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Tagging elephants was just the beginning
Jamie Sherman may never again be able to watch Disney’s “The Lion King” in quite the same way. Not after having an opportunity to live her dream—seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing and experiencing the daily circle of life in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Sherman, a senior biology major in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, spent six of the past 12 months learning about the diverse South African ecosystem and conservation efforts; working with Kruger National Park scientists to tag lions, buffalo, elephants and rhinos; and gathering data for her own research on the park’s lion population for her Honors Capstone Project.
“I’ve had the most incredible experiences in my life,” Sherman says. “I worked every day with the park veterinarians and went to areas of the park few people get a chance to experience. I saw an abundance of wildlife in its natural habitat—hippos, giraffes, leopards, baboons, hyenas—it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Sherman’s adventure started more than a year ago, when she began to look at available options for studying abroad. She has aspired to be a veterinarian since her freshman year in high school and wanted a study-abroad experience that would reflect her interests in animals and fulfill some of the requirements for her major. She found the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), which offers undergraduate and graduate programs in Costa Rica and at Kruger National Park. OTS, of which SU is a member institution, is a nonprofit consortium that includes 63 universities and research institutions from the United States, Latin America and Australia.
The semester-long program at Kruger National Park includes field research, cultural experiences and excursions to diverse habitats both within the park and in the surrounding area. Sherman spent the Fall 2008 semester at Kruger. While there, she decided that her Honors Capstone Project would somehow reflect what she was learning and began to explore research options with the Kruger faculty.
“All it took was going up to someone and asking,” Sherman says. “The worst they could say was no; but what I got was this incredible opportunity to work with them on a research project.”
Working with Laurence Möhr Kruger, OTS professor and program director, and her SU advisor, biology professor Mark Ritchie, Sherman designed a project in which she would analyze the levels of infection of the Babesia parasite in a sample of 60 lions. The outcome may help park veterinarians determine whether lions with higher levels of Babesia infection are more vulnerable to contracting feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or bovine tuberculosis (bTb).
Babesia is a non-fatal infection, transmitted by ticks, that is commonly found in Kruger’s lion population. FIV is generally not fatal in lions when contracted by itself, while bTb is fatal, but it generally takes more than two years before lions show any symptoms. It is not known whether the combination of Babesia with FIV increases mortality, or whether it speeds the disease process when combined with bTb. Sherman’s study may shed light on that question.
Sherman spent the Spring 2009 semester on campus trying to secure funding to support her research and a return trip to Kruger. After being awarded a Crown Scholarship through the Reneé Crown University Honors Program, she returned to Kruger in May 2009 and spent the next two months working directly with veterinarians on her project, as well as on a variety of other projects, one of which was to capture and relocate some 300 rhinos between May and September.
This semester, Sherman will work with associate professor of biology Ramesh Raina to analyze DNA samples from her study population for levels of Babesia infection using specialized equipment that is available in his laboratory. The results will be combined with existing data on the rate of FIV and bTb infection in the sample population.
“It’s important for the veterinarians to have a better understanding of the interaction of different pathogens in the lion population,” Sherman says. “This study will hopefully provide some answers. It is really exciting to have an opportunity to make a positive contribution to the project.”