it was safe at the Na’an ku se Wildlife Sanctuary when I was there. As well as when I was on the Zannier reserve and at the lodges. The only thing I was slightly concerned about was the wild baboons. We were told they could come up to the tent houses and if they do, lock your doors and stay quiet until they go away. Although we did get told some baboons did come once I did not notice them and I did not hear of any issues. Also, although I think it is very unlikely to get hurt on most of the activities, some do have the general risks such as horse riding and the small animals bitting (I know this personally as I got bitten by a rather angry meerkat but I am all okay). In regards to Windhoek, I did not go but many of the people I met did and they did not seem to have any problems and were able to get cheaper snacks and alcohol.
You get a ton of time to socialise with a ton of people and make some good friends. Like I mentioned above this can be in your weekly teams to the meal times and in the evenings playing games and drinking. There was a wide range of people from all over the planet to get to know, some of the people I met were from Sweden, Germany, UK, Australia, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, France, South Africa and of course Namibia. It was great to learn other people's cultures and languages for the names of the animals we were seeing. I would say there were quite a few young people on gap years and exploring, which is fine but some did like to party. This could get quite late into the evening, which can be quite loud and you can even hear it from the tent houses you sleep in. When we were there the coordinators asked if this was cut down a bit as it could disturb the animals, which did make it better. You can certainly have a good time and enjoy the music in the evening but I would say that you should not go on a holiday like this to “party”.
The whole trip was amazing and I think one thing that stood out was the fact I was able to escape normal society. There are enough activities to keep you busy, coupled with the limited wifi and socialising with games made it an amazing escape. I did not look at the news, worried about the state of the economy or what was going on and just focused on my activities and enjoying myself. It was an incredibly relaxing mental relief. It was full of incredible once in a lifetime experiences but one of my favourites was research. It was a unique and amazing experience spending time looking for and being around the wild animals and helping the team monitor them. To be out in a vastly different country and seeing animals I have never seen in the wild was a breathtaking experience.
I hope this gave you quite a comprehensive overview of what to expect if you decide to go to Na’an ku se Wildlife Sanctuary. I urge you to go onto their website and check them out and consider if one of the volunteer options or other destinations you can go to would be good for you. To conclude with some important questions; do I think it was ethical?, do I think it is a great place to see animals and wildlife?, do I think it was safe? Well going on my experience I would say yes it was in all these areas. It truly was a once in a lifetime holiday that I am grateful to have been on. To give you an idea of all the animals, experiences and facilities look at my pictures on here (all are mine except the logos and lifeline clinic) and I have more on my instagram. Going on a volunteering holiday is a great way to get new experiences but also give back, so I would strongly recommend you go on one. I also think Na'an ku se could be a brilliant choice for you if you want to see some stunning African wildlife and to have a unique holiday.