Student Reflections

Hear what these former Study Abroad Center FaSST participants have to say about their experiences!

Michelle Au
Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences
Greater Kruger Park, South Africa, Summer 2017

PEPS 491: African Ecology and Conservation Biology

“All over the world alien species can wreak havoc on native habitats because they out-compete for limited resources. South Africa proved to be no different. My study abroad trip was in the Limpopo Provence of South Africa at Balule Nature Reserve. The course focused on African Ecology and Conservation Biology. There are major conservation efforts going towards rhino and elephant monitoring due to the high rate of poaching in the area. However, I decided to focus my research on invasive species. Although they are not as glamorous as pachyderm research, they are just as important in reserve management. There are two major weeds that currently affect Balule in Olifant’s West as well as the buffer zone. They are two fast-growing cacti called Queen of the Night, Cereus jamacaru and Sweet Prickly Pear, Opuntia ficus-indica. Current methods of management include chemical and biological control. Although these forms of control are effective, it is also very labor intensive, as workers and volunteers need to constantly patrol the area and spot these cacti to implement either tactic.

Large patch of Sweet Prickly Pear infested with Cactoblastis cactorum

We were assigned different tasks each day to participate in. On alien vegetation days, we would go out with infected biocontrol cladodes or with the herbicide MSMA and target cacti that were growing on the reserve or buffer zone. On one of these days , e spotted a large patch of Sweet Prickly Pear that seemed to be treated although the area had not been managed yet. On the infected cladodes, we noticed large colonies of the cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, larvae. The larvae had fed on many of the cladodes and caused them to die. I soon learned that the C. cactorum were not purposely introduced as a biocontrol in Balule but rather accidentally introduced through infected cladodes that were used to rear the cochineal beetle, Dactylopius coccus, the current biocontrol for the sweet prickly pear. The success I saw from the C. cactorum in the field got me interested in researching ways to rear the insect in the nursery as well as find its compatibility with current tactics of control. During my time in Balule, I reared the insects in a makeshift cage using old soda bottles. There was some difficulty in getting the insects into the pupal stage so further research needs to be done to find the most favorable conditions for the larvae to enter pupation. There are a lot of previous studies that have looked at the C. cactorum as a successful biocontrol for different species of prickly pear. I found that the C. cactorum can be used alongside both tactics that are currently being implemented in Balule. Although MSMA is not known to have toxic effects on the moths, these studies suggest that chemical control is best focused on newly emerging cladodes while the C. cactorum can target larger more developed cacti. If successful, less maintenance needs to be done on the Sweet Prickly Pear because they C. cactorum can disperse and control new areas. I hope to one day go back to Balule and further my research on this topic.

Cactoblastis cactorum feeding on Sweet Prickly Pear, collected from the field (research topic)

Study Abroad is a great way to expose yourself to research in different parts of the world. Every region has their own environmental issues that need to be addressed. There is no better way to learn about an area than to make a positive impact in that community. This study abroad tour has been a life-changing experience for me and I hope to return to South Africa again someday. The beautiful animals and insects we encountered makes me appreciate the diversity of wildlife around the world and how important it is to care for our environment. As a future entomologist or anyone interested in science, this study abroad trip is worth attending. The sunsets are beautiful, the animals are magical, and the people are one of a kind. Once you get bitten by the Africa bug, you will always want to go back again. I know I can’t wait to travel there again in the future!”

Jessica Idle
Natural Resources and Environmental Management
Greater Kruger Park, South Africa, Summer 2017

PEPS 491: African Ecology and Conservation Biology

“If you have the opportunity to study abroad, DO IT. There is no better way to completely immerse yourself in a different culture, a unique environment, or a new way of thinking.

This summer I, and fellow UHM student Michelle Au, participated in the newly created Faculty-Sponsored Study Tour in the Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa.  Dr. Mark Wright, a UHM professor of entomology in the PEPS department, created this program to teach students about African ecology and conservation efforts in the Limpopo region of South Africa.  This program allowed us to gain knowledge through exciting and engaging experiences rather than typical college style classrooms.

While in Balule we stayed in a camp in the heart of the bush. The accommodations include thatched-roof two-person cabins, a shared outdoor bathroom, a covered kitchen, a covered common area (the “lapa”), and a fire pit with which we cooked dinner in every night. While there is Wifi, there are no plug-ins for electronics in camp. Perhaps more astonishing than the lack of electricity, there were no fences. Yes, you read that correctly.  The camp was not only our home for the duration of our stay, it was also the playground for a pride of lions, and an interesting place to munch on some bark (while trampling and knocking over trees) for a curious elephant. While some people may be deterred by this living situation, this is the reality for a lot of people.  I, for one, enjoyed every moment of living in that camp.

There are a few moments of my time in South Africa that remain ingrained in the forefront of my mind: the cheetah sighting; being mock charged by an elephant; laughing with local children while teaching about conservation.  Some of my favorite moments were spent sitting around the campfire sharing stories with people from all over the world.  However, I also witnessed the post-apartheid era of South Africa which has persisting racism, segregation, and poverty.  We saw people rioting for better education programs and watched a failed attempt to democratically oust their corrupt president on the news. These experiences, both joyous and upsetting, caused me to have a more global outlook on life.

With a previous goal of having a career in conservation, I now have a more refined idea of what I would like to do.  I wish to specialize in wildlife management, but also to commit myself to community involvement and advocacy.  From my time spent there, I have learned a lot about South Africa, but also learned more about myself.  Studying abroad allowed me to discover more about who I am, who I want to be, and what I want to do in my lifetime.

I highly suggest study abroad to all students. Not only will you learn about the place that you go to, you will also learn more about yourself.”

Click here for information on the PEPS 491 Study Tour to South Africa during Summer 2018.