Life after Bushwise – From Welgevonden Game Reserve to Wits University
Updated: Sep 26
Meet Ashleigh Donaldson, a graduate of the Bushwise Professional Field Guide 2015 course. After graduation, Ashleigh did her placement at Clifftop Exclusive Safari Hideaway in Welgevonden Game Reserve. Her career grew as she worked as a field guide, lodge manager and assistant research coordinator. Eventually she decided to return to academia and get her PhD, and is now a postdoctoral research fellow!
5 min read
Life before Bushwise
Before I joined Bushwise, I was completing my MSc in Zoology degree at the University of Pretoria. I was already very involved in wildlife and conservation because of my postgraduate studies, however, I was interested in gaining some practical experience that academics did not provide. I have also always been interested in the way that tourism in South Africa connects to and facilitates conservation, and combining a field guiding qualification with my academic background seemed like the perfect way to explore this. The prospect of connecting people with nature, fostering conservation awareness, and facilitating transformative experiences in the bush added to this.
Lessons from the bush
My time in the bush has had a profound impact on shaping who I am today. Surrounded by wildlife and breathtaking landscapes, I developed a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of all living things and the delicate balance of ecosystems. Living and working in the bush instilled in me a sense of respect for nature. It taught me to observe and listen, to be patient and adaptable, and to value the resilience of the natural world. The bush also taught me the importance of conservation and the need to protect and preserve our environment for future generations.
In the bush, I learned the value of teamwork and collaboration. Working alongside experienced guides, researchers, and conservationists, I witnessed the power of collective efforts in achieving common goals. Moreover, my time in the bush fostered a deep sense of responsibility and stewardship. I became acutely aware of the threats facing our natural heritage and the urgency of taking action to mitigate them. It inspired me to pursue further education, research, and conservation initiatives, aiming to make a positive difference in the field of environmental protection.
One of my favourite memories from the Bushwise course was viewing cheetah on foot on one of our days out in the reserve. It was one of the first times that I had been so close to an animal in it’s natural environment and the moment really stuck with me.
Life after graduation
After graduating, I did my Bushwise work placement at Clifftop Exclusive Safari Hideaway in Welgevonden Game Reserve. It was a fantastic experience being placed there! I loved everything about the reserve and found it to be a great place for a new guide to learn and gain experience.
I then pursued another guiding job in Madikwe, where I gained valuable experience for approximately a year. Eventually, I was presented with an opportunity to transition into a lodge management role in the Klaserie. I dedicated a year and a half to this position before receiving an enticing offer to return to Welgevonden Game Reserve, this time as the assistant research coordinator.
During my time as the assistant research coordinator, an exciting opportunity presented itself—a chance to pursue a Ph.D. As a result, I made the decision to leave the reserve and enroll full time as a student once again. After several years of research, I successfully completed my PhD in April 2023. Currently, I hold the position of postdoctoral research fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. This role allows me to continue my research endeavors and contribute to the academic community in a meaningful way.
Staying connected to nature in academics
Even though my current role is outside the scope of traditional conservation, there are a number of ways in which I maintain a connection to nature:
I choose research topics that are related to nature and wildlife conservation, which allows me to contribute to the understanding and preservation of ecosystems and species.
My research involves a lot of fieldwork, and I take this opportunity to spend time observing wildlife in their natural habitats and collecting data that contributes to scientific knowledge.
I collaborate with researchers and organisations that specialise in the study and conservation of nature and wildlife so that we can share knowledge, resources and experiences to further our understanding of and contribute to conservation efforts.
I plan and attend conferences, workshops and research projects focused on nature and wildlife, which allows me to network with other experts in the field and stay up-to-date with the latest findings and conservation strategies.
Advice for future guides
If I were to give a future field guide advice, I would encourage them to always continue learning. The natural world is vast and ever-changing, so approach your role as a field guide with a thirst for knowledge. Never stop learning about the flora, fauna and ecosystems you encounter. Expand your understanding through books, courses, and engaging with experienced guides and researchers. Stay curious and open-minded, and share your knowledge with enthusiasm.
I would also encourage them to cultivate a passion for conservation. As a field guide, you are an ambassador for nature and wildlife. Share your passion for the natural world with guests, instilling in them a sense of awe and respect for the environment. Encourage sustainable practices, ethical wildlife viewing and responsible behaviour in nature. Inspire others to become advocates for conservation.
A closing shout out!
I want to give a big shout out to my trainers Trevor, Al, Charles and Cobus. Your expertise, guidance and passion for the bush made the learning experience truly exceptional. I also want to extend a special shout out to my fellow students Claire, Kate and everyone in group B. Thank you all for being an integral part of my Bushwise experience. The knowledge, friendships and experiences we shared will forever hold a special place in my heart.
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