Vet students impress in Africa
Alisha Richardson in the field, South Africa Dehorning rhinos, rescuing injured lions and capturing wild buffalo for disease checks are just a few of the unique activities that can be experienced by University of Adelaide veterinary students in a fascinating final-year elective.
The two-week intensive course in South Africa is proving a major hit among students who are providing important wildlife management support while practising their skills on some of the world’s most elegant and dangerous animals.
From their base near Kruger National Park, the trainee vets are also winning friends among the local farming community by volunteering their expertise to treat domestic cattle and pets.
It’s a contribution that continues back in Adelaide with student fundraising to buy much-needed veterinary equipment and infrastructure for the poor communities.
The three-unit elective, titled Biosecurity and Conservation Medicine at the Wildlife-Livestock Interface, is now in its fifth year, with three groups of 13 students heading to South Africa in 2017.
Senior Lecturer Dr Wayne Boardman introduced the elective in 2013 after being approached by some students keen to study and work overseas.
“When I was going through vet college in London I had an opportunity to spend some time in Kenya and it was one of the most formative experiences of my life,” says Wayne.
“I thought it would be really nice if I could replicate that sort of experience for our students and got in touch with Cobus Raath, a veterinary friend in South Africa.”
Cobus operates Wildelifevets.com at Mpumalanga where he has his own game reserve just outside Kruger National Park. He worked with Wayne on developing an intensive two-week course.
Timing of the new elective was perfect as it tied in with the University’s Global Learning program which aims to encourage more overseas opportunities for students.
“We offered the very first overseas elective and from there it’s become a much more popular thing for lecturers to take students overseas,” says Wayne.
“Former Pro Vice-Chancellor of International Affairs, Professor Kent Anderson, described it as a ‘signature course’ for the University because it promotes the Beacon of Enlightenment Strategic Plan and provides small group teaching and international training opportunities.”
The action begins as soon as the Adelaide vet students arrive in South Africa.
It’s not unusual for them to start in the early hours as they are immersed in the challenges of wildlife conservation, animal rescues and disease management.
Days can be spent capturing buffalo for disease testing, anaesthetising and translocating wildebeest, blesbok, impala and zebra, and doing health checks on crocodiles and snakes.
“The knowledge they gain is transferable across all sorts of species,” says Wayne. “While they might be working mostly with wildlife, the principals of anaesthesia and treatments are also relevant for everyday animals.”
When they’re not working with wildlife, the students support community veterinarians with biosecurity measures to protect livestock on the boundary of Kruger National Park, where diseases such as tuberculosis and foot and mouth are rife.
If any of the diseases break out of the park it could be devastating for the local cattle industry.
The support extends to running cattle through ‘dip tanks’ to kill disease-spreading ticks, and delivering disease control measures for pets, including a rabies vaccination program for dogs.
Wayne says another great component of the elective has been fundraising back in Adelaide for the Siyatutuka Farmers Community Project. So far more than $25,000 has been raised through various initiatives such as barbecues and quiz nights to help farmers with equipment and treatment programs.
Adelaide is the only university to provide such support and the local community expressed its thanks by presenting the students with a certificate of appreciation.
The two-week elective is a life-time opportunity for the students with many wanting to return. Dr Alisha Richardson, 27, is among the lucky ones.
She graduated with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2014 and went back to South Africa to study a Masters in Anaesthesia before landing a job as a wildlife vet in Thabazimbi, a remote country town in Limpopo Province.
“The thing that inspired me to work with South African wildlife was the elective course in my final year – I just loved the work and wanted to do something conservation based,” she says.
Alisha visits reserves and game farms where they keep and breed wildlife for hunting, a vital part of the South African economy and indirectly important for conservation.
“The animals are still very wild and dangerous, and the only way to handle them is to anaesthetise them with a dart to allow safe handling,” she says.
“I really enjoy managing the anaesthesia protocols to get an effective and safe dose that allows the animal to walk happily off into the bush at the end of the day.
“Mostly I work with antelope and buffalo but we also do a lot of giraffe relocations which requires a whole team of about 15 people to chase and rope them down. Occasionally I’m also involved in rhino work, usually darting and dehorning the animals to prevent poaching.”
But the work can also be distressing. Alisha has treated fatally injured rhinos shot by poachers and has also seen orphaned baby rhinos which have been shot and bashed.
“You can see their spirit is broken and they need 24-hour companionship from a carer to thrive. They take weeks to trust people,”she says.
Alisha also works in a small animal practice to keep her other skills up-to-date and eventually wants to do more conservation work in national parks.
Story by Ian Williams