He remembered the two dead rhinoceroses in Kruger National Park, poached overnight for their precious horns and left to rot in the searing South African sun that rose the next morning. It was the first day of a two-week internship during his last year of vet school, and he had a nasty case of travelers’ diarrhea. Thank you, Johannesburg street vendor, but that brai was definitely worth it.
Forensic investigations can’t wait for a vet student with a weak constitution, however. So he jumped in a Land Cruiser with the rest of the team and bumped along twenty miles of backcountry safari track, just hoping he wasn’t going to be sick and ruin an otherwise commendable first impression with his veterinary idols.
At about fifty yards out from the rhinos, a giant cloud of scavenging vultures lifted off the carcasses and sent a wafting aroma that hit him just at the point where he couldn’t hold it in any longer…
And that was just the first day! I actually pulled this account straight from my novel-in-progress. Don’t worry, though, that’s one of the very few autobiographical bits I’ve thrown into my hero’s life story. I haven’t had nearly the excitement in my life (yet?) to make it in a good science thriller! James Herriot meets Michael Crichton meets Tom Clancy, coming your way sometime next year…
But back to the subject at hand. I spent two weeks working with the Veterinary Wildlife Services team in Kruger National Park through their veterinary student elective clinic program.
This was way back in the spring of 2008, but I’ve checked in with a few students who have done the externship more recently to make sure that my information is up to date. I also just got off the phone with the new administrator of the program, and she e-mailed me the current student information packet. You’ll find that linked below.
Daily Activities During the Externship
So besides getting sick in the bush and assisting with field necropsies of rhinos, what did I actually do on a daily basis?
I was fortunate that during my externship, the Veterinary Wildlife Services team was hosting a three-day training for veterinarians from other countries in southern Africa. There were about ten other young vets participating, from Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
South Africa is pretty unique in the region in that it has enough money and trained professionals to maintain a really top-notch national park system, including highly developed veterinary and research programs. This means that they are in a great position to provide training to visitors from neighboring countries, and that’s why this particular training event was happening.
The training meant that they had saved up a few jobs specifically to do during those three days, including the immobilization and transportation of several live rhino and radio-collaring of a huge bull elephant. I was lucky to be able to ride in the helicopter a few times, and those were some of the coolest experiences of my life.
Tourists pay hundreds of dollars for a helicopter ride to see African wildlife, and here I was doing the real thing, basically for free! The photo below (which is also on my homepage) was taken during one of our early morning rides.
I loved hanging out with these other veterinarians and made some friends that I continue to stay in contact with.
Apart from this training, we were called out to investigate several other animal deaths that were suspicious for one reason or another. The goal of the veterinary team is not to try to save every animal from dying a natural death. They typically only intervene in a case of extreme suffering or when further diagnostics and investigation might contribute to our understanding of disease processes and toxicology in these animals.
One of the important things to realize is that as a vet student with South African National Parks, you are really just there to soak it all in and help out with whatever happens to be going on. They’re probably not going to plan any particular activities just because you are visiting during a given two-week period.
This means that you might be really busy with game captures and necropsies for a few days, and then have nothing going on at all for the rest of your externship. Or you might be flying around in helicopters and darting elephants every day! It really just depends on what is going on, and there’s no way to predict that ahead of time.
I honestly didn’t mind the down time. On the few days when there was no field work to take care of, the veterinarians gave me a choice. I could hang out at the office with them, reading up on some of their books, looking through their pharmacy, etc. Or I could just take my rental car out into the park and explore on my own.
Can you guess which option I chose? Kruger is the nicest national park I’ve been to in Africa, so exploring it on my own in a rental car was both incredibly easy and tremendously fun. The roads are well-maintained and well-marked. There are restaurants and rest areas scattered at convenient locations throughout the park. And there are animals everywhere!
All the Necessary Details
I mentioned in another article about wildlife training in South Africa that I am a little bit suspicious of veterinary programs that require a fee of thousands of dollars for a more sanitized and packaged experience. I understand that there is place for these programs, and they probably do provide a great introduction for the students who are able to afford them.
However, my experience at Kruger taught me that it’s not necessary to use your life savings (or student loan excesses, as the case may be) in order to get this introduction to wildlife veterinary work in Africa.
I was able to use frequent flyer miles to get a free round-trip ticket to Johannesburg. If you’re interested in learning more about building up those miles yourself, I’ve learned a lot from Chris Guillebeau’s Travel Hacking programs.
I did have to pay for a rental car for the two-week period. At the time I’m writing this (November 2013), a two-week economy rental car from the international airport in Johannesburg was about $200 total.
Students are also responsible for paying for their own food during the externship. This was easy: I got groceries a couple of times and spent maybe $100 over the two weeks.
But here’s the best part: the actual cost to participate, which includes accommodation inside the park, is about $100 per week. I say “about” because they give the cost as 1000 South African Rand, so it’s subject to exchange rate fluctuations.
The accommodation is in a little compound just across from the veterinary office, and it is used by both the student externs and other visiting researchers. It includes a basic but comfortable room with shared bathrooms and kitchen. I had a great time hanging out in the evenings around the open firepit/grill, enjoying good wine and conversation with the other visitors.
The student elective program is only open during the game capture season from March to September every year. Students are allowed to stay for a maximum of two weeks, and there are no more than 2-3 students selected during any given time slot to maximize the benefits of the experience. I just heard from the program administrator that they have not yet begun making a schedule for the 2014 season, so get your applications in now!
Here is the full information packet (a PDF) with even more detailed information. Be careful not to e-mail the person listed on the SANParks website (she’s moved on to another job), but use the one in this updated document instead.
Do you have any questions about my experience at Kruger?
Can you recommend similar opportunities to get wildlife veterinary training?
Please let me know in the comments below!