Tumpa Saha, from Calcutta, India, is doing her 12-week Reserve Management internship at Balule Reserve, Kruger National Park. Tumpa shares her inspirational experience, offers words of wisdom, and provides insight into life as a conservationist in South Africa.
I interned on the Reserve Management in South Africa - Kruger National Park internship for 12 weeks. During this time, I participated in daily animal transects, bird count and sign drives, and camera trap set-up activities. My passion as a conservationist is the study of predator activity, so my preferred focus during the internship was the proactive completion of Leopard I.D. project.
I used camera trap image data to identify individual leopards as accurately as possible, and put together updated information regarding the leopard population within the region where we were gathering data. I am confident enough to work on any such conservation activities within part of the world - especially where there are leopards!
This internship has gifted me with adventure. I have never valued it so much in my life prior to this internship. I will cherish this memory of adventure for the rest of my life. This internship project has also taught me the important value of acceptance, which has indeed changed the philosophy of my life.
What brought you to intern in South Africa?
I am here with Intern Abroad HQ from the city of Calcutta, India, which is one of the most densely populated cities of the world, having only traces of green. I am a teacher by profession, of Zoological Sciences for undergraduate students in a private tutorial. I always felt that the way of learning and teaching is more bookish, so I am increasing my practical field-based knowledge and experience, to establish myself as a conservationist and further develop my career path.
For someone passionate about zoology, visiting South Africa to learn is a dream come true. This goal means a lot to me because being able to gain first-hand field experience within one of the best National Parks in the world - while also working toward conservation goals related to Africa’s “Big Five” - is a milestone in my life.
No other organization anywhere in the world would have given me such a relevant platform to work and gain experience with the Big Five and thereby the relevance of this internship is immense to me. After coming here, I am still spellbound by the nature. Lush green landscape and blue sky has made all the difference!
How have you settled into the environmental internship?
The welcome here was warm, and I felt comfortable with my campmates and our guides. The camp represents a mini-world, with different people from around the world. It was a wonderful experience to meet many people of varied language and culture, all sharing similar values related to environmental conservation. The most exciting moment of the first week was catching my first sight of the African elephant and giraffe grazing in the wild (seen on the way from Hoedspruit Airport, after arriving, while driving to the internship camp).
I did feel slightly overwhelmed throughout the first week, despite the wonderfully informative classes, followed by equally exciting short field trips (to put into practice what we had been taught in the classes). However, a day-off brought me back to myself.
Never in my lifetime had I ever ridden a horse - but during my day off, I got the chance to take a two-hour horse ride in Hoedspruit - a completely new experience, to which I felt comfortable within a short time!
This day was followed by a night stay at the bush camp. It was extremely thrilling to sleep under the open sky in sleeping bags with a bonfire. During our return trip to the river camp in the morning, we saw several herbivores, including a large number of zebras, which I took as a positive omen for myself. I felt a change in myself, less vulnerable and more like an enterprising brave conservationist. I would advise new interns to allow time to settle in, as things happen naturally within nature.
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What can you tell us about life at the conservation camp?
The location of the camp in the midst of the South African bush, near the mighty Oliphant’s River, is a noticeable difference from the hustle and bustle of my home city Calcutta. The camp has boundaries on all sides and has specific quarters for interns, separate quarters for guides, shared kitchen, lounge and dining areas, as well as a computer data room.
Within the camp grounds, there are several large trees that have a large number of monkeys and baboons that only give us a good company throughout the day. These residential monkeys ensure that we keep on our toes and maintain a clean and organized camp (so that they have no opportunity to be a nuisance!) The environment here in the lap of nature with its serenity definitely sends a positive vibe that helps a worker to be calm at heart and fast at work!
We take turns preparing meals in groups, which is also a wonderful and new experience for me - it is a lesson in independence, as well as group work, knitted together! However, the type of food I am accustomed to is almost absent here. Being from India, my staple food is rice and lentils.
How is the internship schedule?
The internship schedule was as expected. Being a teacher, the daily routine in the camp has been a complete reversal of my daily life. Getting up early in the morning, getting ready within a short time, and out for the bird count is really exciting.
I am thoroughly enjoying this schedule and have adapted myself, as need be for the conservation schedule. Here, the daily schedule is sometimes hectic and demanding, but I had craved for so long to do such work in the field, even with the challenges. I am enjoying every bit of my camp life!
What have you learned from your conservation internship so far?
My work teaching zoology has always been more theory-based. However, during this short stint so far, I have adapted to physically demanding activities with a positive attitude, on my path of learning. I personally feel that I would be able to adapt and adjust to any condition or activity demanded by my profession, that would benefit conservation and communities in one way or the other.
So far, I have learnt the techniques for changing the batteries of the camera traps, changing their data cards, and the data entry techniques, from the field notes to the data matrix of the computer software program. I am also confident about using the GPS during the transect study and taking field notes during field trips.
What wildlife have you been working with?
I have taken a number of classes on the animals of the area, from the large carnivores like lion and leopard, the herbivores like the rhinoceros, bush elephant, hippopotamus, and even learnt about snakes, spiders and scorpions. These classes included the identification of pug marks / footprints of these animals and learning about their body language and calls and potentially dangerous signals that they show when they feel threatened.
The lectures on identification of antelope and bird species was an eye opener for me about the diversities and the methods of species identification in nature. I was previously unaware of the huge diversity of species within a single family of animals. We were taken to the field sites and shown the things that were taught in the class. That has been a lifetime learning experience for me, which I hope to utilize in my future work in this field.
I have knowledge about the bird count techniques, but I am not yet confident about identifying birds either by their calls nor by their plumage pattern. I am more confident in identifying different species of antelope, their sexes and age group. I have theoretical knowledge about the dos and don’ts in the field. I am confident to learn more bush craft techniques in the upcoming days of my internship!
How does your internship assist the ongoing conservation goals of the reserve?
As far as the short-term benefits of my internship are concerned, our daily field notes, taken under the guidance of mentors here in the camp, serve to enrich the data bank of the organization. This contributes toward a continuation of data accumulation for the long-term projects that have been taken up at the reserve.
As far as the long-term benefits are concerned, the organization is working relentlessly to conserve biodiversity of the area. Every single observation by interns is important to the scientific wing of the organization, to compare and analyse the present and past databases of the flora and fauna of the area. As the number of different species and their behavior are good biological indicators of the health of the environment, my contribution is definitely going to have a telling impact in the ongoing research.
How have you experienced a change in culture during your internship?
As I have been born and brought up in Indian culture, I could feel the huge difference in culture, in a positive sense. I am really pleased to see the space that each and every single person gets in this internship program here. The expression “work is worship” is a truth that I have discovered here.
The feeling of togetherness that is normally seen in our family, when each and every person works for the common interest of the family, is reflected during our group work – whether it is to construct roads or share dinner time. Each and every member of the group participating in cooking and dining together, followed by cleaning of utensils, makes me feel the sense of togetherness that I enjoy within my family back home.
Multiculturalism ought to be the keyword of all international internship projects, where people from all over the world with multiple cultures, languages, food habits and religions, meet together with an open mind to learn. From that perspective, my internship placement is no exception.
The way this multiculturalism is being handled in this camp is noteworthy, especially myself being a representative of the east and facing no problems at all in coping with my co-interns from the west. This internship project has justified one and only one culture - which is a work culture in a very healthy environment. We have all come together as a single culture, dedicated to the common cause of conservation, and a common language of exchanging ideas. The guides of the internship project are the pillars of such a huge success in making this multiculturalism work.
What was the most rewarding aspect of the internship?
The personal gain of this internship for me has been my development into a more confident and committed human being. Learning various conservation techniques with minimum resources and self-guidance has provided me with personal and professional development opportunities to explore my innovative ideas and resourcefulness.
I successfully uploaded a lot of valuable data to the conservation logs, which provided the satisfaction of learning techniques for the software, but also of having personally contributed to the strengthening of a database that will help future interns and conservationists.
My greatest achievement of all during this internship has been the successful completion of the leopard identification project that I undertook. This will be an asset to the conservation work but is also an asset to my own future career as a conservationist.
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