Virginia Tech President Tim Sands traveled to Botswana to meet with His Excellency Eric Mokgweetsi Keabetswe Masisi, the president of the Republic of Botswana, and Her Excellency Neo Masisi in October to further collaborative partnerships between the Botswana government and Virginia Tech.

Sands, the first president to travel to Africa as a representative of Virginia Tech, was on hand to participate in the groundbreaking of a new wildlife forensic center, forging a collaboration with the Botswana government, which has been a leader in conservation efforts in Africa. The collaboration will enable the development of future  programs to combat illegal trafficking of wildlife, critical research projects aimed at reducing the spread of zoonotic diseases, and other efforts to address critical conservation, health, and security challenges that are affecting sub-Saharan Africa.

Funded by a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the forensic wildlife center will expand the research and development work of Kathleen Alexander, the William E. Lavery Professor in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment and founder of the Centre for African Resources, Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL).

The Masisis were joined at the Oct. 31 groundbreaking ceremony by U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Botswana Howard A. Van Vranken and Botswana Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Goitsemang Morekesi. The delegation from Virginia Tech included Sands, Alexander,  Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke, and Vice President for Outreach and International Affairs Guru Ghosh.

In his comments at the event, Sands said the university supports and shares Botswana’s commitment to playing a leadership role in fostering conservation, democracy, and sustainable development throughout Africa.

“Virginia Tech and the government of the Republic of Botswana bring complementary strengths, resources, and capabilities together as we pursue a shared goal to make a difference for our communities, our countries, and our world,” said Sands. “Today, we are laying the foundation for a place where our visions intersect.”

Masisi, who became the first international head of state to speak at Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus when he visited last March, said Virginia Tech would be a key partner in advancing stewardship aims in Botswana.

“Today, we are gathered here for a momentous occasion that marks a significant step in our commitment to safeguarding the rich biodiversity and natural resources that this great republic is endowed with,” Masisi said. “This collaborative effort is a desire for us to join forces to secure human health and counter natural and man-made threats to our citizens, natural assets, agricultural resources, and economies through strategic, complementary partnerships as well as evidence-based operations.”

The U.S. government has partnered with Botswana on a number of global priorities focused on the protection of wildlife and endangered ecosystems in the region as well as ensuring the health and well-being of the people of Botswana.

“Sustainable management of Botswana’s natural resources is not only a critical conservation goal,” said Van Vranken. “But it is also vital for Botswana’s long-term economic health and supporting the livelihoods of so many Batswana.”

Three people stand on a stage clapping.
(From left) Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, Botswana President Eric Mokgweetsi Keabetswe Masisi, first lady Neo Masisi, and Professor Kathleen Alexander celebrate the groundbreaking of a new forensic wildlife center to expand conservation efforts in the region. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Alexander.

Expanding the land-grant mission globally

During his visit to Botswana, Sands toured the CARACAL facility that has served as a critical bridge between Virginia Tech and Botswana since it was founded by Alexander in 2001. Located at the edge of Chobe National Park, the nonprofit center promotes conservation efforts in the region and conducts critical research into the interplay between natural ecosystems and human societies. The organization also works to improve the livelihoods of people in Kasane through numerous outreach and education efforts.

“Our work has focused on understanding the challenges that face communities within the context of coupled natural-human systems,” said Alexander, an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens. “We work with communities and the government to develop innovative and partnered solutions that recognize the balance between community needs and natural resource management, maximizing opportunities for improved health and well-being of these socioeconomic systems."

Sands’ visit to CARACAL included an overview of the center’s education program and a visit to the student village developed through Alexander’s award from National Science Foundation Evolution and Ecology of Infectious Disease Program.

Sands and other Virginia Tech guests also traveled by research boat into the Chobe National Park, where they were able to see numerous African elephants, lions, leopards, and buffalo in the study area. The success of Botswana’s conservation efforts was evident in the density and diversity of wildlife found within and beyond the protected areas in this region of Africa. 

A jeep with people inside is in the foreground, while a family of elephants walks past.
While in Botswana, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and a delegation from Virginia Tech toured the Chobe National Park and got close to some of the wild animals that call the park home. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Alexander.

Through Alexander’s leadership, CARACAL has allowed Virginia Tech undergraduate and graduate students to study alongside Batswana students and community members. Such educational experiences are critical in broadening the service mission of the university to a global dimension.

“The human condition is impacted by a multitude of factors – economic, social, cultural – and also the interface between animal and plant kingdoms and human society,” said Ghosh, who oversees global engagement initiatives for Virginia Tech. “Having students understand that in a truly hands-on context like this allows them to live out those complexities in real time.”

Clarke said the collaborative relationship gives Virginia Tech the opportunity to expand their international footprint while engaging in global challenges.

“The opportunity that Virginia Tech has here is particularly pertinent to our Beyond Boundaries vision, which aims to develop distinctive programs where we can engage and facilitate in transdisciplinary research and discovery, while offering students experiential learning opportunities, contributing to global service.”

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the forensic center, Masisi spoke of his country's commitment to conservation.

“The Chobe district represents a unique wildlife and natural resource region, serving as a major anchor for economic growth for the nation through tourism and wildlife-based economies,” said Masisi. “Botswana’s commitment to wildlife conservation is unique, reflected not only in a significant operational focus on wildlife management and security, but also in the allocation of more than 40 percent of the land area to conservation of natural resources.”

Sands said Botswana’s mission toward a sustainable and peaceful future mirrored Virginia Tech’s aim to extend the Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) mission of service across our global communities.

“Approximately seven years ago, Botswana established Vision 2036, a transformational plan for sustainable peace, prosperity, and partnerships for its people and the planet. At about the same time, our university adopted a new strategic vision called Beyond Boundaries, in which we committed ourselves to addressing the world’s future challenges through purpose-driven, transdisciplinary discovery with local, regional, and global engagement,” said Sands.

“We are excited by the opportunity to work with an innovative, forward-looking country such as Botswana with a clear vision for the future and the potential to impact the continent in a positive way,” Sands said.

Virginia Tech will continue to work with the Botswana Government and partners to seek collaborative opportunities for advancing learning, research, and service initiatives in the country and beyond. This work reflects the university’s commitment to contributing to the United Nation's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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