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What to expect on an Environmental Internship in South Africa

Our guest blogger Sophie Gartenstein joined a South Africa Environmental Conservation internship for 8 weeks. Based at the Dinokeng Game Reserve, internship activities are focused on learning about animal behaviour and solutions to address the conflict between wildlife and humans. Here’s Sophie’s take on her internship, activities, and what to expect!

I have always been extremely interested in the environment, and more recently with my major in Environmental Science with an emphasis in ecosystems, I am particularly interested in environmental preservation and wildlife conservation. I recently took a History of African Environment course at Boston University, which sparked my interest specifically in African environment and animal behavior.

Since I have been at this camp for about a week and a half now, my sense of familiarity with my work and my role has expanded and has changed the way I experience our daily tasks and everyday activities. My role at Dinokeng as an intern is to aid in the collection of data that keeps the reserve running on a long-term basis. On a daily basis we take at least two game drives – each about two to three hours, and we observe the animals and the state of the reserve that day. We do game transects, bird point counts, roadkill surveys, camera traps, and fence patrols. Each of these serves a different purpose for the reserve.

Intern in South Africa

For game transects, we take a set 10 km route in any portion of the reserve and take note of every single mammal, larger than a hare, that we see. We observe how many there are, the sex and age of the animals, their habitat within the reserve, and their health. We then have exact GPS coordinates each time we stop, and how far away the animals are from the road. This data, in the short-term, is a very easy way to determine the distribution of mammals. In the long-term, it aids in the goal of the reserve to determine the carrying capacity for herbivores and carnivores within a relatively small reserve.

Bird-point counts are similar to game transects in that they also serve as a way to count the number and distribution of birds in the short-term. Instead of doing a drive however, we do ten-minute surveys at one specific point in the early morning. Birds are territorial, so the best time to hear them is in the morning, when they are actively chirping to let their neighbors know they survived the night. We record the birds we see, and more often the birds we hear are from upwards of 300 meters away. Bird-point counts, in the long-term, are much more important. Birds are indicator species, which means that they will tell you if something is wrong with the habitat or with the animals in the reserve. If there are too many of one species of bird, or too little of another, it is a clear telling of what the problem is. Therefore, bird-point counts are more about the general health of the reserve.

Dinokeng Game Drive South Africa

Roadkill surveys are fairly self-explanatory. We do set 10 km drives and record any roadkill, if there is any. It allows the reserve to be aware if any roads are too close, or if there needs to be more speed bumps or lower speed limits. Fence patrol is also self-explanatory. We spend most of the day out driving alongside the edge of the reserve, checking the fence. We test to make sure the electricity works and that there are no holes or areas where animals could get out. Roadkill data and fence patrol days are both for the general safety of the animals inside the reserve, and for the people living inside, or in close proximity to the reserve.

The last task that we do on a frequent basis is camera trapping. Often every week or every two weeks we service upwards of thirty cameras that are set up around the reserve. We change the batteries, the SD cards, and update the settings to accommodate each placement. After, we go through all the pictures and mark which ones have any of the large predators on them. This, once again, helps to identify the range and distribution of large animals on the reserve.

Reserve management in South Africa

Although I am slightly disappointed in the lack of direct interaction with any animals, I now understand that that inherit assumption was naïve, as the animals here are incredibly dangerous, and any work would most likely be done with darts, and therefore by more professional workers. Seeing the white male rhino, and then the next day seeing a different, larger white male rhino with a female and her baby, further extended our excitement for being in the bush and being in Africa in general. Especially since rhino are such a critically endangered species, for me at least, it gave me perspective on my time here and what it could do, and what impacts I could make.

Almost everything that we have done here can be applied to any future job that I would want in conservation. We have learned how to pick up on bird calls, how to track animals through their footprints and movements, and we have had many discussions about the difficulties in finding solutions for the large problems in conservation such as rhino poaching and elephant over-population in the Kruger Park. All of these skillsets that we have been learning for the past two weeks, and what I will continue to learn over the next six, can greatly aid in my future education and career.

Rhino in Dinokeng Game Reserve, South Africa

Want to start your own internship experience in South Africa?

Internships in South Africa are available year-round and are offered in conjunction with Intern Abroad HQ’s guided reflection program. To learn more about the diverse environmental internship locations (and pick which one is best for you) check out our blog.

  1. To get started, apply online first. Applications are non-obligatory and free.

  2. After applying, you’ll receive more details on how to confirm your internship placement.

  3. To confirm, you’ll register online after your application has been accepted. This means taking care of the US$299 Registration Fee, which enables us to provide services and pre-departure support. Internship fees can be reviewed online.

  4. Once you’re registered, the adventure begins! We’ll support you with prepping for your trip and look forward to hosting your international internship!


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