As a final year veterinary student, I was given the opportunity to work beside the head veterinarian of Kruger National Park during a two-week externship related to wild game capture and wildlife management. While in Kruger Park, I stayed in Skukuza Camp with the Veterinary Wildlife Services (VWS) during “rhino capture season.” Kruger Park is one of the last places in Southern Africa that has a healthy and growing white rhino population, but rhinos are still threatened by increasing poaching along the park’s border with Mozambique. The VWS has begun capturing healthy white rhinos along the Mozambican border and transporting them to safer locations in other parks in South Africa.
Days on the VWS externship began by rising before 5 am and driving an hour and a half to the capture site, where we would wait for the VWS vet to radio us from a nearby helicopter that he had spotted a suitable rhino for capture. The airborne vet would then dart the rhino with a strong opioid, and we would accompany the drowsy rhino in a game drive vehicle until it was adequately sedate and recumbent. We would then blindfold the rhino and take a temperature, heart rate, and respiration rate. Once we confirmed that the rhino was healthy and stable, we would collect a hair sample for DNA cataloguing, blood samples for various blood analyses, and notch its ears for future identification of the rhino. We would then lead the rhino into a transport container and it would begin the journey to its future home. From finding a tail vein pulse to using flight zones, many of the cattle handling skills I had learned in veterinary school were readily applicable to safely handling these rhinos.
During the externship I also had the opportunity to witness a wildlife epidemiology investigation. During my first week, many members of a pack of African wild dogs near Skukuza had been dying acutely after showing respiratory and neurologic signs. It is estimated that there are only around 200 African wild dogs left in Kruger Park, and only a few other wild populations exist outside of the park. Due to the lethality of this outbreak and the dwindling numbers of African wild dogs, it was imperative to determine its cause. We performed necropsies on all of the deceased wild dogs, and I assisted with tissue sampling for testing. We determined the cause to be canine distemper, which was likely contracted due to contact with domestic dogs on the border of the park. Though it was a tragedy for the park to lose these animals, it was nevertheless an excellent learning opportunity for me to witness the investigation, and the diagnosis alerted the park managers of the need for better vaccination protocols and control of domestic dogs on the periphery of the park. The official press release can be found here: https://www.sanparks.org/about/news/?id=56759.
I loved my time working with the Veterinary Wildlife Services of Kruger National Park. In the future I hope to work in wildlife management as a veterinarian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services or the Department of Natural Resources, and it was an honor to learn from such knowledgeable veterinarians. Although wildlife in the United States is quite different than that of the South African savanna, my experiences on this externship were both personally and professionally invaluable.
—Claire Butkus, Class of 2017