Senior wildlife science major Stephen Perkins of Altavista, Va., experienced a unique and exciting opportunity during the summer of 2012. As the first-ever intern for a nonprofit conservation organization called Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) in southern Africa, he encountered tribal chiefs, exotic foods, an annoyed cobra, and some terrifying attention from an AK-47-bearing border guard.

“I entered a place where everything was novel to me — the languages, food, culture, spiritual world, and landscape,” Perkins said. “My curiosity was constantly engaged. It was the experience of a lifetime.”

Perkins spent the summer interviewing former wildlife poachers near Zambia’s North Luangwa and South Luangwa national parks, two of Africa’s prime wildlife
sanctuaries. His main task was to document — through sound, video, and print — the stories of ex-poachers who used COMACO’s program to develop sustainable careers. The organization, which found that people poached because they didn’t have skills to make a decent living and feed their families, now trains and provides start-up resources to poachers who surrender their guns and snares.

“Fewer animals are killed,” remarked Perkins. “Elephant numbers are up — so are hartebeests, zebras, and other animals. I interviewed poachers who are raising poultry, goats, or bees, growing soybeans or maize, making furniture, blacksmithing, and running fish farms.”

Poaching is a risky, dangerous occupation. Perkins said he could often identify the village poachers by their wounds. “If they used a homemade muzzle-loading gun made from scraps of wood and metal, they often have eye or head injuries from backfires,” he explained. “They all tell stories of friends killed by game wardens or lions, snakes, or other animals.”

Perkins, who found out about COMACO through his participation in Virginia Tech’s first University Honors Presidential Global Scholars program last spring, plans to do graduate studies in behavioral research with primates, and knows he will be working abroad again. “A big reason I chose wildlife science as a major was because I knew it would allow me to work essentially anywhere in the world,” he says. “The more exotic, the better.”