With this post we’ll take a brief trip from the tropical forests of Borneo to the savannas and scrubland of Kenya. My friend and Columbia University colleague Michael Butler Brown has agreed to write a guest post about his work with zebras while I recover from the VERY busy but productive IPS conference. I’ll be back blogging about Vietnam soon, but in the meantime please enjoy MBB’s stories and photos!This zebra is not cooperating today. We’ve tracked him through the thick acacia scrub in our Land Rover for well over a kilometer and we have yet to get a good look at him. As the old diesel engine whines under the stress of crossing a deep lugga, the zebra finally trots through a gap in the bush. He is only in view for a second but with a reassuring click, the field assistant captures the image that ends our pursuit. The photograph isn’t very pretty – I’m certainly not going to frame it and give it away as a Christmas gift- but it contains the signature stripe pattern of the right flank, allowing us to identify the individual and track both his survival and space use over time.
I am the current project manager for the Laikipia Zebra Project at Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya. My project is a collaboration between the good folks at Princeton University and the Denver Zoo, and we work to study all things zebra…movement ecology, population dynamics, demography, disease and parasite ecology, sociality and human/wildlife interactions. My home in Laikipia is unique and interesting place to study zebra ecology in that it is one of the few places in the world where two species of zebra live on the same landscape. Here, the more common plains zebra and the endangered Grevy’s zebra traverse the same scrub and graze the same glades – sometimes side by side – allowing us to examine how different species of zebra respond to the same environmental stresses.
Additionally, Laikipia is an interesting model for conservation in east African since it is a mosaic of private ranches, community lands and private conservancies. Unlike their brethren in national parks, zebra and other wildlife in Laikipia navigate a complicated landscape full of grazing cattle, roving goat herds, rural villages, unobliging ranchers and (sometimes) training British army units. Despite these challenges, Laikipia is a remarkably diverse system containing lions, wild dogs, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, eland, oryx, hartebeest, plains zebra, Grevy’s zebra and all of the dik dik (very small deer) that you could possibly ever want to see. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the oodles of less fuzzy but equally cool plants, insects and birds.
To address the diverse needs of our ongoing research projects, we are taking advantage of an expanding scientific toolkit which ranges from time-tested aerial surveys to cutting-edge GPS tracking technology. One of the emerging tools that has proven very useful is the stripe identification survey technique, which uses pattern recognition software to help understand zebra population dynamics. Understanding the current population size and having a tool to monitor changes in population numbers over time is a critical goal in determining the status of the Grevy’s zebra and assessing the effectiveness of conservation measures. Fortunately, nature has decided to lend a helping hand in these efforts. Just as humans have unique fingerprints, each zebra has a tell-tale stripe pattern. These patterns act as a bar code to specifically identify unique individuals. By simply photographing a zebra and using innovative stripe recognition computer software, we can compare zebra seen in the field to a growing database of known, previously sighted zebra. From this information, we are working to develop a clearer understanding of the number of unique zebra over the landscape and beginning to piece together life histories of individual zebras. Although the questions may seem simple, the implications of the answers are strikingly significant. Having an accurate method to count unique zebra can provide reliable estimates of population counts and distribution throughout the range. Additionally, collecting GPS coordinates at each sighting allows us to monitor movement of individual zebra across property lines to more realistically depict how zebra use space throughout the wet and dry seasons that are typical of their semi-arid environments.
Like many aspiring field biologists, mine was a youth spent tracking deer through the woods near my Pennsylvania home, reading National Geographic magazines, and watching the Discovery Channel. This fascination with understanding the environment eventually manifested itself in pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology. During my undergraduate career, I had the opportunity to work for a number of ecology/conservation organizations in the Washington DC metropolitan area, including the United States Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and African Wildlife Foundation. I also had the opportunity to spend a semester studying wildlife ecology and management in Tanzania with the School for Field Studies (sound familiar? Cassie’s note: for those of you who don’t know, I spent a summer with SFS in Kenya studying the same things). Here, in the spectacular national parks of northern Tanzania, my passions for field ecology took a real and tenable form. After graduating university and spending a year working various field tech positions, I wanted to build on this foundation in applied ecology, so I joined Cassie’s cohort in Columbia University’s Master’s Degree in Conservation Biology Program. While at Columbia, I conducted my thesis research on movement ecology of Grevy’s zebra in northern Kenya. As you might imagine, there is not a huge market for Grevy’s zebra resesarchers so I was very fortunate to be offered this position at the Laikipia Zebra project.
As fascinated as I am by the systems in which I work and the species that I study, I am equally enamoured with the process of conservation biology. Applied ecology is fascinating field that allows me to get my quantitative jollies while spending a healthy portion of my time outdoors. Here, I have the opportunity to use science to engage policy makers and communities in creating solutions to real-world problems. That, to me, is the true draw for applied ecology and conservation research.
Although I have enjoyed my tenure in Kenya, all good things must inevitably come to an end. At the end of August, I plan to transition into a PhD position at Dartmouth College in collaboration with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. The foundation of my dissertation work will be in understanding population dynamics and movement ecology of the Rothschild’s giraffe, an endangered subspecies of giraffe that lives primarily in isolated protected areas in Uganda and Western Kenya. Fortunately for me (perhaps not so much for the giraffes), I will also be heavily invested in applied conservation research. Just as the orangutans in Kalimantan are feeling the squeeze from the development of forest habitat for palm oil and agriculture, giraffes in Uganda are also potentially threatened by agricultural development and oil exploration. One goal of my work will be to make sure that we understand the demographic problems associated with isolated populations and the conservation implications of oil exploration within a National Park so that this subspecies of giraffe can continue to exist within its natural habitat. It’s a certainly promising to be a challenging and exciting new project.
Thanks to the infinitely patient Cassie for letting me write this guest post. Keep up the great work with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project! For more information on the diverse work being done at Mpala Research Check out the new Mpala Live! For more photographs feel free to take a look at MBB Photography.