The wild frontier of study

June 2, 2006

Dylan Prentice, , a research student, lives for free on the Nitani Private Game Reserve in Botswana and has time to carry out his research. In return, he acts as an expert ranger and runs the ten-bed lodge. It's an increasingly common arrangement.

Prentice, an honours graduate of the University of Pretoria, is studying for a masters degree through the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

The southern African bush is not only teeming with wildlife, but with researchers from across the planet. "At conferences these days, lots of students stand up and speak with a French accent," says Bruce Page, a lecturer at the School of Biological and Conservation Sciences at UKZN, Prentice's co-supervisor and a well-known elephant expert.

While there are large numbers of conservation students in Europe, there is not always that much nature to study, so after graduating many head for Africa - especially South Africa, which combines vast wilderness with solid academic support and infrastructure at its research universities. There has been a steep rise in the number of international studen ts coming to South Africa, and conservation and environmental studies is a growth area.

The pattern, says Page, is for postgraduate foreign students to be registered at home universities, to be co-supervised by senior local academics while undertaking research in South Africa, and to write up their theses back home. But others undertake the full degree in South Africa.

At UKZN, a five-campus 40,000-student research university, there are some 80 lecturers and tutors in the School of Biological and Conservation Sciences. Page and his colleague Rob Slotow in the biology department at Durban campus, have up to five postgraduate foreign students at any time - from the US, Germany, Holland, Canada and France. International student numbers have been accelerating in the past six or seven years.

At the University of Cape Town, the MPhil in environmental management, which has been running for 32 years, has also seen a dramatic rise in foreign postgraduate enrolments.

Out of 12 students in the graduating class of December 2005, there were four Canadians, one American, one Australian, one Sri Lankan and one student from Lesotho. The reason, says Richard Hill, the programme's convener, is not only Cape Town's international recognition, competitive fees or "the mountain and great surfing", but also growth of work in the field of environmental management.

According to Norman Owen-Smith, professor at the animal, plant and environmental sciences department at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South African universities and game reserves offer foreign researchers "excellent bases for research and guaranteed long-term support, which doesn't happen in many other African countries".

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