This choice came after a great deal of research. Tons and tons of research actually. Thankfully, I had some help. Originally I contacted a company regarding volunteer opportunities. The price was similar to a regular hotel price, maybe $100-200USD less expensive, but it was the experience that I was looking for, and didn't care about the price. The one night I stumbled upon a Facebook website called "Volunteers in Africa Beware. They have compiled a large list of organizations called "The good, the bad, and the ugly list". This gives detailed information regarding which organizations are ties to what, where the money goes, and what they support (e.g. petting zoos, canned hunts, etc.). I then contacted them via DM and got my answer! With a quick search into three suggestions they made I found my perfect match. Siyafunda! Located in The Greater Makalali Reserve shown below:
There are two options for accommodations when volunteering with this particular organization. One, is their main camp, which includes hot showers, WiFi, etc. The second, which I chose, is their "bush camp". This is a more intimate-with-nature approach and includes living in a tent, small kitchen area, no hot water, and much closer to the environment around you. They have a pump that draws water from the ground, which is 100% safe to drink, and the water is delicious. Two refrigerators to keep drinks cool (which I greatly appreciated), and a propane powered grill top.
Our day to day routine consisted of waking up and leaving by 5:30am to go one a game drive/walk. Here we learned how to track different species, in our case rhinos, and got to experience the bush up close and personal. We would make it back to camp, usually about six hours later, then prepare lunch and clean up. Then we would have some downtime to ourselves (usually when I would shower), before leaving at around "half 15" (3:30pm for us here in the states) for a game drive.
At the beginning of the week a roster of responsibilities is filled out giving you several different aspects of what you will be doing each day. For instance, each day a pair of people are cooking, cleaning, etc. Additionally, you are each assigned a different animal (or group of animals) that you are responsible to log data for. This means while driving/walking around we would record location (GPS), sex, stomach content index, etc. After dinner you spend some time on the computer entering this data, which is imperative to the success of the program and the research is used in several different aspects and eventually reported back to the different owners within The Greater Makalali.
This particular area is known for their sightings of the "Big 5" and on one particular drive we got to see them all. This is a much different (and better) approach to going on safari. Instead of a commercialized / touristy "game drive" you spend time with knowledgeable rangers learning about your surroundings, the wildlife, and even plant and insect relationships as well. Only a select number of individuals are qualified to take you on foot into the bush and when this happens the adventure really begins. We tracked animals via footprints, markings on trees, dong, etc. and then got to experience their behaviors in their natural environment.
One of the biggest take-aways for me was the growing epidemic with poaching, more specifically with rhinos. While I am aware some recent reports state that poaching of rhinos is declining in ZA, this is not the sense you get while traveling there. The rangers, teamed with skillful anti-poaching units, risk their lives everyday to preserve the species. And for all the right reasons. What is being done here is unlike anything I have ever seen in the world. As a matter of fact, almost immediately after I returned, some sociopathic poachers compromised the security system at The Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage, attacked the men there violently, sexually violated a female, and brutally murdered rhinos. This is a tactic used to scare people from doing the right thing.
At Siyafunda I got to witness these amazing animals in person and I cannot imagine this being impossible due to some fallacies about what rhino horns (mostly hair and nail) do medically and to one's status ("elitists"). Additionally I got to support the amazing efforts of The Rhino Protection Trust. An organization set up solely for the protection of rhinos. Read more about their amazing story via their website linked above.