From St. Rose to Tanzania, Derrell Wilright is living his dream in Africa

When Derwin and Valerie Wilright’s young son became obsessed with the movie, “The Lion King,” and he pretended he was Simba all of the time, they indulged his fascination.

Cub Simba was playful and ready for adventure – and so was their son, Derrell Wilright. It’s was no wonder he was infatuated with a cartoon character that said, “Danger? Ha, I walk on the wild side.”

Now, Wilright’s in Tanzania pursuing his studies as a veterinarian, and he’s sending his parents lots of photographs and updates all the way to St. Rose.

Time and experience proved them right and they couldn’t be happier about Wilright’s studies there. He’s been in Africa since July 12 and will be back by Aug. 12.

“I think that’s a really, really good experience, because not only he is learning about animals, but different kinds of animals – not just the normal animals here,” Valerie Wilright said. “I’m excited about him going over there. This will really benefit him. He’s learning about managing African wildlife and even animals he didn’t know existed, and about the culture of living there.”

Because of their encouragement, Wilright is living his dream.

“I’ve always been interested in African wildlife ever since I was a little child,” he said from Tanzania. “My dad fostered my passion for animals because he would encourage me to go outdoors and experience the natural world. He would also keep the television on Animal Planet as I grew up and that soon became my favorite TV channel. So the movie, ‘Lion King,’ and my dad is what ultimately drove my passion for wild animals until I took my interests into my own hands and began volunteering at the Audubon Zoo, located in New Orleans, my freshman year of high school.”

Although Wilright always wanted to go to Africa, he didn’t specifically have Tanzania in mind. He went where LSU’s School for Field Studies had a location, but he’s been so pleased with the area that he’s literally praying this program brings him back to the area to collect data or do field research.

“I’m interested in these animals because they are out of the ordinary,” he said. “Being able to see the glorified wildlife of the African savannah and bush land up close is amazing to me. I don’t see anything wrong with dogs or cats, but working with exotic wildlife gives me a rush that I don’t think I would get out of working with your everyday pets.”

Wilright intends to use this as a platform to further his African wildlife studies.

“Before applying to vet school, I’d like to be a published scientist,” he said. “This experience is simply giving me tools to put in my toolbox that I will use one day to collect data in the field and conduct groundbreaking research. One day you will be reading a scientific paper and I will be the author, just wait and see.”

When he graduates from LSU, Wilright plans to attend a master’s program and hopes to find a unique program that fits his interests, but certainly one that involves African wildlife studies.

“Tanzania is amazing,” he said. “It is so culturally rich and surprisingly comfortable, although it is very different from America. The landscape is beautiful. Besides the gates for the national parks (often there aren’t any), there are no boundaries between wildlife and human life. It is truly a beautiful thing seeing people live their everyday lives in constant contact with nature.”

The kindness of the people has also been greatly appreciated by Wilright.

They are friendly and inviting, he said, eager to share their Swahili ways.

It has been so enjoyable that Wilright said he’s hardly missed the luxuries.

“I have no cellular service and can only communicate with everyone in America while at camp through a very, very poor wi-fi connection,” he said. “I am slightly detached from all of the technology that I am so used to using. We live a basic life. We hand wash clothes every so often. The shower may not be hot. There are no napkins. I haven’t had ice water since I got here (I love ice water).”

Life in Tanzania has made Wilright realize that he can live a much simpler life at home and still be happy.

Valerie Wilright said the entire family is proud of Wilright’s journey to the “motherland.”

Her son said it is an experience he will remember forever.

“In my career, I hope to use this as a platform to boost me even further,” Wilright said. “This is my first experience out of the country and my mind is being blown. Being able to adjust so quickly to a totally different culture in order to pursue my passion gives me reassurance that working with wildlife is what I am supposed to doing. This experience gives me confidence in myself and I know that I can achieve anything. I never thought that I’d be in Africa at the age of 21, but here I am. Also, I’ve dreamed of seeing the motherland and now I feel like I must take my family here too.”

And, yes, Wilright has a favorite animal of the many that he’s studying in Africa – lions.


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