Staff Spotlight: Laurence Kruger

Program Director - OTS South Africa


Laurence, a 6th generation biologist, was one of the founding academics of the OTS South Africa programme. Passionate about natural history, he specialises in savanna dynamics, megaherbivore ecology and plant animal interactions.

What is your favorite travel memory?

I was fortunate enough to travel to Bolivia early in my career to work on a biological inventory project deep in the Amazonian lowlands of the north of the country. We spent a month collecting all flowering plants, select orders of insects and all herpetofauna. The aim was to provide biodiversity inventory data in unstudied areas of Bolivia in support of the establishment of the Madidi National Park. The trip and work resulted was an epiphany for me.

Aside from the remarkable biological experience in a very remote part of lowland Amazonia, collaborating with extraordinary local students and conservationists, it was inspiring to work with a group of self-funded 24-26-year-old biologists entirely driven by their passion for conservation. It showed me what was possible as a young biologist and fundamentally altered my aspirations. After a month in the field, we spent a further two months in the herbarium in La Paz collating and identifying the thousands of samples, the data which ultimately resulted in the declaration of the new national park.

A life-altering trip in all, which highlighted that serious conservation work could be an adventure second to none.

How does your role have a positive impact on the experience of international students on your program?

Aside from providing transformative field experiences for students, the Organization for Tropical Studies has always focused on staff development. Given that we are field-based academics, we work in incredible places and with some of the top students and scientists in the USA, Costa Rica, and South Africa.

As an academic in South Africa, I have got to explore and study a broad range of our ecosystems, from savannas through to the Fynbos, with students and so my scientific expertise has broadened immeasurably since starting with OTS in 2003. OTS is also an organization that requires its staff to show great leadership and entrepreneurial spirit, and so, aside from my academic growth, I have also acquired a great deal of experience in matters as broad and varied as business and construction management and field station operations. Mostly, though, my professional and personal networks have expanded immeasurably whilst working with OTS. Some of the top Tropical Biologists have passed through OTS courses either as lecturers or students, and to be able to engage with them at conferences or in the dining hall at La Selva, is remarkable.

OTS creates a common ground and a platform for engagement that is rarely available.

What do you enjoy most about working with international students?

To date, we have now had over 25% of our US students return to South Africa to engage in internships, Fulbright Scholarships or graduate studies, so we certainly have heard a range of stories to choose from!

My favourite story is that of a student who raised the funds to return to SA for a period of two years to gain experience before starting veterinary school in the US. She worked on a range of veterinary projects to gain experience but focused on understanding the role that bees could play in managing elephant movement. Elephants are fearful of swarming bees as they can sting the vulnerable areas around the eyes and inside their trunks.

During the OTS course, in conducting their capstone projects, Emma and her colleagues tested the theory by playing the noise of swarming bees and spraying a mixture of honey and water, mimicking a disturbed hive. Although the elephants responded by leaving the area hastily, Emma wished to return to conduct a more substantial study into the interactions. Aside from her stories of game capture with the Vets, learning a broad range of skills, it was the reverence with which she recounting the many hours in the field, watching elephants, moving beehives and encountering both the big and the small creatures that inhabit the savannas of South Africa.

Most telling, she mentioned that making a significant contribution to science relevant to managers and the training of young South Africans was key to her experience in South Africa.

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

I would love to attend the Costa Rican Summer Tropical Biology programmes. As a forest ecologist, I have spent many hour reading about the fundamentals of tropical forest ecology from the work published from La Selva (and Barro Colorado Island) and pouring over the natural history guides to the fauna and flora of Costa Rica. To be able to work in those ecosystems is a remarkable exercise in rendering all that theory, real. Of course, to be able to spend countless hours searching for birds, frogs and insects of all shapes and sizes is a biologist's delight.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

I think it is the organisational culture, business ethos and our collegiality that sets OTS aside. It has been described as a "fair trade" study abroad NPO, which, aside from running high quality, experiential learning courses in the field, through our business practices we hope to make a difference. To this end, we have built an off the grid, "earth material" field station in the Kruger Park to limit our environmental impact, but also maximise beneficiation of local practitioners by always seeking local, small business solutions first.

Given that we are a small organisation, a team ethic, based on trust and mutual respect, is critical for sustainable and enjoyable working environments. This trickles down to the student experience, instilling in the student body a need to make a contribution beyond their own academic pursuits.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in creating an excellent experience for study abroad students?

Authenticity in our teaching, our relationships within the community of learners, scientists and local conservation practitioners is the most important factor in making OTS successful. Additionally, I also believe that living and working in an environmentally conscious fashion (rather than just teaching it) and a focus on social justice has been critical to our continued sustainable business practice and organisational longevity.