From village girl to veterinary technologist: Tebogo Manamela talks to Lucas Ledwaba about helping to preserve Africa’s heritage and the rewards of working with – and sometimes being attacked by – animals at the Kruger National Park
When most people think of a career in a facility such as the Kruger National Park they tend to think about tourism. How did you end up as a veterinary technologist?
I studied veterinary technology at Tshwane University of Technology and in my third year I was given an opportunity to join SANParks Veterinary Wildlife Services as an intern. It is also known as the game capture department. The main focus in the department is translocation of animals, treatment, involvement in research projects and managing a biological bank, which is the main role of veterinary technologists.
What does a day look like at work for you?
I am not only a veterinary technologist at Veterinary Wildlife Services. On a normal day — and this is what we are busy with at the moment — I will go out with a veterinarian, a pilot and a section ranger for rhino dehorning. On average, 10 to 20 rhinos are immobilised chemically and dehorned. During the immobilisation of each rhino, samples such as blood, tissue, hair, faeces and ticks are collected and kept [in] cool [storage]. After a long day in the field, I can continue in the laboratory to process all the samples collected in the field. This is so that we bank them and they are later used for research purposes.
Is this a male-dominated field or do you have many women colleagues?
In the Kruger [National Park] and in our department, men dominate the work done here but that has not stopped me from enjoying my work. If animals need to be rolled in a certain position, I get involved. It is stressful but enjoyable.
How important is your work in the broader context of nature conservation and the Kruger National Park?
I only joined the organisation in 2013 and as a village girl and someone who studied to work in the laboratory, I had little information about conservation. Poaching has become a menace in the park and Africa as a whole. The rhino as well as the lion populations in the park have decreased tremendously and this is affecting everyone, I believe. My work is important as I get involved in research projects that may involve diseases in animals, treatment of injured animals and being able to give out samples from our biobank mostly for postgraduates working on obtaining their qualifications.
What kind of young girl was Tebogo living in the villages of Limpopo?
I was just a typical village girl who focused on her studies to get to varsity and a little girl who was always dreaming about a good future. I guess my strict parents didn’t give me a choice on that. [laughs] I grew up in a family of seven kids, so they were my only friends, and also because our parents were protecting us. Gender-based violence in villages back then was easily covered up only because of lack of knowledge. So home was the only safe place for us.
Doing this kind of work you are in boots and goggles all the time. How do you relax and take care of yourself?
It’s never easy to relax in my field , we work long hours, especially in winter — as its capture season as it is safer for animals to be immobilised and translocated when it’s cool — and we must also respond to emergencies at all times. To think of it, this is the most difficult question to answer. [Laughs.] I am also a mother of a six-year-old girl and have just completed my MSc so things just got easy for me because I can now visit friends and family without worrying about my work and studies. And I can also get time to enjoy the park when I’m not at work.
What was the one experience on the job that you will not forget?
In 2018, I went to Addo Elephant National Park to assist in buffalo sampling for tuberculosis (TB). I was hit by an adult bull buffalo. The next thing I woke up in hospital with a twisted ankle and had to have my head stitched. I was on crutches for two months and during that period, I thought I would never be able to work with animals again. I was scared to even go out in the field, but as a mother, I had to be strong and think of my career and my daughter.
You are a lifelong learner and have completed your master’s degree. Tell us a bit about your research.
Veterinary research is important on the disease side, as most of these diseases are zoonotic — an infectious disease that is transmitted between animal species to humans or from humans to animals — and a lot of people are not aware. The lion immune system was the main focus of my research. For my study we managed to develop an essay which can be used in the future to increase knowledge on wild felid immunoglobulins. We also managed to confirm the close relation between lions and domestic cats. This work is published and available for researchers interested in the immunology field.
The importance of studying for me is the fact that one must never stop learning. I work with international and national researchers and I must be able to understand their projects and assist them. Learning never ends. I am planning to do my PhD soon, next year if I get funding, and just get involved in research. — Mukurukuru Media