I am currently on a pre-vet track in college, so I am in the process of applying for vet school for next year, and I wanted to have the chance to work with wildlife and large animals. This is very difficult to do in the US, and I knew an experience with African Conservation Experience (ACE) would be so useful in my application while providing me with a lot of personal development by showing where my interests in this field really lie.
I had the incredible opportunity to volunteer at Shimongwe Wildlife Veterinary Experience, and the vets there were truly inspiring. Shadowing their everyday work, I learned so much from them. One of the most valuable lessons I took away was how unpredictable the life of a wildlife vet can be.
Some days were calm, while others had us trimming the horns of nine rhinos, which was so exciting.
A definite highlight of this experience was participating in the relocation of two male lions. I got to witness how to dart and safely transport these enormous animals, and as someone who has never heard a lion's roar before, feeling the truck shake from their roars was incredible! As we were relocating them to the Kalahari region, we got to stay in the most beautiful game reserve - I can not even explain how special that day was!
The lead vet was the perfect mentor, handling challenges in the field with a calm and methodical approach. For instance, when we were working with a wild dog she fought off the sedation resulting in us losing track of her. This could have been a very stressful situation, but the vet turned it into a valuable learning opportunity. He calmly dealt with the situation, and we found the wild dog again and successfully operated on her an hour later.
As I am so early in my career, moments like these were the perfect learning opportunities, and are definitely something I will take forward into my own techniques.
My time at Shimongwe was so fulfilling, and it gave me an authentic look into being a wildlife vet in South Africa. Not every day was super busy but then we didn't have a chance for a break on some other days! My highlights of this trip went from trimming nine rhino horns in a day, relocating lions, flying in a helicopter, to even working with the elusive wild dog. One especially unforgettable moment was when I had a sedated cheetah on my lap while we moved her.
A benefit that I didn't even think of until I got there was living with the wonderful host family. As a vegetarian, I was initially concerned as I know meat is a staple in South African diets and I did not want to put anyone out. However, the family were incredibly accommodating and the food was perfect. The accommodations were exceptional, with our own room and en-suite, set on their huge farm. Their dogs were adorable and they even made sure we never got lost on our evening walks, leading us back to the house!
Just before I was scheduled to move on to my next project, the vets informed me of four rhino horn trimming procedures scheduled for the day I was meant to leave for Golola.
They really recommended to me to see if there was any way I could stay for this as it would be such a great learning opportunity. I was really worried that this would not be possible as ACE had already booked all my transfers and paid for my place at Golola. So, I called them up and they answered straight away and assured me they would try everything to allow me to do this. Less than two hours later I had my new itinerary! In the end, we actually performed nine rhino horn trimming procedures and worked with a horse and a calf.
I am extremely grateful to ACE for making sure I had this remarkable experience.
The next project, Golola Rhino Orphanage and Rehabilitation Centre, was equally perfect. Having picked up new skills from my time with the vets, I was excited to put them into practice. Interacting with the baby and adult rhinos on the reserve allowed me to practice my animal husbandry skills and learn more about animal behaviour.
As someone in the veterinary field you often only work with sedated wildlife so getting to interact with the rhinos and observe their behaviours was so interesting.
It was just such a special experience working with both the babies and the adults, seeing all the differences between them, and also how successful the centre has been. I also got to spend time with Golola’s specialist rhino vet, so being exposed to many different professionals in my chosen field was an incomparable learning experience.
I cannot recommend these projects enough to anyone in or considering the veterinary field. They provide an authentic look into wildlife medicine in South Africa while allowing you to practice animal husbandry in a hands-on way.
The support I received from ACE, from our initial call to last-minute adjustments and even meeting me at the airport after my trip, was really appreciated.