Hopkinton students take a science trip to South Africa

One day in early July, Hopkinton High School student Gelson Correa watched as a veterinarian and staff at a game reserve in South Africa dragged a dead zebra behind a truck to lure a four-year-old male lion as close as he could. to hit him with a tranquilizer dart. . The aim was to swap the lion, which lived in the 50,000-hectare reserve with its mother’s pride, with another male lion from another game reserve to encourage genetic diversity and improve the longevity of both prides.

Correa, along with seven other Hopkinton High School students, hung on as the vet tranquilized the lion, but approached it after it was moved to an open area. They watched as the vet collected DNA samples, administered vaccinations and tended to the sleeping lion’s wounds before loading it into a crate on a truck for transport.

“We have to be at the arm’s length of a male lion,” Correa said. “Watching him sleep, he was very elegant in his own way. When he woke up, it was incredible to hear him growl.”

Correa, a 16-year-old rising junior, was one of eight students and two teachers from Hopkinton High School who traveled to South Africa from June 30 to July 7 to study the ecology and wildlife of the land near the National Park. Kruger. Hopkinton science teacher Chris Borg and special services coordinator Holly Charron led the trip, with expert guides Lee Gutteridge and Kersey Lawrence from educational organizations Nature Guide Training and Original Wisdom teaching the students about tracking wildlife.

“We’re not just looking to identify what animal made this track, we’re asking questions about what this animal was doing,” Borg said. “Trying to correlate interactions between animals and even plant communities, looking at how they forage and seeing where they’re coming to get water and at what time. Through a track, you learn all about the ecology of an ecosystem.”

Hopkinton science trips to South Africa began with former teacher Chris Semmens, who led trips in 2015 and 2017, according to Borg, who took over from Semmens and led his first trip in 2019. Borg said going abroad helps students understand the diversity of the planet and gain an appreciation for ecosystems they don’t often see in person. Every Hopkinton High School student is eligible to go on the trip, but Borg said interest has been low enough so far that they haven’t had to go through a formal application process.

Rising 16-year-old Izzy Affenbach initially signed up for the trip because she was interested in traveling to a new country, but soon became interested in learning more about the complexities of politics around conservation and poaching in the region. She said studying Track and Sign – learning how to interpret animal tracks and understand animal behavior – enhanced the trip.

“It’s amazing to look back and realize how much knowledge we had to learn in such a short time,” Affenbach said. “We were able to identify that it wasn’t just a bird track, but ‘oh that’s actually a two-banded sandpiper’ or something, before we even knew what that species was.”

During the two weeks, the students stayed either in tents or in structures at research stations. On a typical day, they would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to the sound of birdsong and go on a bush walk or a game drive to try and spot some of the animals they were learning to track: buffalo, rhinoceros , elephants or lions. . The group returned to camp for a meal and spent the afternoon studying or listening to presentations from guides or guest lecturers from game reserves or nearby organizations talking about conservation biology. Then there was usually free time, followed by an evening game drive to spot more animals, and then dinner and an early bedtime.

β€œThe desert in general is a very humbling experience. The wilderness in a place where there are apex predators is extremely humbling,” Borg said. “It makes people think differently about their place in the universe. The wildlife there is literally in your face, we had encounters every day with some truly incredible megafauna, but also with the little things that run the planet: insects, birds, etc.

Charron, who led team-building exercises with students on the trip, said it offers a level of experiential learning they can’t get from being in the classroom. As part of their lesson, each student studied a specific animal and presented it to their classmates. They made plaster of the animal tracks they found in a river bed. Partway through the trip, the students took a four-hour field exam that measured their skills.

“To learn, you have to do,” Charron said. “Being able to do hands-on things really expands the learning and gives you such a different perspective.”

During their two weeks, the students saw a variety of different animals, including zebras, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, giraffes and hippos. Once, Affenbach recalls, they watched as a whole family of elephants crossed the road in front of them. A herd of impala liked to feed and sleep near their camp, according to Correa, and one night a group of hyenas passed through the camp, and students who were awake in their tents could hear them talking to each other.

Borg is already planning the next trip for 2025.

“Leaving South Africa, one of my main goals is for it to plant a seed in their minds about their place in this world and perhaps ultimately have a greater appreciation for the diversity of our planet beyond humanity,” said Borg. making people, young people, appreciate this planet, because we only have one.”

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