Disease Ecology & Wildlife Management

When:June 8 - July 20, 2024
Where:South Africa
Duration:6 weeks
Credits:Certificate of Completion
Deadline:March 17
Program Guide:
Get Notified When Applications are Open
SKU: U-SA-AEC-2019-1

Program Overview

As global concern around the emergence of zoonotic diseases rises following Covid-19, the links between animal health, human health and environmental health are increasingly recognized. At the interface of public health, livestock health and wildlife conservation in South Africa, reserve managers, scientists and veterinarians are working to understand and control potentially devastating diseases. Understanding the ecology of wildlife and their roles as hosts and reservoirs of disease is crucial for containing future epidemics. Our knowledge of the prevalence and transmission of wildlife diseases has grown substantially over the last decade, with new technology emerging for diagnosing and tracking diseases.

In partnership with South African National Parks, this field-based veterinary research practicum focuses on disease ecology in and around the Greater Kruger National Park. The course is run in partnership with local veterinary scientists and is designed to provide participants with direct insights into current challenges faced by wildlife conservation in South Africa and veterinary health care in resource-poor rural agricultural areas. Interactions with  local veterinarians and extensive experience in practical and theoretical disease research work will be key foci. Land-use change and global climate change could have significant effects on  disease epidemiology across a broad range of taxa. Associated with land use change is a predicted increase in the burden of disease in both domestic animals and indigenous wildlife.

This program is designed to provide participants with training in techniques for monitoring disease in different vertebrate taxa across land-use types. It will also provide field research experience relevant to conservation and make a contribution to long-term epidemiological monitoring. The programs will be run on an annual basis to monitor disease dynamics over time and assess the potential effects of both land-use change and climate change, while providing feedback to decision makers. While  promoting applied  clinical and field skills,  the focus of this practicum is  on the broader ecological, social, and economic context of  animal disease ecology, conservation medicine, and One-Health at the wildlife/livestock interface in an industrializing country. Within the context of climate change, the long-term datasets provided by this practicum will also provide important yardsticks against which we monitor change in disease load over time.



This course aims to give aspiring wildlife ecologists, veterinarians and reserve managers experience in engaging in disease research at the interface of wildlife, human and livestock health. Specifically, it seeks to familiarize participants with the fundamentals of disease ecology and teaches relevant field-skills and diagnostic tools using real-life examples from South Africa. The course will begin with a brief review of the fundamentals of biodiversity conservation, the drivers of change in natural ecosystems in southern Africa, and why a holistic framework for understanding disease dynamics is important. To gain practical experience students will assist in analyzing faunal community data, blood and parasite samples and camera trap images collected from across a land-use gradient. Participants will analyze the data and produce a research paper. Students will work independently on sample evaluation, data analysis and report writing.

Learning outcomes 

  • Understand the importance of environmental health and conservation in managing diseases in protected areas
  • Understand how to capture and sample a variety of wild and domestic vertebrates (including sampling equipment, sample storage and downstream laboratory applications / tests)
  • Understand the important role of animal behavior in understanding and managing wildlife diseases
  • Insight into the challenges of managing diseases common to wildlife and livestock at the interface between protected and farming areas
  • Familiarity with online genomic databases and their applications in disease ecology and diagnostics
  • Scientific writing skills and biostatistical analysis

1. Science and Disease Ecology in an African Context


The course begins in Johannesburg and Pretoria with introductory workshops on the context for animal health in southern Africa, the fundamentals of the challenges facing conservationists and local veterinarians, especially in rural resource-poor areas in a newly industrialized country, as well as the history and culture of South Africa. We will visit the National Zoological Gardens, the Cradle of Humankind and the Onderstepoort Veterinary School.

2. Challenges in Managing Health, Production, and Welfare of Livestock and other Domestic Animals

Kruger National Park and surrounding communities

We will visit and conduct research in the local livestock farming areas to gain insight into some important animal diseases at the wildlife-livestock interface (e.g. rabies and foot-and-mouth disease), associated animal control work, current challenges, and regulatory animal health management. We will collect data on common themes across the land-use gradients. Fieldwork will focus on the impacts of wildlife and livestock on the ecology of the study sites and the diversity of small mammals, and birds inside Kruger Park and in communal rangelands (i.e., areas that have experienced no major anthropogenic landscape alterations but are impacted by livestock grazing and fuelwood collection).

  • Additional work outside protected areas may include, but is not limited to, assisting with regular animal vaccinations, animal disease monitoring, especially parasitological monitoring (e.g. assessing ectoparasite burdens, small mammal haemo-parasites, tick load and tick-borne disease), and limited primary animal healthcare.

3. Conservation Areas: Disease Load in Intact Ecosystems

Skukuza, Kruger National Park

Working in relatively intact ecosystems, we explore disease load in small vertebrates and larger ungulates, comparing data from inside and outside protected areas. Additionally, we take advantage of being in close proximity to SANParks veterinary researchers and game capture in Skukuza. Students may engage in post-culling autopsies, assist in game capture of larger ungulates and megaherbivores, long-term monitoring of small vertebrate disease and parasite load, and faecal sampling.


Students must be in good standing with their home institution, at least 18 years of age, and have a minimum 2.7 GPA. Students applying to the Disease Ecology & Wildlife Management Field Practicum can be undergraduate upperclassmen (3rd or 4th years) or first-year graduate students enrolled in animal science, veterinary, or related programs. Students should have completed at least two semesters of related coursework by the start of the program. If you are unsure if you meet these requirements, please email field.practicum@tropicalstudies.org.

Sites Visited

Johannesburg and Pretoria

You will arrive in Johannesburg where you will spend the first night of the program. The following day, we will visit the Apartheid Museum and/or the Origins Centre to provide an introduction to the recent history of South Africa before traveling to the Pretoria. Here we will visit the Onderstepoort Veterinary Campus and the National Zoological Gardens. At this first site, you will cover the orientation to South Africa and OTS. You will spend time with all of the resident faculty members and get to know all of your fellow participants.

Kruger National Park

The trip from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park will take you through different rural and peri-urban areas of South Africa as we drop off the Drakensberg Escarpment down into the lowveld. We will stop for a break in a town along the way to pick up snacks, cash, and other personal items.  Skukuza is the main camp in the Kruger National Park and houses the headquarters for OTS in South Africa. The Kruger National Park is one of South Africa’s most visited National Parks with over one million visitors each year. Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s largest protected areas and is famous for both its fauna and flora, in particular, the diversity of wildlife. While in Skukuza, you will participate in a variety of research projects.


Program Cost:

6 week program: $6,600 (possible to extend stay for additional cost)

Program cost includes:

  • Room and board
  • Local travel to program sites
  • Participation of many local and international researchers, experts, and professionals

Program cost does not include:

  • International travel
  • Independent travel
  • Incidentals
  • Personal spending

Expected Additional Expenses:

  • International Round-trip Flight $1,500 (approx.)
  • Immunizations $50 (approx.)
  • Additional Food $50 (approx.)
  • Miscellaneous $50 (approx.)

Total Expected Additional Expenses:  $1,650


Liezl Retief, Ph.D.
Ph.D. Zoology, University of Pretoria

Dr. Retief is a disease ecologist originally from Pretoria. She recently completed her Ph.D. in Zoology which investigated the diversity, occurrence, and potential routes of transmission of potentially zoonotic haemoparasites cycling in indigenous and invasive rodents across various environments. Her research interests include understanding the impact of anthropogenic modification on ecosystems, wildlife, livestock, and human health, especially at the wildlife/livestock/human interface. She has a background in molecular biology and enjoys using a multidisciplinary approach, integrating molecular techniques with other methods, to answer conservation, ecological and epidemiological-related questions across a range of taxa (including viruses, bacteria, fungi, ticks, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, crustaceans, reptiles, birds, and mammals). She loves teaching biology and ecology and traveling around South Africa. She is a keen succulent enthusiast!

Laurence Mohr Kruger, Ph.D.
Ph.D. Botany, University of Cape Town

Dr. Kruger is the Director of Curriculum for OTS and is based in Skukuza, Kruger National Park. His primary interests lie in functional ecology and how species response to disturbance. His interests lie specifically on the demography of woody plants in a variety of South Africa biomes, the bottlenecks imposed in each system, and which traits are critical in overcoming them. During his Ph.D., Dr. Kruger focused on the importance of re-sprouting in South African coastal forests, fynbos, and savannas. His current work is focused on the impact that elephants and fire have on savannas and how resilient plants and communities might be in response to this disturbance. Allied to this is work on the impact of the loss of vegetation complexity on resident faunal communities. A large portion of Dr. Kruger’s private consulting work has been in the field of conservation, in particular conservation planning. This work has included surveys of natural habitats (biodiversity surveys), identifying the threats (development, habitat transformation, alien vegetation/faunal invasives), and the setting of conservation targets. This work has provided him with the opportunity to become more actively involved in conservation while still engaging on a theoretical level.

Born into a family of biologists and humanitarians, Dr. Kruger has followed his passion for both by running field based, experiential learning programs in and around South Africa. Given the challenges facing education institutions (lack of resources, limited access to the field) and the barriers to education many students face, he sees OTS’ goal to be the dismantling of these obstacles.

In delivering life-changing, academically rigorous field courses, Dr. Kruger aims for OTS programs to provide experiences that allow for growth in aspirations for students and academics alike. He feels strongly that we need to rethink our role in society and return our focus to humanity, rather than self-actualization, and how we could contribute to others. Aside from focusing on quality, integrity, and creativity, Dr. Kruger has found that the single most important ingredient in education is to have fun.


Housing & Meals

Housing varies with each site. Students will be accommodated in rooms of two to six persons. All meals are provided by our travelling caterers. Provision is made for all dietary requirements, and meals includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner. During field days, a packed lunch will be provided. Any personal snacks and drinks are the responsibility of students.


Passport & Visa Information

You must have a valid passport, and it must not expire for at least six months after the end date of the program. Most students will receive a 90-day tourist visa when entering the country, which will cover you for the length of the program. If you are not a U.S. citizen, please contact us and the South African Consulate to learn what will be required to receive your visa.


Health & Safety

OTS is deeply committed to student safety and well-being. We do not expose students to unnecessary danger or risk. We monitor national and international events that might affect our students. Five decades of risk assessment, emergency response, and crisis resolution have enabled OTS to maximize student safety and security. All students are required to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, and participate in an onsite orientation program upon arrival in South Africa. For our most current safety information, contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at field.practicum@tropicalstudies.org.