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Organization for Tropical Studies


Celebrating more than 50 years, OTS is a consortium of about 50 universities, colleges, and research institutions from seven countries on four continents. OTS’ mission is to provide leadership in education, research, and responsible use of natural resources in the tropics. Our purpose is to sustain our tropical ecosystems by driving scientific discovery and knowledge, by enriching human perception of nature and by enhancing worldwide policy actions in the tropics.

OTS Scholarships Available

OTS manages a scholarship endowment and is looking for qualified recipients. Complete your application to be eligible for an OTS Scholarship. Go to the program page for more information on this and other popular scholarships. The application deadline for the Fall 2020 semester is April 1st, 2020.

408 Swift Ave
Durham, NC 27705
United States


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Yes, I recommend this program

My study abroad experience in South Africa was an illuminative experience for me. During those two months, I was surrounded 24/7 by scientists interested in ecology and conservation. I was welcomed into OTS with open arms. South Africa made me learn more about the similarities that’s unites people together, and the problems going on in the world outside of my usual realm of living. Being surrounded by such like-minded people that cared about the environment re-solidified my dreams and hopes for my own future. OTS also handled the COVID-19 situation as appropriately as possible to manage our safety, and look out for our student group.

What was the most surprising thing you saw or did?
My homestay experience was the definitely the biggest culture shock I've experienced.
Although I did have a feeling of disorientation, my homestay group was treated warmly and lovingly by our homestay family. Being suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture can be quite an experience, but the communal atmosphere we were able to experience made it absolutely worth it. My own understanding of the privilege I have was further expanded upon, and I left my homestay feeling very moved.
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Yes, I recommend this program

If you have a spirit of adventure and are passionate about conservation, if you want to get gritty in the field and think deeply about issues, and if you want an academic challenge--I definitely recommend this program! OTS is an incredible experience. The staff are all extremely knowledgeable and it's a privilege to learn from them. I was afraid that traveling so much around South Africa would make it hard to acclimate to any one place or get to know people, but OTS got the balance just right (although I would have liked to stay at any place longer). We really got to experience it all: from long days in the field to days in the lab. We learned constantly and still had the agency to devise our own projects for our capstones. I know my science writing skills in particular are drastically improved! The food was amazing and I always had options, even as a vegan. The program was really well organized and conceived to leave us with maximum impact, and then of course for fall break in Cape Town we were free to do whatever we wanted.

Just as a fair warning, OTS will keep you busy and there's very little free time. The good news is that what you learn is extremely interesting and includes game drives to appreciate the incredible animal diversity in Kruger (and beyond). There is a lot of stress that can come from high academic rigor and the unique situation of being inside a national park with the "Big 5"--and I think this is important to consider. This program can be tough due to compact group size (which is also one of its charms) and rural sites which make some amenities hard to reach. The focus on this program is also overwhelmingly science based!

Still, I honestly cannot imagine a better semester abroad and I'm so glad I chose this program! Now it's your turn :)

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
Appreciate everything while you are there--I know it sounds cliche, but it's so true.
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Yes, I recommend this program

This program is superb. You will travel to many incredible places around the country, and see diverse landscapes. You will have the opportunities to hike, jump off cliffs, surf, and more. The wildlife is incredible, and you will have encounters ranging from massive elephants right next to you to catching gerbils in traps. The staff are amazing. They are friendly and helpful, and easy to talk to in both academic and social contexts. The people I interacted with on this trip come from many different backgrounds, and you will stay in touch with them for years to come as they become family. This trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that allows you to see South Africa and its ecosystems as a scientist and not just a tourist. 10/10 recommend.

What was your funniest moment?
A baboon stole our Wifi router (we manage to get it back).
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Yes, I recommend this program

I was interested in the OTS South Africa program since my freshman year in college, and then finally chose to apply for my junior spring and could not have been happier about it. I wanted a program that would challenge me academically, as well as not be in a traditional classroom setting. The mobile classroom style of OTS was so engaging, and it was a really great learning experience for me personally to be having lectures out in the field, visiting museums and historical sites, and gathering all of our own data directly for analysis. On top of the ecology and conservation aspects, the incorporation of history and culture in the curriculum made me understand more of the socioeconomic dynamics of South Africa, and how these dynamics affect conservation of wildlife and wild spaces now and in the future.

If you did this all over again, what's one thing you would change?
I WOULD HAVE PACKED LESS!!! I brought way too many clothes to South Africa with me. I barely wore half the t-shirts I brought, I could have survived with 2. When you're there you'll also be buying things for yourself and gifts for friends and family, so space starts to add up in your bag. Bring your favorite t-shirt, and 3 good field shirts, 2 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of shorts. Thats pretty much all the daywear that you'll need. (This isn't including other stuff like socks and swimsuits and a jacket). Favorite t-shirt, one good sweater. (and maybe a few nice things for Cape Town!)
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Yes, I recommend this program

This program provided an involved and dynamic look into what constitutes a career as an ecologist. We traveled all over South Africa, gaining experience in many different settings and ecosystems. The program takes advantage of the expertise and wildlife located in Kruger National Park, research facilities, and other academic institutions to give rounded understanding of the country's ecology. It allows students the independence to develop their own style of research and writing, while still providing enough guidance. The academics involved are clearly passionate about their work and are enthusiastic to share this with the students. We were also given an in-depth view of the history and culture of South Africa, which was a unique and integral part of our education. My experience with OTS was formative and unforgettable. I am grateful to have attended this program and would highly recommend it to anyone.

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
We did a homestay with a family in HaMakuya and one of the dishes they served us was Mopane worm! The worm is considered a delicacy and it was a sign of respect to have it served with our meal. Eating it was definitely a step outside my comfort zone, but it was good and I'm glad I did.


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Organization for Tropical Studies
African Ecology & Conservation Field Program in South Africa
South Africa
9.78 •9 reviews

Immerse yourself in the Savannas of South Africa! This program travels...

Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Scott Dai

Scott Dai graduated from The George Washington University in Washington DC with a BS in Ecology and Evolution and a minor in STEM Education. He had his first study abroad experience in Costa Rica where he was flabbergasted upon seeing a sloth in the parking lot instead of the tropical rainforests he was studying in. He loves the outdoors, learning about different cultures, and seeing cool things.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose this program after I studied abroad with OTS in summer of 2017, as a student of their Costa Rica program. With fieldwork at my lab coming to an end as we transitioned to the winter season, I decided to ditch the cold for more experience in ecology in South Africa. Additionally, I wanted to build my network with professors and other undergraduates that were just as passionate about ecology/evolution as I was, all while being able to see the wild side of the world by studying in a tropical ecosystem.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The program lasted for 99 days in my 2019 program, so the headquarters in North America assisted me with obtaining a visa through the South African Embassy by providing detailed instructions and materials to successfully apply for one.

In terms of what to bring and what to expect, the official site provides a syllabus, an orientation packet, and the provider organizes a call with all students and South African professors where professors guide students through what the program will feel like, what to bring, and answer any questions students may have.

The orientation packet provides a very detailed packing list that covers recommended, essential, and optional items to bring to your study abroad, even breaking it down to the exact number that's recommended, as the list was created as suggestions from students and professors of the program.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Be adventurous by taking every opportunity you can to explore the park and South Africa. Eat mopani worms, go on game drives, and do hikes when you can, because you're going to miss them when the 3 month program flies by and you find yourself on the flight home just like that. Our professors will tell you on the first few days of the program that as a student studying abroad with OTS, you are in a very privileged situation.

You will primarily be studying at Kruger National Park, the largest national park in South Africa, where many researchers dream to study. However, through OTS, you have the permits and permissions to do research, like studying in restricted areas of the park where rhinos are present.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

The program does not really have a *set* schedule, but professors give detailed breakdowns of schedules in advance.

A typical field day has students waking up bright and early at 6AM to pack a lunch, eat breakfast, and prepare equipment and yourselves for fieldwork. Fieldwork can last up to 6-8 hours, but the company and research make it worthwhile. Instructional days usually have students wake up at 8AM with lectures until about 4PM (breaks included!).

Free days are offered, with students being able to organize activities with the help of professors outside national parks.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear was being abroad so far away from home.

I've been to Costa Rica, but going across the globe was a bit terrifying, as the time zone difference was much more pronounced and I was away from friends and family. Also, not being able to communicate as readily with these people, as I was operating in places without internet at times. However, connecting with professors and other students that were in the same boat as me and immersing myself in being in some of the best places for ecological research was worth it.

I still miss the breathtaking views, the star-ladled skies where galaxies could be seen, and game drives even 3 months after the end of the program.

Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

Lisa Nupen

Job Title
Lecturer and Researcher
Lisa is an evolutionary biologist with strong interests in marine ecology, vertebrate behaviour, wildlife disease, and conservation genetics. She has worked on a variety of vertebrate taxa, primarily seabirds, reptiles, and primates.

What is your favorite travel memory?

I love the ocean and have spent lots of time snorkeling and SCUBA-diving in southern Africa. A few years ago in Mozambique, I was lucky enough to encounter whale sharks while free-diving. Their immense size and gentle grace in the water was mind-bending and deeply humbling. It was magical to spend a few minutes alone with them in the water. More recently, I visited Madagascar and saw leaf-tailed geckos for the first time – they are the best animals in the world!

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

I think that the most adventurous, enthusiastic and driven students choose to come to South Africa for their semester abroad. We spend a lot of time together and learn from each other throughout the 100-day programme. I hope that being here teaches students effective problem-solving skills, instills an authentic appreciation for nature and ecology and that they can accomplish anything if they are determined to do it!

What do you enjoy most about working with international students?

I enjoy witnessing the astounding transformations that take place during their time in South Africa. For many students, their semester abroad is their first extended period away from home, and they learn important things about themselves, and about the world around them.

I love the diversity of views and fresh ideas that arise during fieldwork and class discussions. We have interesting discussions around the fire about conservation, music, culture, philosophy and travel. Staying connected to the “hip” world of 20-somethings is also fun and invigorating. I often joke that I am a lecturer, doctor, driver, and parent all rolled into one person!

What makes your program a great place to study abroad?

South Africa is amazing! And our course is a real opportunity to challenge yourself and experience true transformative learning. We visit a great variety of sites, from big oceans to big mountains, and of course, big-five country.

You will certainly be out of your comfort zone for at least some of the time – which is when the best kind of learning happens. However, you are always safe and accompanied by attentive staff – which makes this a uniquely great environment for personal and academic growth. We try to remove tension and competition from the learning space and encourage creativity and agency.

What makes Kruger National Park a great place to study abroad?

Kruger National Park is a great place to learn about conservation in Africa because it has an excellent track record of putting conservation science into practice.

Our research projects feed into the real-world management of the Park and we assist conservation authorities with wildlife monitoring and research throughout the 100-day programme. This means that our work is valuable, and we hold students to high standards.

This is an academically demanding program, which will challenge you at every level – but it is made easier by the fact that you are immersed in wild spaces – waking up to game-drives and elephants and falling asleep to the sounds of hyenas and bush-babies. You will never be bored!

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

I don’t think that we can “create” an experience for students – the effort they put in is what really makes a course great. We can facilitate learning and personal growth by providing a safe space that is conducive – through exposing students to other ways of life and to new experiences.

Studying abroad should help you broaden your knowledge about the world, reflect on your place in it and (re)consider your worldview.

Accomplishing this is a collaboration with each new class.

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