A Taste of South Africa with EcoLife Expeditions and Vets-in-the-Wild

This is a guest post by Alison Palmer, a student at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine.

Alison-Palmer-adventures-with-elephants-South-AfricaI never imagined being anything other than a small animal veterinarian. It’s what I’ve always envisioned myself doing. After being accepted to Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, I thought I was well on my way to accomplishing that. However, one lunch talk and two weeks in South Africa later, I’m back at square one on deciding what I want to do when I graduate.

A Seed is Planted

I was in my first semester at Ross and attended a lunch talk simply because I was lazy and didn’t want to move from my seat. The talk was about a two week trip to South Africa with EcoLife Expeditions and the unique program they offer for students, Vets-in-the-Wild Expedition.

A little background about Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine: My school is an AVMA accredited veterinary school located on the island of St. Kitts (St. Christopher) in the Caribbean. I attend school year round and get 2 two week breaks and 1 three week break during the calendar year. EcoLife offers a special two week program for Ross students that allows us to participate in their Vets-in-the-Wild program during one of our breaks (it is normally a 22 day program).

I was so intrigued by the talk of working with elephants, giraffes, and rhinos that I immediately signed up for the program in August 2013. Now all I had to do was find a way to pay for it!

Helping to transport a nyala during game capture. Photo courtesy of EcoLife.

Helping to transport a nyala during game capture. Photo courtesy of EcoLife.

Funding the Experience

A few of my fellow classmates set up websites that allowed their friends and family back home to donate online. I attempted to set one up, but I’ve never trusted those websites, so I never followed through with it.

Instead, I began to budget my loan money to make sure I had enough to cover the expenses of this once in a lifetime trip and still have enough left over to live on the island. I knew this wasn’t going to be a cheap trip, but thankfully my budgeting skills paid off and I was able to pay for it with my loan money. Including the airfare, this trip ended up costing a little under $5500. Not the cheapest trip in the world, but in my mind worth every penny!

Activities with Vets-in-the-Wild

I was able to experience so many new and different things while in South Africa. To start things off, I was able to spend two days helping out a local non-profit organization, CLAW (Community Led Animal Welfare). We went into a local township (a low income community in South Africa) and administered vaccines to the dogs and cats that lived there.

We also collected a few dogs to bring back to CLAW’s clinic for spaying/neutering the following day. I was able to administer vaccines and dewormers, monitor anesthesia, and help prep and recover the animals from surgery. It was a humbling experience being able to see this different side of small animal medicine!

Helping to monitor anesthesia for a spay with CLAW. Photo courtesy of EcoLife.

Helping to monitor anesthesia for a spay with CLAW. Photo courtesy of EcoLife.

Another part of the trip was visiting Adventures with Elephants. Here I got to learn all about elephants and what they are capable of as well as what they are being used for in South Africa. I knew elephants were smart, but I never realized just how smart! They are starting to use elephants to help track down poachers that illegally hunt on the game reserves throughout South Africa. I was even told that they are starting to use them to help sniff out land mines. They are such amazing creatures!

Firing a dart gun from the helicopter at a moving target on the ground. Personal photo.

Firing a dart gun from the helicopter at a moving target on the ground. Personal photo.

My absolute favorite part of the trip was being able to participate in game capture! My group met up with Dr. David Pretorius, a wildlife vet with Motsumi Wild, and helped capture nyala and black impala. I got hands-on experience handling these animals, transporting them from the field to the trailer, and giving various prophylactic injections.

I was also able to practice firing a dart gun out of the helicopter at a moving target (not a live animal) on the ground. It was incredible! Unfortunately, a few of the calls Dr. Pretorius had set up (which included capturing and transporting zebra) fell through and the day wasn’t as busy as it could have been. Nonetheless it was still a great experience!

We ended the trip by camping in Mjejane, a game reserve that is separated from Kruger National Park by a river. All of the animals are able to freely move between Mjejane and Kruger Park. It provided for the ultimate camping in the wild experience.

My group was able to hike through the game reserve amongst Africa’s big 5 (buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, and rhino) with the help of a guide. We saw a huge herd of buffalo, some zebra, a few giraffes, and a white rhino! It was unbelievable being able to walk amongst these animals in the wild — a little unsettling at times — but completely worth it!

A wild elephant behind my tent in Mjejane. Personal photo.

A wild elephant behind my tent in Mjejane. Personal photo.

All of the accommodations, such as housing and food, were provided by EcoLife. We stayed at a variety of places along the way, mostly lodges in different locations, but some camping was involved. I enjoyed the camping in Mjejane complete with with outhouses, a bucket for showering, and only your tent to protect us from the wild.

This trip was definitely a life changing experience. It opened my eyes to a whole other world of veterinary medicine and provided me with a lot of future contacts. If you have been bitten by the travel bug, want to gain experience in a different field of veterinary medicine, or just want to experience some of what South Africa has to offer, then I highly recommend the EcoLife experience! It truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Elliott here again: Thanks for sharing about your experience, Alison! I have seen this Vets-in-the-Wild program advertised various places online so I was very interested to learn more about what it is really like.

I have to admit that I am always a little skeptical about expensive programs like this one. I know from personal experience that it’s possible to put together similar experiences yourself for a much lower overall cost. For example, I spent two weeks training with the staff veterinarians in Kruger National Park (South Africa) and only spent a total of a few hundred dollars. This covered my lodging in the visiting scientist facilities, groceries, and the taxes and fees for my frequent flier airline ticket.

The hard part, of course, is in making all the personal connections and travel arrangements yourself. This can be pretty difficult if you are not an experienced international traveler. It is always true that you will pay a premium for convenience.

You might remember that I participated in something kind of similar, the MARVET program focused on marine animal veterinary care. I would love to learn about some of the other paid training programs that are out there, so if any of you have participated and would like to write up something similar for my site here just let me know!

Alison and I would love to hear your comments or questions below. You can also get in touch with her personally at akpalmer89 [at] gmail.com.

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6 Responses to “A Taste of South Africa with EcoLife Expeditions and Vets-in-the-Wild”

  1. Esther Cherrick September 12, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

    Very nice article Alison! You had me up until the outhouse and showering in a bucket…we will see!

  2. Andrea December 22, 2013 at 1:30 am #

    This is a fab article and just the sort of info I want to share with my readers at:


    • Elliott December 26, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

      Feel free to share the first couple paragraphs and then link over to my site for the rest of the article!

  3. Claire Walker July 20, 2014 at 2:55 am #

    Thanks for the story! I have looked into doing the Vets-in-the-Wild program and really want an experience like that. However, I am also skeptical of the high cost. I love hearing that you have gotten a similar experience for a fraction of the costs. I would love the chance to work with vets in South Africa. That has always been a big dream of mine.


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