We had the chance to chat with Marie Bauvin, the fundraising manager of DAKTARI Bush and Wildlife Orphanage. Check out her interview to learn more about her experiences in South Africa, how DAKTARI was founded, and the impact it has on the local community.
Describe your first experience with DAKTARI. How did you hear about the organization?
I had long dreamt about living in Africa and working towards a meaningful project surrounded by wildlife, so I did a lot of research to find a non-profit organization that would appeal to me. When I came across DAKTARI on social media, I could not stop looking at the videos of children playing with animals, or the marmoset monkey being pet by the volunteers.
The commitment and passion from Michèle and Ian, the co-founders of DAKTARI, is so inspiring that I immediately knew I wanted to join the family. They have dedicated their lives to this project and it is a great privilege to be a part of it.
Why was DAKTARI established and what is its mission?
Ian and Michèle Merrifield officially opened DAKTARI Bush School & Wildlife Orphanage in 2006 but it was a long road to make that happen. They met while Ian was working as a game ranger at Tshukudu Game Lodge and Michèle was volunteering there. While hand-raising injured zebras, wildebeest, and warthogs, they fell in love.
While there, Ian and Michèle helped raise a local boy named Thabo. He had almost no knowledge or understanding of his native wildlife and environment, so Ian and Michèle began using the animals in their care to teach him. Thabo’s understanding of conservation was typical of children in Limpopo and the idea of adding a bush school was born.
The Mission of DAKTARI is to educate and inspire local children to value their environment and stimulate community development.
DAKTARI has three main areas of focus: the teaching program with children at the camp, our wildlife orphanage, and our work in the community surrounding DAKTARI.
Through the combination of the bush school and the wildlife orphanage, DAKTARI has developed an immersive educational experience for local children to learn about the wildlife around them, the environment, anti-poaching, and a wide variety of other issues, right in the middle of the bush.
Our work extends into their communities through Eco Clubs at the secondary schools, job hunting for the youth, and community development projects. DAKTARI aims to further the sustainable development agenda through a number of different initiatives.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned as the fundraising manager for DAKTARI?
Although we always try to fill the best proposals when applying for grants, we do not always receive positive answers, and it can be very frustrating. I tend to ask for the specific reasons why we were not selected, so we can improve our future proposals and be more impactful. It may also be difficult sometimes to find the calls for proposals that have a focus we fall into, so a lot of online research, patience, and organization are key elements to succeed!
What distinguishes DAKTARI from other volunteer organizations in South Africa?
DAKTARI is a unique concept and is the only of its kind. The concept of wildlife education itself is not unique, but what is truly special is that we have children from marginalized communities and villages visit and stay for five days at our wildlife orphanage where a fun yet detailed environmental education program is held.
DAKTARI has been approved by the South African Government’s Department of Education and the Department of Environmental Affairs. These are the two highest governing departments responsible for education and conservation in South Africa.
DAKTARI has a permit to home orphaned wild animals, some that were injured and unable to be released back into the wild. Our wonderful animals serve as ambassadors in the education program. Currently, we have about 20 different indigenous species and over 80 animals on site. Most of these children have never heard of, seen, nor had the opportunity to interact and learn about these animals and other species. It’s thus a real eye-opening experience for our children.
When joining DAKTARI, you find a home away from home. You will have a life-changing experience, living in the middle of the South Africa bush with passionate people, and you will have a perfect balance between teaching wonderful children and caring for our beloved animals. You also create long-lasting friendships with people from all over the world.
Describe one (or more) of DAKTARI’s volunteer projects and its impact.
Community outreach programs play a key role in environmental education. For this reason, the ECO CLUB community project was established in a village close to DAKTARI known as the “Oaks”.
This fun project runs in 6-week cycles throughout the year, consisting of 12 modules per cycle, where all children aged between 14 and 17 apply for membership and complete the program. Thirty children are taken per cycle on a first-apply-first-in basis, the balance of applicants having the opportunity to complete the next 6-week cycle.
This way everyone gets the chance to enjoy the program. Our dedicated outreach team, assisted by volunteers, delivers these modules that include topics such as combating wildlife crime, environmental waste management, and animal knowledge to name but a few.
What makes this program special is that it is interactive where the children learn many valuable skills such as time management, public speaking, and organizational skills.
What is your favorite part of what DAKTARI does?
I am passionate and I truly believe in DAKTARI’s purpose, which makes it tough to decide on my favorite part. If I really have to choose, I would say it is the weekly award ceremony we hold for the children.
Upon completion of our weekly environmental education program where our children from local communities learn about successful ways to protect their environment, the children take the lead role in participating in the awards ceremony.
The children deliver a brief presentation to an audience of staff, volunteers, and, of course, their peers, detailing what they learned and their achievements over the week spent at DAKTARI. This is an emotional moment — even some shed tears of joy as the children reflect on their experience before going home. Strong bonds have been forged between volunteers and students, and saying goodbye is never easy.
I particularly remember one ceremony when one girl named Debra wrote in her letter these very touching words: “During my week at DAKTARI (…) I have learned that we have to protect our environment and nature. I don’t know how I can thank you enough for what you have done for us. It was really an opportunity of a lifetime.”
This really shows the meaning and purpose of what DAKTARI does, and makes me feel highly committed to the organization, doing my best to achieve a sustainable future and development.
Are there any new developments to come in 2020 for DAKTARI?
We have streamlined and developed both our onsite environmental education program and community outreach program with objectives of greater community awareness and impact.
We have trialed the outreach and environmental education programs in late 2019 as a feasibility and impact study and the outcome has been extremely positive. These projects will be implemented in January 2020.
In terms of animal project development, we recognized the plight of lions bred for canned hunting and the bone trade industry. As a wildlife orphanage, we feel that we should be ready and prepared to rescue these animals that are treated inhumanely and cruelly.
One of the new projects we are planning for next year is building a large predator camp, for two to three rescued lions.
What would you like people to know about DAKTARI?
DAKTARI is a unique and very special place where anything can happen. From finding African Wild Cats kittens in the bush, to bottle-feeding a duiker at night, or going to the secondary school in the Oaks village to teach about wildlife crime, not a single day is the same!
Through DAKTARI’s programs, we have reached more than 4,000 children in 13 years, cared for hundreds of animals, and helped dozens of youth get employed.
Finally, how can one even think of DAKTARI without mentioning Michèle Merrifield? She is the face of DAKTARI, the one who pioneered the organization and who is still carrying it 13 years later. Her passion, commitment, hard work, and love for animals make her unforgettable.
She is widely respected for her knowledge and wisdom amongst local people. There is no way to thank Michèle enough for her lifelong devotion to the protection of South Africa’s natural heritage and we can’t wait to see what the future holds!