Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi and first lady Neo Masisi visited Professor Kathleen Alexander’s research program at the Centre for Conservation of African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL) in northern Botswana in mid-December.

The couple toured the organization’s 42-acre site with Alexander and met with research staff, educators, and animal care personnel to discuss the program’s focus on improving health outcomes and livelihoods of communities and sustainably managing the natural ecosystems on which they depend.

Alexander, co-founder of CARACAL and professor of wildlife in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, said that the president’s visit was a special honor, recognizing the research and outreach efforts between Virginia Tech and CARACAL, a partnership focused on contributing to the needs of this southern African country.

“His Excellency, Dr. Masisi, is deeply committed to assisting communities and ensuring that wildlife and ecosystems are protected and managed sustainably,” Alexander said. “To this end, we discussed our research, outreach, and engagement mission — from understanding water quality and diarrheal disease impacts on children to the sustainable management of wildlife and community engagement in this process.”

The nonprofit organization CARACAL is dedicated to protecting wildlife and improving the livelihoods of communities through outreach projects, animal conservation efforts, and research aimed at securing a sustainable future. The site, which includes research facilities, student accommodations and dining facilities, and a wildlife rescue center, serves as a base for Alexander’s extensive work in the country and provides unique opportunities for Virginia Tech students involved in both research projects and outreach efforts.

“Dr. Alexander’s research and community engagement work in Botswana exemplifies globalizing the university’s motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) in the 21st century,” said Guru Ghosh, vice president of Outreach and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. “Her research in the area of One Health in serving the animal and human kingdoms in southern Africa is second to none. Kathy’s scholarship and teaching embrace the aspirations of Virginia Tech as a global land-grant institution that provides powerful and transformational experiential experiences to its students in a global context.”

Alexander noted that President Masisi, who served as Botswana’s minister of education prior to taking office, is particularly supportive of the kind of on-the-ground integrated research and outreach conducted at CARACAL.

“A unique aspect of the Botswana government is its willingness to consider and engage evidence-based recommendations,” Alexander said. “It was a humbling experience to have His Excellency visit us.”

While CARACAL does extensive work in wildlife research and rescue, the president and first lady expressed particular interest in the CARACAL and Virginia Tech projects aimed at addressing rural poverty and the challenges of educational access for young people in Botswana.

One program that Alexander discussed was the Women’s Craft Center, established so that impoverished women could display and sell handcrafted goods to empower female-headed households in the country’s Chobe District.

“Female-headed households make up more than half of the households in this district,” Alexander noted. “It’s a significant challenge because these families tend to have less money, cattle, and other resources, and are more susceptible to environmental shocks.”

President and first lady of Botswana tour center
Kathleen Alexander, left, and Botswana first lady Neo Masisi, right, talk with women at the center's on-site craft center.

The craft center, built on CARACAL property, provides an important haven for these women. Another project located on-site is focused on assisting vulnerable women, as well as the community as a whole, through the sale, repair, and maintenance of bicycles, which provide safe and reliable transportation. This project is operated in collaboration with the philanthropy arm of Sanctuary Retreats.

President Masisi also met with Botswana youth working as educational interns in the conservation education program, a collaboration between CARACAL, Virginia Tech, and the Chobe Regional Education Office that is supported by awards Alexander received from the National Science Foundation. Operational in 12 schools across the Chobe District, the program reaches more than a thousand children a week.

“This program is two-tiered in its educational focus,” Alexander said. “Unemployed youth are hired as teacher interns, working with children in their own villages, fostering inspiration for the kids looking up to older youth who are now teachers at their schools. And second, it addresses a problem that is pervasive across many communities in Africa, where students are challenged to learn in languages that aren’t their mother tongue. This program is an exciting opportunity to contribute positively to the educational system here and help transform it in a way that makes STEM education a possibility in areas where language differences may present a barrier to learning.”

Alexander’s Wildlife Ambassadors Program seeks to increase advocacy for environmental issues by helping foster a new generation of student conservationists. Students from schools across Botswana, who are selected for the program each year through an essay competition, are tasked with working with their classmates and school boards to understand issues relevant to wildlife and environmental conservation.

President Masisi toured CARACAL’s wildlife rescue center, which cares for injured and rescued animals. The center, which counts assorted snakes, birds, civets, honey badgers, and a caracal (wild cat) among its residents, serves a crucial educational role encouraging wildlife stewardship and conservation of Botswana’s natural resources.

“We have a wonderful diversity of wildlife in this area, but many people in the Chobe District generally have a negative view of that wildlife,” Alexander explained. “So how do you change  perceptions? How do you encourage ownership and value for the natural resources in the area?

“I believe you have to cultivate a sense of wonder and enjoyment rather than fear,” she continued. “That’s a big part of the work we do at our wildlife center. We have students come and hold snakes and interact with animals, and they leave CARACAL changed by the experience.”

Alexander, a faculty member in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation who is also affiliated with the Fralin Life Science Institute, views the community and educational programs established by CARACAL as an extension of Virginia Tech’s commitment to service.

“It’s amazing to be able to take the guiding principle at Virginia Tech and bring it to Botswana,” Alexander said. “The work that Virginia Tech and CARACAL are doing here demonstrates our vision that research is service. I am excited to be able to contribute in some small way to the efforts of President Masisi and the Botswana government as they seek to conserve natural resources and strengthen the health and livelihoods of communities living in these regions.”

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