Last summer I spent June at an extraordinary place with a rich variety of wildlife the world has, and I was fortunate enough to work with some species that could be gone in 10 or 20 years. The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) in Hoedspruit, South Africa specializes in cheetah breeding, so most of our days consisted of feeding, vaccinating, and running the test on the cheetahs’ muscles by doing what they called a cheetah run.
For the cheetah run we put a cat toy on a pulley system and the cheetahs ran after it. It sounded like a low long whistle as it went by each time. If a cheetah did not run when we fed it later that night, we would check it’s muscles by putting it in a shoot, and one person would hold the cheetahs’ shoulders down with a stick-like device, and the other would basically give the cheetah a massage to make sure everything felt right.
When I felt the cheetahs’ muscles all of them ended up being fine mostly and I was thinking how breathtaking the experience was to touch a cheetah.
We did these activities regularly with the supervision of the animal curators and the two student coordinators that did everything with us. These activities we did every other day, and the off days we worked with the other species they had at the center, or we went to other game reserves and got to experience their wildlife.
Just a few months earlier I was browsing on the internet and found this specific internship. I talked to my professor about it, and then paid for the trip and went. A lot of the African grip in general reminded me of when I went camping when I was little.
Since the center was mainly focused on cheetah breeding, we started every morning at 6 with mixing supplements into the cheetahs’ meat and then setting it out to warm before feeding it to them. At roughly 8, we began feeding the cheetahs, rhinos, zebras, and ostriches.
The first day of feeding cheetahs, I learned that they hunt with depth perception, so it is very uncommon for them to hunt a grown human actively. The HESC also has many king cheetahs. Previous to this trip, I thought it was a separate breed, but it is actually just a genetic mutation, and the reason there is less of them is because they cannot camouflage well, so the mother either abandons them to protect the rest of her litter or it gets eaten.
When cheetahs are born, their coat is colored to look like a honey badger; this keeps them safe from lions and other predators because honey badgers usually get left alone. I also learned that the black tear stripe on their face is there to reflect the sun. Also, the first day, the head animal curators demonstrated how to give the cheetahs vaccines into each side of their back hips.
Then we moved on to the rhinos, the first rhino we fed was orphaned, and she had a sheep companion. Rhinos stay by their mother’s side for long periods of time so when one is orphaned, a lot of the time if they do not have a companion, they will become depressed which leads them to stop eating and die of malnutrition.
They only had white rhinos, and the name white rhino has nothing to do with its color, but is actually only named this because of a mistranslation of the name wide lipped rhino from the original language.
These were daily activities, and then on every Friday, we would feed the lions, leopards, and African wild dogs. The more I learned about the African wild dogs, the more I loved them.
Their scientific name is Lycaon pictus, which translates to “the painted wolf,” and this is a magnificent name that accurately describes the beauty of these animals. They are some of the most efficient pack hunters, and only the alpha female gives birth, but when she does, she produces a hormone that makes all the other females lactate in order to feed the large litters of about 22 pups.
I also learned the three functions of a lion’s mane; to protect their necks during fights, to attract mates, and to assert dominance. We also got to feed the small cats, which included African wild cats, servals, and caracals. They had one caracal that was rescued from being someone’s pet so it was amicable, and we got to love on her. Usually, they have rules on no touching because the goal is for re-release, but she was so dependent on humans she could not be re-released. We also got to feed a spotted eagle owl and the southern ground hornbill. The ground hornbill offered me his food back, which meant he wanted to mate for life, so he obviously liked me a lot.
On our off days, after the morning feeding, we had a lecture about the history of South Africa and the center, and then we had a tracker lecture, where went to one of the local schools and many game drives.
Going to the local schools was a weekly thing we did for outreach purposes. At one particular school, we went to they were at the end of a project of making eco-bricks. Eco bricks was a project where the children would take a 2-liter bottles and stuff litter in it. This was beneficial because it helped in picking up the streets; they do not have a sound trash system, so garbage lines the roads.
The next time we went, we gave the children a coloring page with animals on it to color, and when we returned the following week, the best picture got a prize of a book about rhino conservation. This part of the volunteering was especially eye-opening because it highlighted the importance of outreach and education to our youth, in the hope of a better future.
We also got to do many fun cultural activities, such as visiting Jessica the Hippo, white water rafting, a waterfall and movie nights. The waterfall reminded me of my mom because we used to sing the song Waterfalls by TLC.
My favorite part was the gorilla rock, which was exactly what it sounds like, a rock shaped like a gorilla’s face. On this boat ride, we got to see hippos, baboons, and impalas, and I learned that a group of baboons is called a parliament, and a group of giraffes is called a journey. I also learned that giraffes have the same number of vertebrae as humans; they are just enlarged.
There were several days where the vets came to do testing and vaccinations. We worked with the vet on the African wild dogs, where we tested the thickness of their skin from where they got the vaccinations the previous week to make sure there was no reaction and then tested to make sure none of them had rabies.
Rabies is a massive killer of the African wild dogs, and these dogs are one of the most endangered species in Africa, so their conservation is hugely crucial to the overall survival of the species. On this day, we also tested the stables for any signs of reaction to their vaccinations.
Then, for the small cats, we examined the skin thickness before and then gave the vaccinations. We also got to do vet work on the white rhinos. The rhinos were on the verge of getting re-released into the Kumpa Game Reserve, which surrounded the center, so they had to have their blood tested for TB, and then we ear notched them for identification once released.
On the rest of the days, they took us to other wildlife reserves so we could appreciate the vast diversity of the wildlife of South Africa. We went to Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Kruger National park, and to a reptile house.
We had lectures that went with each of these so we knew the details of the wildlife we were looking at. The reptile house was a good learning experience because the snakes, turtles, and lizards they had there were the animals that were not often seen on the game drives. We got to see Boomslangs, Black Mambas, and Puff Adders, which are the three deadliest snakes in Africa. The Puff Adder is responsible for the most deaths in Africa, and I got to handle one with the help of a licensed handler.
At Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, they had a great diversity of animals that were rescued and could not be returned to the wild, such as lions, jaguars, black jaguars, cheetahs, African wild dogs, and honey badgers. One of their honey badgers is famous for finding ways to escape his enclosure so he could socialize with the worker at the center. However, he never tried to leave the center when he escaped.
Then, at a Kruger National Park we took a game drive where we got to see a lot of Africa’s wildlife which included lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes, hyenas, cape buffalo, impalas, waterbucks, grey duikers, kudus, and bushbuck. Also, many of the animals had babies with them because their breeding season had ended not long before we got there. We also got to see quite a few birds, even the bird that Zazu in Lion King is based on, the yellow picked hornbill.
This trip was beneficial in some ways for my future as a biologist, but not as many as I had hoped. I got to learn a lot about how a conservation reserve is run but not a lot about how they do their sampling and determine the need of a species.
I was honestly expecting to get to do some sampling of the wildlife that is in conservational need and learn how they are gathering their data, but this program was made to be fun for not only students but for tourists as well. I did get to learn a lot about what they are doing to try to fix many of the problems, like habitat fragmentation and the lack of knowledge of this by the people of Africa.
The outreach with local schools was the most beneficial because awareness is one of the most important aspects of conservation, and I want my career to be in conservation.
Overall, the trip was an excellent way to expand my knowledge of wildlife and how important it is to show people the importance of it. This was beneficial to me becoming a biologist in many ways, just not quite the ones I was expecting.