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Study-abroad course benefiting range students

Students are getting a first-hand look at a diversified scale of rangeland and wildlife activities in southern Africa as part of an ecosystem management study-abroad course at Texas A&M University.

Since 2002, Dr. Urs Kreuter, a Texas AgriLife Research rangeland scientist and professor at Texas A&M, has taken five classes averaging about 16 students each to South Africa, giving them the opportunity to "experience biodiversity conservation and nature tourism in a developing country."

"Biodiversity conservation is conservation of ecosystems with a high-level of species richness," Kreuter explained. "Why focus on biodiversity? Some people think conservation can be achieved by simply focusing on protected areas, but the fact of the matter is diversity is not restricted to hot spots; it happens everywhere."

In 2009, the four-week course will take place in northeastern South Africa and northern Botswana. The first part of the course will focus on the semi-arid savannas of the Greater Limpopo Trans-frontier Conservation area. It includes visits to the Kruger National Park, adjacent communities and landowners to "understand how three-land tenure systems interact in large-scale biodiversity conservation," Kreuter said.

In Botswana, the trip will focus on the Okavango swamps and the surrounding conservation areas and adjacent communities, he said. This part will focus on cross-border issues that affect the continued delivery of annual flood water to this world-renowned wetland and the tourism industry and local communities that depend on it.

"In Africa, it is particularly important to think about impoverished communities that coexist with or live near wildlife if conservation is to be successful," Kreuter said. "It is critical to simultaneously consider the ecological and human dimensions of conservation. What's also important is the link between public-protected areas, private land and communal land (state owned). Ecotourism has tremendous economic potential, and the people benefit from the wildlife diversity."

Elephants as well as other big-five animals and antelopes are part of the southern African experience. In the Kruger National Park, large elephant populations are directly threatening the habitats of other species, especially browsers and birds that depend on large trees. The ground hornbill, for example, is an endangered species that is being directly affected by overabundant elephants.

"There are now in excess of 14,000 elephants in the Kruger that knock down trees with hollows in which the ground hornbill nest," Kreuter said. "Park managers have scientifically tried many methods to reduce the elephant populations, including birth control, but the only option to maintain elephant populations seems to be highly unpopular culling."

Students learn about such complex biological and natural resource management issues as well as issues affecting communities and write case studies about them while they are traveling. Other class requirements include presenting a seminar on an approved topic, producing a group report on an assigned topic relating to biodiversity and nature-based tourism in southern Africa, and submitting a detailed travel log of the tour.

Jim Buck is one of Kreuter's student success stories. Buck came to Texas A&M University in 1963, but wasn't able to return and finish his degree until 2001. Buck, now a successful retiree in the northeast, was so intrigued after his South African experience in 2002 that he has returned repeatedly using his own funds to help drill new water wells in an underprivileged community of about 9,000.

"That's a big success story," Kreuter said. "He goes back every year to help them build new water wells and do community enhancement."

Buck now also serves as an Aggie field guide and speaker on the annual student trips.

For more information about the study abroad program, visit http://studyabroad.tamu.edu/programs/south_africa.asp?id=43.

Editor's Note: The following is an at-a-glance look at the ecosystem management study-abroad course:

--Biodiversity Conservation and Nature Tourism in Southern Africa is a study-abroad course giving undergraduate students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with biodiversity conservation and nature tourism in South Africa.

--The geographic focus is on South Africa and Botswana. The course is targeted at junior and senior undergraduate students.

--The program is conducted primarily through a field trip to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities in two eco-regions of Southern Africa: Semi-arid savannas and wetlands.

--The next study abroad trip to South Africa is scheduled May 30 to June 28.

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