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Kathleen Alexander

Protect & Serve

Research and outreach efforts in Botswana attract presidential attention

Botswana needs institutions like the Centre for Conservation of African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL) that conduct research on issues that affect the country and its people. 

This was the assessment of the nation’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, after touring the organization’s 42-acre site and meeting with its co-founder Kathleen Alexander, a professor of wildlife in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

The president and first lady Neo Masisi 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 said 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 country in southern Africa.

“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 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 hosing 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 for Outreach and International Affairs. “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.”

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.

Botswana is home to the world’s largest population of elephants, with some estimates putting the numbers at more than a third of Africa’s total.

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

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

The craft center, built on CARACAL property, provides an important haven for these women. Another project is focused on assisting vulnerable women, as well as the community as a whole, through the sale, repair, and maintenance of bicycles. 

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 1,000 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.”