Every October for the past seven years, twenty students from an American university pitch up in Skukuza Camp as part of their studies of various environmental issues across southern Africa. "Skukuza is the mid-point in our research and our travels," said Dr Jack Shepherd, professor of environmental studies and director of this year's group.
"We pause here every year for lectures and discussions about what we are learning." All of the students are in their third or fourth year of study at Dartmouth College, one of the Ivy League universities, which is located in New Hampshire, USA. Their fields of study range from biology to economics, from geology to environmental studies.
Each year a different group of twenty Dartmouth upperclassmen visit southern Africa from September until early December (more than 140 so far). The students attend lectures at the University of Pretoria, but spend more than half their time in the field. This includes field research in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Swaziland, and desert ecology studies in Namibia.
This October, the American students and their instructors - Prof Shepherd and Dr David Mbora, a biologist at Dartmouth and a primate specialist - continued the tradition of field work at Skukuza. Their studies focused on several themes. One continuing area of interest is fire control and management.
At Skukuza, Navashni Govender, fire ecologist, lectured to the students on this important topic, and took them to a burn site outside Skukuza, where they could see first-hand the effects of controlled burning.
Dr Llewellyn Foxcroft, programme manger alien biota, also joined the Dartmouth students in the veld outside Skukuza, to examine a research project on alien species (the spiny cactus) by one of his graduate students, Kyle Harris, from the University of Pretoria. Earlier, Dr Foxcroft lectured the students on strategic adaptive management techniques and invasive alien species within the park's environment.
A third area of investigation by the Dartmouth undergraduates engaged the evolving relationships between the region's national parks, reserves and conservancies and local indigenous communities. Kelly Scheepers guided the students through some of the issues in this area with her lecture on the social and ecological aspects of the tension between conservation and development.
As part of their studies, the Dartmouth students are assigned a research topic that they must work on throughout the term here. For this year's students that topic is "environmental health challenges" in southern Africa.
To meet requirements for that course, each student will write a tightly-focused research paper on environmental conditions and health issues, due at the end of November. The lectures by Dr Thomas Gyedu-Ababio, river ecologist, and Dr Markus Hofmeyr, head veterinary wildlife services, at Skukuza were of immediate relevance to their work on this assignment.
Dr Gyedu-Ababio detailed Kruger's continuing concern for river and water management, and questions from the students probed the areas of water quality and quantity and human health impacts in indigenous communities.
Dr Hofmeyr spoke to them about wildlife diseases, and the discussion focused on bovine tuberculosis and diseases with implications for human-animal interactions. 'All of our lectures at Skukuza pulled together the various themes of our studies,' one student said later. 'And the outdoor 'classrooms' in Kruger's Big Five country are unequalled anywhere!'
By Jack Shepherd