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Finding the Big Five: HPU Students Research Exotic Animal Behavior in South Africa

Posted on May 23, 2013.
Gambel, Ariel Arnold and Kaitlin Scanlon met many children from a village in Swaziland during their journey.

Gambel, Ariel Arnold and Kaitlin Scanlon met many children from a village in Swaziland during their journey.

HIGH POINT, N.C., May 23, 2013 – Several time zones away from the United States, textbook theories and knowledge acquired in the classroom are coming to life for junior Elizabeth Gambel through encounters with giraffes, hyenas and African elephants.

Gambel is one of 161 High Point University students in 10 classes traveling the globe through “Maymesters” – short-term study abroad programs that put students in the middle of the topic at hand.

Students are pictured with a giant termite mound in South Africa.

Students are pictured with a giant termite mound in South Africa.

The animal behavior psychology course consists of 15 students and two faculty members visiting South Africa and Swaziland for the month of May. During the spring semester, the class has focused on exotic animal behavior such as herd mentality, mating practices, territorialism and matriarchal and patriarchal systems. They also encountered the “Big Five,” the most dangerous animals to hunt in South Africa and a group of animals that’s rare to spot in the wild during a single visit.

Junior Elizabeth Gambel is pictured with an African elephant during a trip to Elephant Whispers in Mpumalanga. The organization rescues elephants and trains them for educational purposes.

Junior Elizabeth Gambel is pictured with an African elephant during a trip to Elephant Whispers in Mpumalanga. The organization rescues elephants and trains them for educational purposes.

The “Big Five” includes a lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.

“Going to South Africa has always been a dream of mine,” says Gambel. “I love animals and aspire to be a vet, so this opportunity is the chance of a lifetime for me to study the behavior of the exotic animals that are only found in this region.”

In addition to the field observations, students explored South African culture by visiting the Shangaan village and dancing with tribe members. They also shared songs and dance at the Women’s Co-Op, a center for African women who are in desperate situations and struggling to make a living. Many of the women are single mothers, women who have volunteered to take care of their relatives’ children or women who are living with HIV/Aids.

“There is no better way to truly understand wild behavior then to experience first-hand the dynamic interplay between flora (plants) and fauna (animals),” says Dr. Joanne Altman, director of undergraduate research and creative works, who is accompanying students on the trip. “It is exciting to see the students develop a passion for what they are learning and a desire to make a difference in the world.”

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