Chloe Morel recently visited South Africa as part of her International Experience. The International Experience Fund is a fund kindly supported by Santander Universities and other generous donors, which helps eligible undergraduate students take advantage of opportunities overseas such as work placements, volunteering or studying abroad.
Chloe tells the story
During summer 2019, I was fortunate enough to spend three months in South Africa on a wildlife game reserve to volunteer my time and efforts into aiding the management of a bushveld habitat and supporting the conservation for the species within. As a fourth year Ecology and Conservation MSci student, I understood that reserves such as these require a copious amount of management to ensure the habitat and wildlife utilising it are striving; but being able to experience these management tasks first-hand was remarkable.
The reserve is home to various African mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and plant species but has a strong push towards rhino conservation. As rhino populations become a major concern within conservation due to illegal rhino poaching, the reserve makes it one of their upmost priorities to protect the rhino in the reserve with various anti-poaching techniques. Rhinos over Africa and Asia are being killed daily for their horn, as it is believed the horn brings medicinal properties within Chinese medicine and the rhino populations are drastically decreasing. With an average value of $65,000 per kg and an average Southern White Rhino horn weighing 3-4kg, poaching has become extremely common but one technique the reserve has adopted is a process known as ‘Horn Trimming’, which is simply trimming down the rhino’s horn. As rhino horn is made from keratin (same material as our hair and finger nails), the process is completely painless and after the procedure, the rhinos are back on their feet and grazing within 20 minutes, but the entire process can be complex and requires a team of people with different job roles to ensure the procedure runs as smoothly as possible.
I was lucky enough to experience two horn trimming events during my trip in South Africa and was allocated different job roles for each event. For the first horn trimming, my role was on the measuring team which required measuring different parts of the rhino that will be used within research and allows for continuous monitoring of the rhino’s physiology. On the second horn trimming event, my role was a breathing monitor which required monitoring the rhinos breathing whilst under anaesthetic and to notify the vet should the breathing rates become alarming. Working next to a wild rhino and participating in a procedure that has the potential to save the species is something I shall never forget, yet the events really emphasised the harsh realities rhinos face and reminded me the importance of the field I am studying. There are less than 20,000 Southern White rhinos left in the wild and with the poaching crisis continuing in its current state, within 30 years rhinos will be extinct. Therefore, learning and engaging with activities such as these alongside internationally known conservationists has been an excellent way to develop my knowledge and apply it within my studies.
Another priority on the reserve is the physical management of the grassland, to ensure the habitat conditions are healthy and striving for the wildlife exploiting it. Grass burning is a form of reserve management performed that promotes new grass growth to allow for continuous supply of nutritional grasses for herbivore species and to prevent wildfires spreading across the reserve. The burn management occurs in the winter periods (June-September) and require a team of people to control the fire as it burns through specific blocks of the reserve. During my international placement, I was able to engage in many burn managements events by managing the flames from the fire edge using a fire beater made from hose pipes. Whilst this task was physically challenging, it was extremely vital for the health of the ecosystem and safety of the animals and plants in the reserve.
Throughout the three months, I engaged in many other activities such as GPS collaring a buffalo, game captures, behavioural studies, grass data collection, reserve patrols, mammal transects, bird surveys, dam management, camera trapping, target shooting, giraffe identification and anti-poaching dog training. Learning the techniques and considerations needed in reserve management has really opened my eyes in the field of conservation and has allowed me to realise that conservation is not as black and white as I initially expected. There are many elements to ensure habitats are healthy and biodiversity succeeds and experiencing some of these elements during my international experience placement has taught me valuable skills that I am now able to apply to future career prospects.
In summary, my experience in South Africa was a complete whirlwind of great experiences, great people and learning amazing things. It has allowed me to develop personally, as well as within my education by applying the new knowledge to my masters and has only inspired me to return as soon as possible.
To any student considering an international trip, 100% do it! You will not regret it, particularly if you choose somewhere that will enhance your studies and career prospects! My top tip would be making sure you enter an international experience with an open mind, particularly if you choose a location that is culturally different to your home country. With an open mind, you are open to more experiences and learning new things that you perhaps hadn’t considered beforehand. When on an international experience, make sure you take in every moment and enjoy every second because the only downside to an international experience is it coming to an end.