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Emily Baxter: wildlife veterinarian and conservationist

Emily conducts an anaesthetising procedure on a rhinoceros with Ikhala Veterinary Clinic. Image Credit: Ben Wallace Emily conducts an anaesthetising procedure on a rhinoceros with Ikhala Veterinary Clinic. Image Credit: Ben Wallace
02 Oct
Emily Baxter is a 29-year-old wildlife veterinarian currently working at Ikhala Veterinary Wildlife Services, South Africa. Emily is the star of the Channel 4 programme, Work on the Wild Side in which she helps students learn the daily responsibilities of working with wildlife

I simply always wanted to work with wildlife. We spend our lives thinking ‘this is what I should do, and this is the easiest route to it’, yet we easily forget the big dreams we had when we were children. I was fortunate enough to get the chance to join a Vets Go Wild cohort – Ikhala Veterinary Clinic’s wildlife veterinary experience programme. Here, I had my first experience of wildlife medicine. Before then, there were a few people who told me I shouldn’t go and invest all this time, because there was little chance of actually becoming a wildlife veterinarian. 

As soon as I was done, I applied for an internship at Ikhala, got it, and spent six months learning the ropes under Dr William Fowlds – one of the great wildlife veterinarians. My next step was to join the Vets Go Wild student programme as the course facilitator. I managed to go from there to being full time on the wildlife veterinary team. 

The African bush is a highly pressurised working environment. You’ve generally only got the animal asleep for a certain amount of time, so a treatment has to go to plan. You also generally have a large team with you, so all the while you have to be in control. 

rhinoWorking with animals in the African bush is dangerous but rewarding work. Veterinary medicine is an essential and often overlooked part of wildlife conservation

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We are inherently more capable of achieving than we believe. This is definitely something that you are taught as a wildlife vet. I remember a moment during the early stages of my career. I was out with my boss, en route to dart an ostrich for the first time. Some 16 students were out with us. Suddenly, my boss was called away to another location and I had to step in to lead the procedure. After talking it through and keeping my nerve, I managed to do it – I quickly realised that trust in yourself is an essential life skill.

What we do is dangerous and it only takes a split second for things to go wrong. However, with students around, you have to have confidence in your own abilities – that’s the best way that they can learn. At first, I was hesitant to give them too much exposure to difficult tasks, because I would have to fix any problems that arose. But you have to step back as an educational figure.

Veterinary work is integral to conservation. A lot of our work involves translocations, where animals are relocated to spread genes. There is a darker side and I have first-hand experience of the poaching crisis. Post-mortem examinations are a huge struggle: you have to immediately drop everything to rush to a crime scene, await law enforcement and perform the procedure, sometimes in the pitch black. The majority of animals have died by the time that we arrive, when it becomes our job to find the bullets for ballistics analysis. However, there was one incident where a rhino had still been alive while it was being dehorned and it managed to escape. 

Seeing an animal lost to the poaching crisis gives you the feeling that humanity has failed. I don’t think we fully understand our interdependency on the natural world, but the breaking point is starting to become clearer. We’re so good at learning different ways in which to overexploit nature, but we’re not as good at giving back. Coronavirus has given us the hints that we need to urgently redress the balance. 

Parents have a big role to play in kick-starting a more environmentally conscious generation; they’re the ones who can give children the early life immersion in nature that is so vital when it comes to forming a meaningful connection with it. It’s vital that we educate children that ecosystems are interdependent – love the cockroaches in your own garden just as much as you love elephants. The sooner we realise our own dependency on these natural systems, the faster we can reverse the trend of overexploitation. 

2006 –
Vets Go Wild course at Ikhala Veterinary Clinic
2008 –
Graduated from University of Bristol Veterinary School
2013–2014 –
Volunteering work with Dr William Fowlds
2014–2016 –
Mixed veterinary practice in Cornwall
2016–Present –
Wildlife veterinarian and partner at Ikhala Veterinary Wildlife Services
2020 –
Appears on Work on the Wild Side, Channel 4 TV programme

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