Emily Bax­ter

Geographical - - WORLD­WATCH -

I sim­ply al­ways wanted to work with wildlife. We spend our lives think­ing ‘this is what I should do, and this is the eas­i­est route to it’, yet we eas­ily for­get the big dreams we had when we were chil­dren. I was for­tu­nate enough to get the chance to join a Vets Go Wild co­hort – Ikhala Vet­eri­nary Clinic’s wildlife vet­eri­nary ex­pe­ri­ence pro­gramme. Here, I had my first ex­pe­ri­ence of wildlife medicine. Be­fore then, there were a few peo­ple who told me I shouldn’t go and in­vest all this time, be­cause there was lit­tle chance of ac­tu­ally be­com­ing a wildlife vet­eri­nar­ian.

As soon as I was done, I ap­plied for an in­tern­ship at Ikhala, got it, and spent six months learning the ropes un­der Dr Wil­liam Fowlds – one of the great wildlife vet­eri­nar­i­ans. My next step was to join the Vets Go Wild stu­dent pro­gramme as the course fa­cil­i­ta­tor. I man­aged to go from there to be­ing full time on the wildlife vet­eri­nary team.

The African bush is a highly pres­surised work­ing en­vi­ron­ment. You’ve gen­er­ally only got the an­i­mal asleep for a cer­tain amount of time, so a treat­ment has to go to plan. You also gen­er­ally have a large team with you, so all the while you have to be in con­trol.

We are in­her­ently more ca­pa­ble of achiev­ing than we be­lieve. This is def­i­nitely some­thing that you are taught as a wildlife vet. I re­mem­ber a moment dur­ing the early stages of my ca­reer. I was out with my boss, en route to dart an os­trich for the first time. Some 16 stu­dents were out with us. Sud­denly, my boss was called away to an­other lo­ca­tion and I had to step in to lead the pro­ce­dure. Af­ter talk­ing it through and keep­ing my nerve, I man­aged to do it – I quickly re­alised that trust in your­self is an es­sen­tial life skill.

What we do is dan­ger­ous and it only takes a split sec­ond for things to go wrong. How­ever, with stu­dents around, you have to have con­fi­dence in your own abil­i­ties – that’s the best way that they can learn. At first, I was hes­i­tant to give them too much ex­po­sure to dif­fi­cult tasks, be­cause I would have to fix any prob­lems that arose. But you have to step back as an ed­u­ca­tional fig­ure.

Vet­eri­nary work is in­te­gral to con­ser­va­tion. A lot of our work in­volves translo­ca­tions, where an­i­mals are re­lo­cated to spread genes. There is a darker side and I have first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the poach­ing cri­sis. Post-mortem ex­am­i­na­tions are a huge strug­gle: you have to im­me­di­ately drop ev­ery­thing to rush to a crime scene, await law en­force­ment and per­form the pro­ce­dure, some­times in the pitch black. The ma­jor­ity of an­i­mals have died by the time that we ar­rive, when it be­comes our job to find the bul­lets for bal­lis­tics analysis. How­ever, there was one in­ci­dent where a rhino had still been alive while it was be­ing de­horned and it man­aged to es­cape.

See­ing an an­i­mal lost to the poach­ing cri­sis gives you the feel­ing that hu­man­ity has failed. I don’t think we fully un­der­stand our in­ter­de­pen­dency on the nat­u­ral world, but the break­ing point is start­ing to be­come clearer. We’re so good at learning dif­fer­ent ways in which to over­ex­ploit na­ture, but we’re not as good at giv­ing back. Coro­n­avirus has given us the hints that we need to ur­gently re­dress the bal­ance.

Par­ents have a big role to play in kick-start­ing a more en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious gen­er­a­tion; they’re the ones who can give chil­dren the early life im­mer­sion in na­ture that is so vi­tal when it comes to form­ing a mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion with it. It’s vi­tal that we ed­u­cate chil­dren that ecosys­tems are in­ter­de­pen­dent – love the cock­roaches in your own gar­den just as much as you love ele­phants. The sooner we re­alise our own de­pen­dency on these nat­u­ral sys­tems, the faster we can re­verse the trend of over­ex­ploita­tion.

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