Summer Apprenticeship in Zimbabwe
By Carolina Baquerizo, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine DVM Candidate '24
How does a girl from Florida find herself in Zimbabwe?
As one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls draws travelers from around the world to experience the majestic shower of falling waters. After connecting with the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust (VFWT) and securing a position on their team, I began planning travels to a country I knew little about. I connected with my veterinary school mentors and the Cornell Wildlife Health Center to sort out logistics. Months of planning fell into place, and I was off to Zimbabwe for a Cornell Expanding Horizons project.
Though intimidated by research in the past, I realized how critical data analysis could be.
Shortly after I arrived in Zimbabwe, I connected with Dr. Laura Rosen, a veterinary epidemiologist based at VFWT, to work on data entry and analysis of rhino immobilizations. This was one of many research projects the VFWT was engaged in; others involved vulture population research and predator conservation. I developed an understanding of the types of data being collected and eventually found myself on the back of a truck collecting information alongside VFWT wildlife researcher Roger Parry. We spent many hours in the field locating nests of endangered African white-backed vultures. We also utilized telemetry to locate lion prides in the area, information critical to ongoing management efforts.
Life in the field and at the lab was always exciting!
We collected diagnostic samples from animals in the field and evaluated them in the laboratory with VFWT wildlife veterinarian Dr. Chris Foggin, responsible for monitoring wildlife diseases in the area. The VFWT lab also analyzes meat samples confiscated from poachers to identity the species. This information is then used to support legal investigations. On Fridays, we brought school groups from the local villages to the Trust for educational programs. Students were taught about anti-poaching initiatives, native species of plants and animals, and vulture conservation. I assisted on these field trips and shared information on the roles that veterinarians have in the national parks. We also worked in the community to distribute donor-sourced fuel efficient stoves that are designed to reduce deforestation. The VFWT also has a rehabilitation center, where we cared for animals injured through unintended human interaction. During my time, we helped care for a kudu calf, a Cape porcupine, a dove, and a Little Sparrowhawk.
Alongside the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit, we assisted in de-snaring animals caught in wire traps and helped provide appropriate veterinary care. We also deployed GPS collars on elephants to monitor their movements in the nearby villages and towns.
Living in the center of town, I developed a better understanding of the concept of human-wildlife conflict.
Walking around town in Victoria Falls, one could expect baboons constantly within a few meters. When driving at night, we drove slowly to avoid buffalo herds grazing in yards or elephants crossing the road! The town is situated directly in the national park, so interactions with wildlife were frequent. Human-wildlife conflict is a concern for the local people, and the VFWT has designed tactics to mitigate common risks. Community guardians are hired in different regions and trained to ward off animals that might cause trouble in their villages. For example, when an animal crosses a geofence (movements of collared animals being detected by GPS), guardians are informed and can intervene to reduce the risk of a potential conflict situation.
My time in Africa opened my eyes to a new career possibility I had not considered before.
Before my experience, I thought I was destined to pursue zoological medicine in the United States. This dream was not a waste - I believe my journey in that direction prepared me for my time in Zimbabwe. It gave me the confidence to work in a new environment with new people, pressures, and perspectives. Leaving Zimbabwe, I am confident that I would like to work in the bush. I am unsure of how or in what capacity, but the moments I spent working there cannot be compared to any previous work I have done. I learned things in Zimbabwe about myself that I had never appreciated before; I believe I am more adaptable and laid back than I once considered myself to be. This opportunity was the first time in my veterinary career that I “stopped to smell the roses” - I learned to truly appreciate the cases I was presented with and the veterinary interventions we applied. I also felt tangible fulfillment in instances when we freed animals from suffering.
Friendship in the falls is unlike any other!
To my friends: I am emotional writing this part of my story. It's hard to articulate feelings you have never experienced before, and I hope to do you all justice as I begin to write. I confidently attest that I have never arrived in a new place and been accepted for all that I am: the good, the bad, the different. I was welcomed into the community by every individual I came across during my stay. I learned more about people of the world and myself in two months than I ever thought possible, and for that, I am forever grateful. I am a better person because of all of you. Your impact on my soul will be reflected in my everyday life.
I want to thank the Expanding Horizons Committee, the Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, the Cornell Wildlife Health Center, and the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust for supporting this experience.
Carolina Baquerizo is a third-year Cornell DVM student in the Class of 2024. She received her B.S. in Biological Science from Florida State University. Carolina began volunteering at Zoo Miami when she was 15 and has had multiple zoological internships since then. She aspires to be a wildlife veterinarian working towards ex situ conservation goals focused on assisted reproduction in zoos and in situ goals focused on mitigating human-wildlife conflict.
All images provided by Carolina Baquerizo.