TAMU Students in Southern Africa in 2013

Urs Kreuter

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Since 2002, 161 students from Texas A&M University have participated in a study abroad program in Southern Africa, which was initiated and is directed by Urs Kreuter, a Professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management who was born and raised in Africa.

 The goal of the program is to provide students with broad understanding of the biophysical and human dimensions of biodiversity conservation and nature-based tourism in Africa.  The geographic locations of the program have included South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.  The geological heterogeneity of this region, together with the confluence of tropical and Antarctic air masses over it, has produced phenomenal plant and animal diversity and endemism. Superimposed on this heterogeneous natural landscape is a remarkably diverse cultural landscape linked to the complex human history of the region.

 In 2013, Urs Kreuter and Bob Shaw directed the 4-week program during June. This year the study program focused on the fynbos dominated Cape coast and the savanna dominated Lowveld of northeastern South Africa. Ten students from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and two from Liberal Arts participated.

 The students arrived in Cape Town on May 31. During six days in Cape Town they visited many places within the globally unique fynbos floral kingdom. After that the group proceeded for four days along South Africa’s dramatic southern coast to Knysna learning about a range of coastal biodiversity conservation and development issues.  Next the group flew to Johannesburg and then spent two days in the archeologically rich Cradle of Humankind just north of the capital, Pretoria, where the students learned about the origins of Homo sapiens.  The next stop was the Kruger National Park six hours to the east.  This park is located along the Mozambique border, covers 5 million acres and forms the core of the most extensive public and private conservation area in South Africa.  After three days of lectures and game viewing in the park, the group drove to the Southern Africa Wildlife College.  During the next five days the group visited numerous private conservation initiatives, including the fascinating Khamai reptile park, the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center, and the Kruger to Canyonlands Biosphere Reserve Center, as well as local communities. Finally, the group drove northwest to Ivy Safaris for six days. There the students were treated like family and learned about wildlife ranching and trophy hunting as an integral part of biodiversity conservation and nature based tourism. During that time a couple of students also elected to participate in a hunt.

While the course presented some challenges, including some very cold weather in the Cape and some long hours traveling in vans, overall it was a great success. The students experienced diversity on many levels: they saw very diverse landscapes and plant communities and a broad array of birds and large mammals, including the big five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard). Finally, the students experience diverse social and cultural settings including informal settlements (shanty towns), where they observed the reality of life for many South Africans. For many of the students this study abroad program provided a life changing experience!