Sophia Han

Sophia Han (far left), on top of Mt. Lajuma with fellow travelers on the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association's Duttenhaver Field Study program, Next to her, from left to right, are mentor Jess Kohring, Minden Nakamura, Kyla Alvarez, Darragh Hettrick, Sarah Wang and Kelly Chang. (Courtesy of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association / August 20, 2014)

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On the verge of beginning her college career, 18-year-old Sophia Han recently returned from South Africa, where she worked alongside scientists whose mission is to protect leopards, monkeys and other wildlife in the Soutpansberg Mountains.

Han was chosen through a competitive selection process to participate in the Duttenhaver Animal Conservation Field Study program, which is sponsored by the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn. and looks to send high school juniors and seniors with a strong interest in animals to faraway places where they examine wildlife up close.

The recent Crescenta Valley High graduate, who has coached gymnastics at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, has dreamed about becoming a veterinarian for “as long as I can remember,” she said.

She and five other Los Angeles area students originally planned to study elephants in Thailand, but when the State Department issued warnings to Americans planning to travel there, the group changed plans and headed to South Africa instead, from June 29 to July 12.

Initially, Han said she thought, “I don't know what I'm getting myself into.” Once there, however, she became entrenched in the work of researchers stationed at the Lajuma Research Centre who study the behavior of Samango monkeys, baboons and leopards.

The students helped build leopard traps, using cow fetuses from the local butcher to attract the animals, so they could be caught and examined by researchers to check their health — and then they're set free.

Han also recovered footage from cameras posted throughout the center's grounds to note how many times hyenas or other animals visited certain areas or farms. She also saw plenty of zebras, giraffes and vultures. 

When observing the Samango monkeys, researchers tracked how many of them congregated within a designated area, and how they rested, ate and socialized.

“In the beginning, they would be threatened by the new people they saw. After a while, they got used to us,” Han said, adding that the monkeys at times were only 3 to 4 feet away from the students and researchers.

In September, Han will head to Cal Poly San Louis Obispo to study animal science.

“I'm just happy I got this experience,” she said. “I didn't want to leave.”