Through the College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Science, I travelled to South Africa to study Exotic Animal Behavior and Welfare. We visited different locations in South Africa, such as Kruger National Park, an elephant sanctuary, Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center, and a secret rhinoceros sanctuary to learn about exotic animal behavior and welfare in their natural environment.
Before my education abroad, I was angry with game hunters and poachers. I was incredibly furious with Walter Palmer, the hunter who killed Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. However, I was ignorant on the subject of game hunting. Our guide explained to me what game hunting entails. Game farms monitor every exotic animal on the premises, and keep track of the ages of the animal. When hunters are willing to pay a large sum of money to shoot the animal, the people in charge of the game hunting offer them a list of animals who are approaching old age. The hunters can only kill an animal that is past his prime, which was the case of Cecil, the Lion. The media portrayed Cecil as the leader of this pride, but in reality, he was too old to mate with the females. I was intrigued by how the media twisted the information in order to make it appear more malicious. According to Zimbabwe law, what Walter Palmer did was legal. My knowledge was also lacking concerning how game hunting benefits the community. Hunters collect the trophy, but the community is provided the meat to eat. My guide described game hunting as a “necessary evil.” It is unfortunate that it occurs, but it has its benefits for the community.
Before my education abroad, I was against the trade of rhino horn. I was one of the many people who thought that banning the trade would help. I was also furious with every poacher who killed a rhino. I still see on social media sites how people are outraged at poachers, and say that humanity is corrupted because people want to kill innocent animals. I had never once thought about the poachers as humans. During my time in South Africa, I learned that poachers kill rhinos because they are trying to provide for themselves or for a family. Third parties are willing to pay large sums of money for rhino horn, causing people to be easily persuaded. There are even employees of Kruger National Park or other sanctuaries that are bribed by poachers to allow rhinos to be killed because they make more money doing that than in an entire year of working. In some sanctuaries, employees shoot poachers. This is hard on the employees as well because they have to deal with whom they just killed, such as a father. My views regarding the trade of rhino horn have changed. I now support the legalized trade of rhino horn because rhino horn is a sustainable industry because rhino horn grows back. Rhino horn can be sawed off with no harm done to the rhino. It grows back, and can be cut off again. It is made of keratin, which is the same protein in our fingernails. If the trade of rhino horn were legalized, there would be fewer rhinos killed for their horn.
One event that led to my change of opinion for game hunting was when I saw a young boy digging through a trashcan in search of food. This is only one aspect of the poverty I witnessed. South Africa has a large unemployment rate, which means many people cannot afford food or shelter. I saw people living in cardboard/metal huts along the highway, and sleeping on blankets in the streets of Pretoria. It is unfortunate that animals have to be hunted but it is a benefit to the communities because it is a source of food.
One event made this transformation to supporting animal hunting difficult for me. One of my favorite parts about Kruger National Park was being able to see different species of animals interact with one another. The best example of this occurred when we saw baboons in the trees, expressing an alarm call. Because they were seeking shelter from the ground, our guide, Andy, knew that there must be some form of predator on the ground. Andy drove us around, looking for this animal. Eventually, we saw lion cubs running to a lioness in the distance. We drove around more, trying to see where this pride went. Eventually, we saw another lioness, which was evidently the mother because her cubs ran to her one by one. The mom, aunt, and cubs then walked away together. This was an incredible natural moment that our class witnessed. This was one of my favorite aspects of the trip, being able to observe exotic animals in their natural environment. I learned that lions behave similarly in their natural environment compared to that in a zoo. They rest the majority of the day, even in the wild. It was difficult for me to observe this and be so happy while knowing that humans were targeting similar prides. The more time I spent in South Africa, the more empathetic I became for the people. The “wealthier countries” such as the U.S.A, U.K, and Australia try to manage South Africa, which is a frustration for them because they want a say in how their country functions. The people in poverty also feel neglected because the wealthier countries care more about the animals than they do the people. I came to the realization that we tend to forget that human life is more sacred than animal life. We cannot necessarily neglect the animals altogether for the sake of conservation, but we cannot forget about human needs either. Because of this, my acceptance for game hunting has increased.
My opinion on the trade of rhino horn became more positive because I had the opportunity to witness the dehorning of rhinos. We went to a secret rhino sanctuary and followed the team around as they tranquilized and dehorned rhinos. For their protection, the rhinos were then moved to a different location with all of the other dehorned rhinos. While one female rhino was being dehorned, I was drawing blood from her ear. It was an amazing experience to have direct involvement in such a great cause. Our guide explained to us that families could own a rhino and be responsible for taking care of it and dehorning. This would generate an income for every family that raises a rhino. It would increase the numbers of rhinos and decrease the number of unemployed people.
During the duration of this trip, I also had the opportunity to physically examine an elephant, pet a cheetah, and feed a hippopotamus. These are opportunities that I would never have received if I never went on this education abroad, and I am so thankful that STEP helped me achieve this opportunity.
This education abroad has allowed me to transform into a culturally aware student who has gained more knowledge about exotic animals and their impact on South Africa. I will forever be changed from my visit to South Africa. I want to share my experience with people through my video documentary that will be shown at the STEP Expo and defend South Africa. I want to educate people on the trade of rhino horn and game hunting, and encourage them to do more research on the subject before forming an opinion. I also want to remind others that poachers are humans who are trying to support their families. I will not defend the poachers but would give people something to think about and see that the issue is larger than it appears. I believe that the legalization of trading rhino horn would greatly benefit South Africa. Further, I think my knowledge will help me find employment in a zoological park because I now have a greater understanding of conservation. This education abroad has impacted my college experience and will stay with me far after graduation.