This summer I decided to take a trip to Africa to learn about the challenges of practicing veterinary medicine in a developing country. I wanted to do this, because as a veterinarian I plan to one day manage free-ranging wildlife populations and to prevent the spread of disease between wildlife, livestock and humans in developing nations. I intend to study cross-species disease transmission, to improve surveillance and control efforts, and to be involved in the development and evaluation of new diagnostic methods, treatments and vaccines. With this background, I will be poised to improve relationships between local communities and the wildlife with which they closely interact. And by promoting sustainable practices in developing nations, I can improve animal welfare, and impact conservation in many of earth’s most stunning ecosystems.
To realize my goals, I needed to gain practical experience in a country where people and wildlife interact on a daily basis. Thus I chose to participate in the Ecolife Veterinary Expedition in South Africa. Many of the topics covered by Ecolife cannot be fully comprehended outside of the environment in which they were taught. Seeing first-hand the intimate relationship between human, wildlife and livestock populations in these areas brought to light the unique challenges of practicing wildlife veterinary medicine in a developing nation. I worked closely with rangers, veterinarians and researchers who are actively involved in wildlife projects, and I learned about the crucial role these individuals play in southern Africa’s growing wildlife industry. It was rewarding to gain insight into the lifestyle, successes and difficulties associated with conservation in Africa today, and I will draw upon these lessons throughout my career.
On this expedition the African bush was our classroom, providing practical and hands-on education to its students. We learned the basics of tracking, navigation and identification without the aid of modern technologies. Our campfire discussions included topics such as ecosystem and wildlife management, people and conservation, wildlife diseases, and animal behaviour. Our training also encompassed the use of darting systems and drugs used to capture African game. We practiced target shooting from the ground and from a helicopter, and we participated in game capture operations! Some days we visited rehabilitation centers to witness the devastating effects of poaching on non-target species, and we also discovered the frustrations of rehabilitating animals knowing that there is no longer available habitat in which to release them.
Because the many local tribes are integral to the success of conservation efforts and ecotourism, it was important for us to establish a good working relationship with the communities. To accomplish this, we worked with CLAW, an internationally known and well-respected animal welfare organization. I learned that the welfare of township animals relies heavily upon the well-being of the people who live there. We cannot simply enter a community offering to spay and vaccinate dogs for free, or to provide food, kennels, toys and blankets, if the people themselves are starving or do not have a bed of their own. Instead, if we focus our efforts on providing food, clothing, blankets and other necessities to improve the lives of the people, then improving the welfare of the animals follows as the next logical step.
Finally, once we had established trust within the community, we were able to spend time learning about their views on wildlife and conservation. It was interesting (and eye-opening!) to learn how these communities are affected by their close proximity to wildlife, and to learn how their daily lives are affected by tourism and conservation efforts of the national parks and private game reserves. Hearing the community perspective first-hand allowed me to grasp the intricate ways in which each unit functions and contributes to ecosystem health as a whole, thereby meeting my goal to better understand the difficulties facing conservation and sustainable development in a uniquely challenging environment.
In conclusion, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that gave me hands-on veterinary experience in a setting much like what I will encounter during my intended career. The Ecolife expedition was an invaluable experience, and I will draw upon my newfound insights throughout my career!