Our story: A Love Story that became DAKTARI
Ian and Michele Merrifield officially opened DAKTARI Bush School & Wildlife Orphanage in 2006 but it was a long road to make it happen. Ian and Michele met while Ian was working as a game ranger at Tshukudu Game Lodge and Michele was volunteering there as well. While hand-raising injured zebras, wildebeest, and warthogs, Ian and Michele fell in love.
Michele had long dreamed about living in Africa and taking care of the wildlife. When she met Ian, she was able to realise that dream. They left Tshukudu after getting married and opened a restaurant in Hoedspruit to start raising capital for their own wildlife orphanage. While there, Ian and Michele helped raise a local boy from the village named Thabo. He had almost no knowledge or understanding of his native wildlife and environment, so Ian and Michele 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.
So where did the name DAKTARI come from? Michele says, "When we were younger, there was a TV program called Daktari. It was about a family in Africa, who looked after and raised many different types of orphaned wild animals. As kids we loved it and we remember getting deeply emotionally attached to the different animals." Sounds familiar right? Michele and Ian adopted the name and so DAKTARI Bush School & Wildlife Orphanage was born.
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, career guidance for the youth, and community development projects.
How Does it Work?
- Poaching: Although the work DAKTARI has done over the last 10 years has contributed to a sharp decline in the amount of animals poached by our neighbouring communities, it is still a problem which is very present and must be dealt with by the community. The poaching makes it so the villages have no local wildlife anymore and the children have no exposure to these animals. The community is used to seeing animals as tools for work or food. Wild animals are generally considered dangerous and treated as such. Care for animals, be they domestic or wild, is something which is hardly ever seen as a priority.
- Poor Education: With classes ranging from 67 to 132 students, it is very difficult for the children in the communities around us to attain a good level of education. Poor facilities and overcrowding create a toxic combination which debilitates the future of the children, the leaders of tomorrow. It further hinders their ability to get jobs in a province with an employment rate of 49%.
- Pollution: No basic sanitation systems, poor access to water, and, most importantly, a lack of awareness and education about the recycling and waste management leads many villages in the area to be full of waste. This is not only a problem because of the 'aesthetics' of the villages, but it also creates problems of health!
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.
- The Teaching Program: DAKTARI's invites 8-10 children each Monday to stay for five days at DAKTARI. We teach the children about the environment and conservation, including anti-poaching, pollution, and identifying animal tracks. We also supplement their regular schooling with math games and social talks about respect, substance abuse, and safe sex. The children get one-on-one attention from the teachers and engage in fun activities throughout the week.
- The Wildlife Orphanage: The animals at DAKTARI all have their own story about how the got to us. Some of them were brought to us after being found abandoned nearby, some were given to DAKTARI after being rehabilitated but are not able to be released, some were even born here. For each and every animal at DAKTARI, we provide love and care to give them a second chance at life. They serve an important purpose at DAKTARI as they act as our animal ambassadors for teaching the children.
- The Outreach Program: Our work doesn't stop at DAKTARI's gate. We go into the local villages weekly to provide environmental education opportunities to children at the high schools and the creches. We also sponsor and implement community improvement projects like building a dustbin or planting trees.
Through DAKTARI's programs, we have reached more than 4,000 children in 10 years, cared for hundreds of animals, and helped dozens of youth get employed. If you want to become involved with DAKTARI's work, consider becoming a volunteer or donating!