For nearly 30 years, William E. Lavery Professor Kathleen Alexander has helped to make towns and villages in northern Botswana a place of convergence, where ecological research in one of the most dynamic natural environments on the planet meets the human dimensions of a rapidly changing world.

Alexander, a professor of wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, co-founded the Centre for African Resources, Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL) in 2001. The nonprofit, located at the edge of Chobe National Park, aims to promote conservation efforts in the region while improving the livelihoods of people through outreach and education efforts.

This approach has allowed Alexander to consider research through a holistic framework that balances positive conservation outcomes with strengthened communities.

“We focus on understanding the challenges that face communities within the context of coupled natural-human systems,” said Alexander. “We work together with communities and governments to develop solutions that recognize the realities they face, asking what is feasible for them now and in the future.”

One such long-standing and ongoing partnership has been with Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi and first lady Neo Masisi, who visited CARACAL in 2019. Alexander will again have the chance to update Masisi on her work in Botswana when he and his delegation meet with Virginia Tech President Tim Sands on the Blacksburg campus on Tuesday. 

Alexander joined Virginia Tech in 2007 and has built a career defined by numerous awards while earning a global reputation for her excellence in teaching, international outreach, and expanding research frontiers.

“Professor Alexander’s decision to anchor her fieldwork in Africa has proven impactful in ways beyond the typical measures of scholarship and success,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college. “Leading a competitive research program while maintaining significant field resources in Botswana has required a significant effort. The impacts of her work on the scientific community and the social, political, and environmental networks of Botswana and beyond are a testament to her vision, passion, and commitment to a better world.”

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Understanding wildlife disease impacts and connections

Alexander, a wildlife veterinarian, is internationally recognized as an expert in disease emergence at the nexus of human, wildlife, and environmental interactions. A faculty member in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, her research has focused on the dynamics of zoonotic disease spread, challenges of antibiotic resistance, improvements to water quality, and community adaptations and livelihood strategies in rural regions.

In 2010, Alexander identified a novel tuberculosis pathogen closely related to human tuberculosis that infects mongoose species in Botswana, and she has since worked to understand how landscape factors and increasing urbanization can impact animal behavior and disease emergence and spread, including foodborne disease and antimicrobial resistance. She also has compiled more than three decades of data on diarrheal disease outbreaks in Botswana, which have helped clarify the relationship that climate change will have on water quality and human health outcomes.

Alexander works at the border between increasingly urbanizing villages and one of the most diverse ecological habitats on the planet. She has used satellite and remote sensing data to better understand the movements of charismatic species such as African elephants, buffalo, wild dogs, and lions to develop strategies that will protect ecosystems at risk, while promoting co-existence and economic empowerment of communities that live adjacent to conservation areas.

“Community involvement and benefit sharing in natural resource management is a high priority for the government of Botswana,” said Alexander, an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens. “Poverty and wildlife conflict in these biodiversity rich regions remains a serious challenge to Botswana’s conservation initiatives, as well as their aspirations for the economic development of vulnerable rural populations.”

Fostering community while providing learning opportunities

For Alexander, conducting research on wildlife and conservation goes hand-in-hand with a consideration of the communities where she works and the educational opportunities that arise from being in Botswana.

In response to the AIDS epidemic, Alexander established small business enterprises to help vulnerable women in Botswana, allowing them to earn a living while caring for dependent relatives. When COVID-19 hit, she was appointed as an advisor to the Botswana Presidential Task Force. She has worked closely with government officials and ministries as well as local community leaders to improve rural livelihoods while securing healthy ecosystems throughout Africa.

As an educator, Alexander has strived to foster learning opportunities for Hokies in Botswana through experiential co-learning opportunities that give Virginia Tech students the chance to learn alongside Botswana citizens and government officers.

A group of people stand around a Virginia Tech flag. Two people on the right side are holding a honey badger.
Virginia Tech undergraduate and graduate students and CARACAL staff gather for a group shot with Badgey, CARACAL’s resident honey badger, held by Kathleen Alexander (at right, in black). Photo courtesy of Kathleen Alexander.

Virginia Tech students come to Botswana almost every year to participate in Alexander’s eight-week field course, Wildlife Health Immersion in Africa: Capture, Rehabilitation, and Forensics. Additionally, numerous professors and graduate students have used the CARACAL facility to conduct research in the region.

Alexander has also brought African American high school students to Botswana to work with local students and researchers while learning about wildlife conservation efforts in Africa. With funding from a National Science Foundation grant aimed at encouraging minority student participation in the biological sciences, Alexander expects to host a third group of high school students at CARACAL this year.

“If a student has only ever been in a classroom, how do they know where they want to go next?” said Alexander. “An experience like this one is valuable in that it helps students answer that question more effectively while recognizing the importance of service.”

In Botswana, Alexander founded the Virginia Tech/CARACAL Community Environmental Educators Program, a joint initiative which trains young people across 13 schools in the district to work as environmental educators and present on wildlife research and public health initiatives to local primary schools. She also launched a Wildlife Ambassadors Program to encourage young students to be environmental advocates in their schools, encouraging leadership in conservation.

“We can create a new culture of conservation by allowing young people to have power and a leadership role in environmental advocacy,” Alexander said. “We need to transform the educational process and allow confidence to be built alongside knowledge if we are going to realize true diversity in the sciences.”

Bringing a One Health perspective to conservation challenges

Alexander’s work in Botswana is grounded in the One Health concept, which aims to integrate multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally to attain optimal health for people, animals, and the environment.

“Dr. Alexander’s work with government and community leaders in Botswana is unparalleled,” said Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs. “Her study abroad programs and research projects have allowed students to learn that research and education in the developing world are complex and multifactorial. She is preparing the next generation of citizen scientists to embrace and thrive in a complex and globally interdependent world.”

For Alexander, the relationship between the research that scientists do and the ways that knowledge has the power to change lives and transform the world is crucial to the relationship between Virginia Tech and Botswana.

“The Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) mandate really speaks to me,” Alexander said. “Through the program in Botswana, Virginia Tech students and faculty are able to collaborate on and contribute to the many challenges confronting the global landscape.”

Related stories:

Kathleen Alexander named William E. Lavery Professor

Mongoose in the city: How landscape can impact disease transmission in Botswana

Tackling the challenges of wildlife field work and breaking trail for an expanded Virginia Tech footprint in Africa

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