One day in early July, Hopkinton high school student Gelson Correa watched as a veterinarian and employees of a South African game reserve dragged a dead zebra behind a truck to lure a four-year-old male lion close enough to hit him with a tranquilizer dart . The goal was to swap the lion, who lived on the 50,000-acre reserve with his mother’s pride, with another male lion from a different game reserve to encourage genetic diversity and improve the longevity of both prides.
Correa, along with seven other Hopkinton High School students, hung back as the vet sedated the lion but came nearer after they moved it into an open area. They watched as the vet collected DNA samples, administered vaccines and tended to the wounds of the sleeping lion before loading him into a crate on a truck for transportation.
“We got to be within 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 Kruger National Park. Hopkinton science teacher Chris Borg and special services coordinator Holly Charron led the trip, with expert guides Lee Gutteridge and Kersey Lawrence from the education organizations Nature Guide Training and Original Wisdom, who taught the students about wildlife tracking.
“We’re not just looking at identifying what animal made this track, we’re asking questions about what was this animal doing,” Borg said. “Trying to connect interactions among animals and even the plant communities, looking at how they forage and looking at where they’re coming to get water and at what times. Through a track, you learn all things about the ecology of an ecosystem.”
The Hopkinton science trips to South Africa originated 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 get 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 do an official application process.
Rising junior Izzy Affenbach, 16, initially signed up for the trip because she was interested in traveling to a new place, but quickly became interested in learning more about the complexity of the 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 amount of time,” Affenbach said. “We were able to identify it’s not just a bird track, but ‘oh that’s actually a double-banded sandgrouse’ or something, before not even knowing what that species was.”
Throughout 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 am to the sound of birdsong and set off on a bushwalk or a game drive to try and spot some of the animals they were learning to track: buffalos, rhinoceroses, elephants or lions . The group would return to camp for a meal, and spend the afternoon studying or listening to presentations from the guides or guest lecturers from the game reserves or nearby organizations who spoke 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.
“Wilderness in general is a very humbling experience. Wilderness in a place where there’s apex predators is extraordinarily humbling,” Borg said. “It makes people think differently about their place in the universe. Wildlife there is literally in your face, we had encounters on a daily basis with some really incredible megafauna, but also with the small things that run the planet: insects, birds, et cetera.”
Charron, who led team-building exercises with the students on the trip, said it was offered a level of experiential learning they can’t get from being in a classroom. As part of their learning, each student studied a specific animal and presented about it to their classmates. They made plaster casts of animal tracks they found in a riverbed. Partway through the trip, the students took a four-hour Track and Sign field examination that measured their abilities.
“In order to learn you have to do,” Charron said. “The opportunity to actually do hands-on things blows learning up and gives you such a different perspective.”
Over the course of their two weeks, the students saw a variety of diverse animals including zebras, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, giraffes and hippos. One time, Affenbach recalls, they watched as a whole family of elephants cross 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 came through camp, and the students who were awake in their tents could hear them conversing with one another.
Borg is already planning the next trip for 2025.
“Leaving South Africa, one of my primary goals is that it plants a seed within their mind about their place in this world, and perhaps ultimately have a greater appreciation for the diversity of our planet beyond humanity,” Borg said.”It’s all about getting people, young people to appreciate this planet, because we’ve got only one.”