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Spotted: A Veterinary Student Living Her Dream Life at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia

By Christine Roviera, Cornell DVM ‘25

On an early Saturday morning in late September 2021, I was half-awake when I logged in to attend the virtual Veterinary One Health Association Symposium. The first presenter was Dr. Laurie Marker, who I then learned was the Founder and Executive Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). Hearing Dr. Marker’s passion about the work CCF has been doing for more than 30 years to save the cheetahs worked better than my morning coffee: I was truly inspired, and by the end of her talk, I knew that I needed to go to Namibia to meet her and experience these conservation efforts for myself.

Thanks to Cornell’s Expanding Horizons program, my dream came true and I got to spend eight weeks during the summer of 2023 at CCF in Otjiwarongo, Namibia. I was officially accepted as a veterinary intern, so my main goal was to further my clinical skills while undertaking projects as needs arose. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed, and that my time at CCF exceeded any expectation I had! As a veterinarian, my dream goal is to work for an international non-profit organization like CCF, and this externship has only reinforced my belief that wildlife conservation is my passion and that this is the career I want to pursue.

Monitoring a wild cheetah’s anesthesia during examination. Photo: Vistoria Tuhemwe
Monitoring a wild cheetah’s anesthesia during examination. Photo: Vistoria Tuhemwe

The role of veterinarians as educators

A few days after my arrival, I met with Dr. Laurie Marker to discuss potential project ideas. During our conversation, Dr. Marker mentioned that she was looking for someone to write educational books on cheetah conservation for students in Somaliland, where CCF also has a center. So, together with Sage, another Cornell veterinary student extern, we undertook the task of writing two student books, one for grades 4-5 and the other for grades 6-7.

Conducting this project challenged me to get out of my comfort zone and work to accomplish something that I had never done before. Seeing the final products after dedicating many weeks to creating these educational books was more gratifying than I could have ever imagined. Now, I am looking forward to the books getting reviewed, translated into Somali, and distributed to the Somaliland schools. Carrying out this project made me reflect about the role of veterinarians as educators. It is truly thrilling to think that my words could help inspire the students who are going to be the future generations in charge of caring for wildlife and advocating for conservation efforts.

Rotating between departments

All new CCF externs spend their entire first week rotating through each department and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in each one, including the veterinary, cheetah care, livestock guarding dog, equine, hospitality and tourism, kraal (livestock enclosures), and garden teams. Of course, being with the cheetah team and learning about the enrichment the resident cheetahs get through morning runs, as well as meeting and feeding each individual cheetah, was an incredible experience.

As an avid dog-lover, I also loved being scheduled with the dog team that takes care of the many livestock guarding dogs (LSGD) at CCF. These amazing Kangal shepherds, Anatolian shepherds, and a few adorable mongrels are taught to guard and protect livestock herds from predators, such as leopards, when the herds are out grazing in the bush.

Overall, I had never seen an organization embody the “One Health” concept as well as CCF; the organization promotes a world where humans and animals that share the same environment learn to coexist, and each CCF department works toward the same goal of saving the cheetahs from extinction. In the end, everyone benefits from CCF’s mission, and it was truly inspiring to experience this first-hand.

Treating animals at the veterinary clinic

Following my first week, I spent most of my days in the CCF veterinary clinic, which is currently only staffed by one veterinarian, Dr. Mercelin Gawanas, and two veterinary technicians, Vistoria and Johanna. From the start, they made me feel extremely welcome and never hesitated to teach me a new skill or answer my questions.

Neutering an Anatolian shepherd puppy before placement at a local farm as a livestock guarding dog. Photo: Vistoria Tuhemwe
Neutering an Anatolian shepherd puppy before placement at a local farm as a livestock guarding dog. Photo: Vistoria Tuhemwe

Every single day at the clinic was different, from the patients we would see to the veterinary care we would administer. This experience taught me how important it is to be flexible and to adapt to any work situation that may arise. I already had a lot of previous veterinary experience working with dogs and horses, but I had never directly worked with sheep, goats, pangolins or cheetahs! I honestly can’t decide what my favorite memory was, but the following are some of my veterinary-related highlights:

  • I got to do my first surgery ever, which was a neuter on an Anatolian puppy.
  • I drew blood from Nandi, one of CCF’s resident cheetahs, using her tail vein, as a cheetah keeper distracted her with meat treats.
  • Finally, I was able to place a catheter and draw blood from a pangolin that got confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.

Throughout my externship, I was able to suture wounds on multiple dogs, conduct physical exams, give intramuscular and subcutaneous injections, place catheters, intubate patients for surgeries, put casts on fractures, make blood smears, take and interpret radiographs, drain abscesses, and perform hematocrit tests and fecal flotations. I also became more confident in determining the different canine estrous cycle stages through the livestock guarding dog breeding program, where I performed vaginal swabs on the females, and breeding soundness exams with semen evaluation for the males. I saw my first ever leg amputation surgery on an Anatolian shepherd, during which I monitored anesthesia throughout the time-intensive procedure. I also assisted with multiple cheetah health checks. I can’t express how incredibly grateful I am to the entire clinic team for reinforcing my clinical skills, as well as always making work cheerful and fun.

Rabies campaign trip in the field

One of the highlights of my time at CCF was going on a week-long rabies campaign trip in the Eastern Communal Conservancies (ECC) part of Namibia. Together with veterinarian Dr. Robin Gieling and CCF staff member Modesta, we traveled from village to village vaccinating the dogs and cats at no charge. In one week, we ended up vaccinating a total of 315 pets!

Overall, the entire trip “expanded my horizons,” as I had never traveled in Namibia (except for my four-hour car ride from the airport to CCF headquarters), and had never even gone camping before in my life. During a whole week, I was fully immersed in a new culture, where I learned about Herero traditions, tasted delicious new food as I learned how to braai (South African version of a barbecue), and learned a little bit of Afrikaans.

Administering a vaccine during the rabies campaign trip in the Eastern Communal Conservancies. Photo: Dr. Robin Gieling
Administering a vaccine during the rabies campaign trip in the Eastern Communal Conservancies. Photo: Dr. Robin Gieling

Everyone we met was extremely welcoming and appreciative of the rabies vaccination work we did, since these rural areas don’t have access to any veterinary care, and unfortunately, multiple dog rabies cases were recently reported in some of the locations we visited. These vaccination trips are of utmost importance since rabies is a very serious public health concern and immunizing pets will also protect the owners.

The trip wasn’t without its challenges: since we went during the middle of winter, the temperatures dropped below freezing every night and I learned what a great invention hot water bottles are! Despite the cold, this was a life-changing experience that made me completely fall in love with this country and brought me immense joy. Participating in this campaign showed me a new side of veterinary medicine and made me discover that I enjoy the outdoors - I am certain that this won’t be the last time I camp in the African bush.

Reflecting on my summer

Christine Roviera on top of dunes in Namibia.
Climbing to the top of “Dune 7” in Walvis Bay. Photo: Erlin Mansfield

On a more personal level, I had an amazing time throughout my stay at CCF. With new trainees coming and going all the time, I got to meet and become friends with people from countries all around the world. No matter how diverse our backgrounds and skillsets were, we all shared a deep passion for wildlife conservation that united us. After work hours, everyone joined together to play volleyball, go on hikes, or watch movies, and it was very easy to form strong bonds.

I went on several trips with some fellow interns. The first one was a weekend at Etosha National Park, where I got to see a diversity of wild animals, such as lions, elephants, black rhinos, and a hyena! I also spent a weekend on the coast at Swakopmund, where I went on a boat tour and saw seals (some of which jumped on the boat), dolphins, and flamingos. I also managed to squeeze in some exercise in when I climbed to the top of “Dune 7” at Walvis Bay.

Overall, I am extremely grateful to the CVM Expanding Horizons program for its support in allowing me to spend two months at CCF, which was a life-altering experience. I learned a variety of new skills, made amazing connections with passionate wildlife conservationists, and experienced substantial growth on both professional and personal levels.

Christine Roviera holding a Corgi dog.

Christine Roviera is a third year DVM student at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in the Class of 2025. Originally from Italy, she grew up in Paris, France, and moved to Maryland where she finished high school and later received her BS in Animal Sciences at the University of Maryland. Christine aspires to be a wildlife veterinarian, focusing on the protection of endangered species and providing veterinary care for communities in developing countries.