Caitlin "Cait" Shields '11 February 1, 2018 10:29 AM updated: March 9, 2018 3:59 PM
It’s early evening in South Africa and Victoria Burman ’12 is sitting outside waiting for dinner, the smell of braai wafting around her as she greets passing friends and coworkers. The Houston native is resting during one of her long weekends—seven days off, after working 21—at a game reserve where she guides tourists around vistas seemingly plucked from fairytales.
“The only time most people see what we see every day is on Discovery and National Geographic. It’s cool to help people appreciate it. Something about it just infects you and you’re always wanting more.”
Burman, who majored in zoology with a minor in communication at Texas A&M, will mark her fourth year in South Africa as an excursion guide in July. She drives international tourists—by truck and by boat—through protected parks, showcasing Africa’s big five game: lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, white and black rhinoceros and, perhaps most identifiably, elephants, most recently at Lalibela Game Reserve.
“Only recently, in the last 30 years, have private reserves been popping up, replacing farms. The area has been used agriculturally for almost 200 years and only now coming back to the wildlife side of things. [Lalibela is] nothing like Kruger [National] Park, which has been wild for a long time,” Burman said of one of the largest game reserves in Africa, which has been a national park for more than 90 years. “[Lalibela's] a young baby, recovering from years and years of human use.”
Burman came to the southernmost tip of the African continent by a circuitous route. Straight out of her final year at A&M, she felt the call to Africa for a wildlife conservation internship in Zimbabwe, before spending some time in Botswana for conservation research and then heading back stateside. She worked in a number of fields in a number of places—Houston; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Orr, Minnesota—but she always felt the call back to Africa and conservation.
“I spoke to my friends I had made in Botswana,” she said of her internship. “They were guides who would take us out to get our data. I asked them if a white girl from America could ever do what they did. They said yes.”
After the arduous visa process, Burman trained as a guide and then began an internship, which led to her being hired full-time at Kariega Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth, where she met some interesting clients, including a few clad in the familiar maroon and white.
“This occupation is very much service industry. You are involved in conservation as much as you want to be and time allows. But your first obligation is to the client. You take them on excursions, game drives, safaris. You take them out and show them nature and how to appreciate [it],” she said, noting all safaris she has been involved with have focused on conserving wildlife instead of game hunts.
“I wear my Aggie Ring [when guiding] and I still have people recognize it. It was so nice [meeting other Aggies]. We connected on such a different level. We were singing the War Hymn. You have a common denominator and it’s easier to relate from there.”
Victoria Burman '12 gig 'ems with her brother John Burman '17 while in College Station to watch an Aggie football game in October 2016.
Burman was the first of her family to attend A&M but managed to persuade her younger brother, John Burman ’17, to follow in her footsteps.
“I had always spoken about leaving Houston and going far away for school. I got accepted to [schools far afield] but I chose A&M because I went to the spring game and Kyle Field, the student section and the yells—I had goosebumps the entire time. It made me feel so good. The traditional side of the university, it’s so positive. You feel part of the community and that family.”
Building on the skills she learned while a student, Burman is preparing to compete as a finalist for the South Africa’s Safari Guide of the Year, slated to be held this summer.
One of six field guides who were nominated to compete, Burman, representing the guiding industry in the Eastern Cape Region, and her competitors will be tested in five events—shooting and rifle handling, tracking, guiding a drive, guiding a walking tour, and storytelling—at Kruger.
“The real basis is to be out in the bush and to have a good time and to just share what we know and what we’re passionate about,” she said noting she has been studying the different flora and fauna native to Kruger. “I really did it because I thought it’d be a great networking event for me. They’ll have guides nominated from every major guiding area in South Africa.”
No matter if she is named the top of her field, Burman plans to focus her future around her long-standing passion: conservation.
“Conservation is preserving the places that are still capable of being wild and making it as healthy as it can be. We’ve done so much to pretty much torch the planet and take space away from animals that [otherwise] would have had a pleasant place to live. [It’s] preserving the natural way of life as much as you can."
Burman just recently accepted a new position at Motswari Private Game Reserve at Kruger that will bring its own new set of challenges.
“I am trying to get more involved in the research side of things. We don’t have much time in the busy season when tourists are here. But I am trying to get involved in conservation efforts in the area. I do want to go back for my master’s to do restoration ecology, the rewilding of a once wild place that was altered by humans and try to revert it back to how it can be, and I think I can do that here.”
Whether it is out of a desire to support conservation or simply to see amazing sights, Burman said she wishes more people would make the journey.
“It’s a long flight but people should look into it, especially Aggies.”
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