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Wildlife Conservation Medicine in South Africa

By Stacie Munden, Ross University

When someone asks me what animals I want to work with, I usually respond with “I don’t know!” This past experience that I had in South Africa just solidified my answer being that now I have even less of an idea of the group of animals that I want to work with. Every time I work with new animals, it just adds to my long, growing list of animals that I want to work with! And Africa was the perfect place to add new animals to my list!

Right off the bat, when we arrived in South Africa, we were given the opportunity to work with animals. The first morning that we arrived, we got hands on opportunity with the horses by helping with grooming. For some of us that have had no previous experience with horses, it was a good introduction to being around them. My favorite aspect of the horses was that they were named after characters from the Lord of the Rings! This little detail foreshadowed how awesome the trip was to be since we were surrounded by such amazing people. That first night we went to the mountaintop and talked around the fire. Africa was proving to be the perfect place.

The next day we learned about hunting and how it relates to wildlife conservation. The explanation that stuck with me was that “if it pays it stays,” meaning that if it (wildlife conservation) is profitable, then it will continue to exist. In South Africa, conserving wildlife is made possibly by profiting from hunting. There are many regulations that go into it and the animals that are raised for hunting are treated very well. If they weren’t then they would lose money. So, these animals can exist because of the need for them. Wildlife conservation medicine is used to help transport these animals for breeding, genetics, hunting, among other things. The wildlife vets that we worked with were tasked with aiding in transport by reducing stress or injury.

Since these are large, wild animals, chemical restraint is the safest restraint technique for both the handler and the animal. The animals can be darted from a vehicle or a helicopter. We learned how to load a dart gun and practiced shooting targets, not only from the ground, but from a helicopter! It took me by surprise because I had no idea that we would be doing that and I’m terrified of heights, but it was incredible to see everything from that vantage point in the sky! I may have missed most of the targets, but that’s just a good reason to go back for more practice!

After learning about darting animals and the anesthetics used, we went on a few captures with the veterinarians, where we captured impala, nyala, blesbok and roan antelope (my favorite). Administering IM injections, restraining and monitoring these animals was incredible and terrifying at the same time. It’s much easier to appreciate the strength of these animals from up close.

One of the best days I had in South Africa was going to Kruger National Park. We saw so many animals that only previously existed for me in zoos and books. The best part of seeing these animals was that they were in their natural environment and were able to exhibit normal behaviors of a wild animal, which was slightly intimidating. Especially since we had elephants walking close to the vehicle and African wild dogs playing in the street. We spotted many beautiful species of birds as we drove past and saw buffalo, hippos, impala, zebra, warthogs, giraffes… At the end of our trip as the sun was about to set and we were about to head back we saw a group of parked cars. We drove closer and saw a cheetah bathing in the sunlight. Everyone’s eyes were locked on her as she stood up and walked away into the savannah. It was such an honor to see a cheetah and a pack of African wild dogs in their natural environment.

During our trip we also worked with some reptiles. We visited a crocodile farm where they were having problems with double scaling. Double scaling is an unwanted trait for use in clothing accessories and the cause is unknown. We drew blood from the crocodiles and performed a necropsy on some that would be used for testing to determine the cause of double scaling. We also visited a venom supply company that taught us restraint and blood drawing techniques on snakes!

This is just a snapshot of the experience I had during my trip to South Africa. I worked with so many animals over these 2 weeks during my break between semesters and I loved every second of it. I guess I do know what animals I want to work with, but it’s difficult to group them all together. So, for now I’ll just have to explain to people that I want to work with ALL animals.

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