The challenges and joys of ZSL's Wild Animal Biology Master’s degree

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Recent masters graduate Hannah Klair writes about the experiences, challenges and joys of being part of ZSL's  Wild Animal Biology Master’s degree.

When people ask me what my masters is in, judging by their reaction, no one ever expects the answer to be Wild Animal Biology. I applied to do this masters because of its partnership with ZSL. I felt that it offered extraordinary teaching and practical opportunities, both within the zoo and with its affiliated organisations, and to be a part of the research at this institution was not something I could pass on. Having completed the masters last week, I can safely say that my expectations were exceeded in all aspects of the course. 

Group photo of the 2018 Masters students
All of the ZSL masters students who have graduated in 2018 from the Wild Animal Health and Wild Animal Biology courses

The practical element of this degree has been phenomenal. As a biologist, at undergraduate my hands-on experience with animals was fairly minimal, whereas the story could not be more different this year. For starters, the initial classes learning how to undertake a post mortem examination of a fox and a swan were fascinating. These techniques were then applied throughout the year, when we worked alongside different teams at the institute to aid in post mortem examinations of zoo animals and wildlife, which is an opportunity like no other. Personally, my favourite post mortem was of a harbour porpoise, since this was a unique chance to be able to see one up close, examine it internally and try to determine cause of death, and to be a part of the wider investigation into the UK’s stranded cetaceans was incredible. We also had practicals learning how to handle raptors and restrain juvenile seals, which, although are adorable, I discovered are a lot stronger than they look. Additionally, being able to be on placement with the zoo keepers, where I got to help feed my favourite animals at the zoo, the African Wild Dogs, is definitely something I will never forget.

Dominic Jermey handing Hannah Klair her award
Hannah Klair receiving her award from Director General Dominic Jermey for highest aggregate mark and best research project on MSc Wild Animal Biology

This year has not been all play, and these practical components have been balanced with teaching from world-renowned experts in their respective fields. To be taught by these exceptional people, both those from within ZSL and IoZ and guest speakers, is not something I would ever take for granted. There is something thrilling about being taught by the those who I have spent my years of higher education citing in my academic work. The course content has well and truly covered everything, from Amur tiger conservation in Russia, to the health of tropical reef ecosystems, medical interventions in marine mammals, amphibian reintroduction, pharmacology and primate retroviruses. That list barely scratches the surface of everything we have learned. With excellent teaching comes a wealth of assignments, at times we had submissions every fortnight, which certainly enhanced my ability to manage my time, but became a welcome opportunity to practice scientific writing, presentation skills and producing posters.

The final semester of this year has been filled solely with my research project. I was lucky enough to be able to work alongside Raj Amin, Tim Wacher and Tom Bruce who were all fantastic supervisors, and having had a tumultuous journey initially securing a project, I was so grateful to work on this research with them. My project aimed to describe a method of combining the theory of distance sampling (to gain an estimate of population density) with camera trap data. This has been previously described for video footage, and so we adapted the method to apply it to photographs collected from camera traps, working on a sample population of forest antelope in the Dja Biosphere in Cameroon. I spent three months working on my research in the Conservation Programme offices, sitting with the African Conservation team, who were wholly welcoming and kept me in constant supply of baked goods and laughter, and made the process of writing a research paper a lot less stressful.

Example of a photo of a blue duiker with distance bands marked in coloured dots and reference lengths written alongside
Figure 1d. Example of a photo of a blue duiker with distance bands marked in coloured dots and reference lengths written alongside. The feet, below the midpoint of the body, fall between 2 and 3m and so this is the distance band it is categorised in

This past year has been enthralling, challenging and astoundingly diverse. Thankfully, a year of hard-work has paid off and I am graduating with a distinction, which I still can barely believe. I would have never managed to achieve this without the continual support of staff from the IoZ and ZSL and all my classmates who supplied me with encouragement from day one. Applying for this course is honestly one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I hate that its over already.

Find out more about the MSc in Wild Animal Biology

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