Blog Archives

Why I love vultures

I’m looking forward to meeting Munir Virani, at the Peregrine Fund and National Museums of Kenya, and learning more about vultures this July in Kenya.  In the meantime, I ran across this short TedX talk from Nairobi about why vultures are so important to a healthy environment and what can be done to help prevent their extinction.

Peregrine Fund – Vultures

Unexpected Research

So, last week I got a call on Thursday afternoon from a new research partner asking if I’d like to take their place on an upcoming trip to Africa.  Kenya and South Africa specifically.  He didn’t even get to finish his sentence before I said yes.  I feel a little guilty because it (a) throws the plant work off schedule and (b) I’m replacing the ecological ethicist who threw out his back.  However, it puts me in a position to do some pilot research for a new project that could lead to something else in the conservation/climate research nexus.  This new research project, Saving Africa’s Vultures, synthesizes what is known about why vulture populations are declining in eastern and southern Africa to develop tools to improve vulture protection through societal/behavioral and legal means.

White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) feeding.

I hadn’t intended to instigate a whole new project this summer but that is exactly what is happening.  This afternoon I drafted questions for a semi-structured interview with social network questions.  My next step is to get feedback from my research partners and write my IRB application.  Based on the overarching research goals, my interviews will be aimed at (1) building/strengthening the current vulture conservation network; (2) identifying/ranking known vulture species stressors; and (3) identifying tools for vulture conservation education.  This last one will be interesting as vultures are definitely not the first thing people think of in terms of conservation despite their important ecosystem role as scavengers/decomposers.  They are not pretty or cute or cuddly.  My work will also focus on interviewing conservation experts; learning about their environmental knowledge and networks for sharing knowledge and resources.

I expect the next month or so to be a mad scramble as I read up on vultures and prepare for new interviews with experts.  I don’t want to sound like an idiot.  At the same time I will forge ahead with my plant data.  In all it completes the circle of life – from primary producers to consumers to decomposers.

Plant Resources Online

In foraging online, I’ve discovered a number on links to plant identification and information sites. In the effort to share I have posted these links below.  As you can see, it isn’t an exhaustive list.  These are materials that I and my student research assistants use regularly to check spellings of scientific names, determine if native or not, and verify growth form.  Some of the sites give additional information about range, habitat, and use value to humans and other species.

World Collections Websites

Southern Africa Focused Websites

If you know of or regularly use other related websites, please send along.  I would be happy to add to our list.

Masala (Strychnos spinosa) and Macuácuá (Strychnos madagascariensis) – both are edible wild fruits found in southern Mozambique.

Plant Foraging – IRL and Online

Summer has finally started, now that my grades are in. This summer my focus is back on green things, plants in particular. I am a terrible gardener, and would most likely make a bad farmer, but I love to forage.  Sometimes for food, sometimes to collect for fun or research, and sometimes just for the fun of identifying old friends outdoors.  Wild plants, mushrooms, invertebrates, fossils… I can spend an entire day bent over scanning the ground or neck stretched back scanning above, and never get bored.  After a few weeks of this, I can spot species – well at least trees and flowers – driving by at 55mph.  It might not be the most useful skill in a globalized world, but it’s good for impressing drivers.

My research this summer is taking me back to old datasets – opening old files of plant photos, botanical surveys, fieldnotes, and interviews with livelihood experts on how they use and manage wild plants.  Foraging of a sort on data collected from foragers in the foraged landscape of southern Mozambique.   I’m also foraging plant knowledge from online archives and the digitized reports, surveys, and dissertations I’ve collected about this same region.  What wild plants do people use?  What parts of the plants are important?  For what purposes?  How do they manage these plants, and the habitats where they are found, for long-term, sustainable use?  How do peoples’ preferences and livelihood activities influence where the plants are found?  Is the plant diversity (presence, abundance, diversity) in places where people live similar or different to that of nearby protected areas?  Why might that be?  These are just some of the questions I am thinking about as I attempt to synthesize ecological and ethnographic research results.

Tinhueve (Manilkara discolor), Madjadjane, Mozambique. Fruit edible, wood used for timber and xylophones, roots used as a medicine, larval food for butterfly Pseudacraea boisduvali trimeni.

But why is this work important?   As the human population grows, we are breaching our planet’s protective boundaries and find ourselves in the midst of the 6th great extinction.    We are creating this extensive biodiversity loss through overexploitation of resources,  expansion of agricultural production, habitat modification, and increasing urbanization to support rapid population growth, as well as invasive species, pollution, and climate change (among other reasons).   At the same time, we depend on other living beings – plants included – to survive.  Life on Earth will survive – we’ve had 5 previous extinction events – but will it be a place where we Homo sapiens can live?  Want to live?  As much as I dream of interstellar travel, it won’t be me going to the stars, and we shouldn’t leave behind a planet that looks like a sack of unrecyclable garbage.   Today or in the future.

My overarching research question asks, can biodiversity and ecosystem services be supported and maintained in landscapes where people live and work, i.e. in so-called human-modified landscapes (HMLs)?  I’ve been interested in this question since I started graduate school.  Well, technically since I was old enough to understand that when the farmer up the road in NNY plows their field, it changes the kinds of plants and animals you find in the field.  Where I work in sub-Saharan Africa, this question must be definitively answered in the next decade if the species and ecosystem services that people depend upon, and the iconic plants and animals we associate with this continent, are to survive this century and beyond.  Only 12% of sub-Saharan Africa landscapes have protected area status at present. Increasingly, ecologists and conservation managers are asking whether measures to support and maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services can be undertaken in HMLs, the other 88%.

Milho (Zea mays) field in Madjadjane, Mozambique. Note the tree left standing to provide wild fruit and other benefits to the family in addition to their maize harvest.

Anthropologists, and other social scientists, working with native peoples across sub-Saharan Africa have documented an extensive range of traditional ecological knowledge and environmental management practices that allow communities to access and use natural resources, often plant species, for livelihood production sustainably in HMLs. Their research shows how daily household needs for hundreds of years have guaranteed that nearly every plant species finds some use as food, fodder, medicine, construction materials, hunting and fishing gear, clothing, household goods and tools, ritual items, and/or fuelwood. While modern materials may provide excellent substitutes, personal preferences, tradition, and, most significantly, poverty help preserve the traditional ecological knowledge people need to access and use wild plant species effectively and sustainably.

Interdisciplinary synthesis of ecological data with ethnographic research on traditional ecological knowledge and environmental management practices is a growing area of interest for both biophysical and social scientists. To date, botanical data collection in sub-Saharan Africa has focused primarily on diversity assessments in protected areas for ecological research and conservation management purposes. Ethnographic research, like that described previously, has not always been integrated into conservation planning and policy. Synthesis work becomes increasingly necessary as we confront threats like habitat loss and modification, overexploitation, pollution, and climate change, and seek ways to reduce, mitigate and eliminate their impacts on our planet’s diverse human and non-human communities.

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Creative Dialoguing with the Nile Project

When Jane Hirshberg at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center asked me last May to participate in a creative dialogue with musicians from The Nile Project, April 2015 seemed a long way off. I was asked because of my research regarding rural African livelihoods, knowledge production, adaptation to environmental change, and community empowerment.  As the date approached I became nervous. I’d never done any research in the Nile River basin. I didn’t know much about the water security conflicts going on in the Nile Basin other than what I could google.  I’m not from the Nile Basin.  I don’t speak Arabic or Amharic or Swahili. I would be onstage at the Smithsonian in the Museum of Natural History.  I feel like I sound like an idiot whenever someone asks me serious questions regarding my research and anthropology in general.  In retrospect, it was basically a huge flare up of imposter syndrome.

Creative Dialogue on The Nile Project. L–>R Atesh Sonneborn (Smithsonian Folkways, Assoc. Dir. for Programs & Acquisitions), L. Jen Shaffer (UMD Anthropology, Assist. Prof.), Meklit Hadero (Nile Project, singer & co-founder), Ken Conca (American U School of International Service, Prof.), Mina Gergis (Nile Project, ethnomusicologist & co-founder), and Kojo Nnamdi (NPR host & journalist). Photo by R. Diaz Pulgar.

The dialogue focused on the Nile Project’s social and environmental messages.  From their website:

The forward-thinking musicians of the Nile Project channel the unsung beauty of East African traditions. In the collective’s collaborative compositions, resonant harps and lyres from up and down the river have learned new musical modes, while buzzing timbres and ingenious polyrhythms support vocals in more than ten languages.

Designed to captivate local audiences but feel equally accessible to international listeners, the Nile Project uses music to inspire curiosity about and active engagement with the cultural, social, and environmental challenges of the world’s longest river. The Collective’s collaborative model is a blueprint for a new way to organize the Nile.

The project began in 2011 by two San Francisco-based East Africans in response to the deepening water conflict in the Nile Basin. In a few years, the vision of Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero rapidly expanded to bring together musicians of all 11 Nile countries through Nile Gatherings and African and international tours. Building on the success of its musical program, the Nile Project is launching education, leadership, and innovation initiatives to empower university students around the world with the tools they need to make the Nile more sustainable.

Overall, it was a fantastic experience.  The focus (thank goodness!) was on the music and Nile Project.  Kojo spoke with Ken about water security and conflict – historic and contemporary – in this region, and Atesh talked about how music is an important component of social movements (see Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, etc.).  I was asked about livelihoods, the interconnectedness of rural/urban communities and water and the environment, and links between art and indigenous environmental knowledge.  I was super jealous of how composed and strong the answers Mina and Meklit had to Kojo’s questions regarding the work and passion of the Nile Project.  But I realized about midway through that they’ve been answering these sorts of questions for the past 4 months.  Practice does make perfect.  So does having passion and belief in what you are doing.  The musicians of the Nile Project are an inspiration and I feel rejuvenated in my own work after just a little time interacting with them.

Meklit Hadero’s TED Talk on The Nile Project

The Nile Project – Full Performance on KEXP (Seattle, WA) 19 Feb 2015

Looking to the Future

by Maria Sharova

 

Artisanal fishing. Zanzibar, Tanzania. March 2010

Artisanal fishing. Zanzibar, Tanzania. March 2010, J.Shaffer

As the end of the semester draws to a close, I am once again sitting down to try to map out my progress and figure out next steps. Over the course of the semester I have had meetings with a variety of amazing faculty who have told me about their research, I have selected my own methods for comparison, and I have selected my photos.

 

My methods for comparison include change in land use, change in sea level, erosion, and industry development. These speak to visual changes in environmental processes. Additionally, many pictures in the African photo database I accessed have descriptive metadata that provides, specific dates, photographers, and locations that could be further researched to locate a more specific modern photographic example.

 

I will compare the 8 historic images to pictures taken within the last 5 years to assess environmental change. My project will explore the applicability of using images collected from social media sites like Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram for citizen science of environmental change. Pictures posted online could be used in a variety of manners in future research endeavors. For example, there is potential to link social media to remotely sensed images or ground truthing. If changes in sea level could be tracked in pictures taken by tourists and supplemented with remotely sensed images taken over time, this could provide a more accurate and holistic view of change occurred. The potential to use photographs as a dataset in citizen science research projects is realistic, cost effective, and could provide valuable information.

 

Before the start of Spring Semester I will also need to finalize a list of committee members that will proof read my thesis, be present at my thesis defense, and finally provide final suggestions for edits that I will make to my paper.

 

I’m feeling really excited (and nervous) about my project! It’s coming together nicely, and I have to credit Dr. Shaffer with being the most amazing advisor ever! She’s been so patient with me and I definitely would not have gotten as far as I have without her expertise. I still have a lot of work to get through. I have to finish selecting my modern photographs, complete my background research on each photograph, actually write up my findings, and start thinking about future directions for the research (is there potential to use Landsat images of erosion and coastlines to study visual change in the environment over time?) Here’s to health, happiness, and getting this project done in the New Year!

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Maria submitted this on 15 December 2015.  My apologies for the late posting. ~J.Shaffer

Stay on target! We’re too close! Stay on target!*

by Rachel Ridley

     After all the weeks of coding, re-coding, exporting, and now pulling it all together in a final analysis, we are finally at the end. We went through elephants, fences, and machambas [agricultural fields] all the way to standing water, hospitals, and weather (for Health in the SES Model, at least). It seems like we covered so much ground in so little time. I find myself still thinking back to coding interviews about elephant damage and realizing just how extensive this research was and is. I’m continually amazed by it as I sit down and try to bring it all to a close.
     One of the biggest struggles was having to organize all of the exported codes together and find themes in them. The problem is, not all of us (in my group) coded the same things in the same way. At first, this seemed immensely problematic. I kept thinking, “How is this going to add up to make any sense together at all?” But in the end, I think it was important that we had experience working on a project such as this in a group. I know I gained a lot from looking at the way the same thing could be interpreted in multiple ways.
     But now that we’re working on our final analyses, I realize that that wasn’t the hard part. Somehow we’ve got to pull all of what we’ve done through the whole semester into one analysis paper. I keep going back and forth, worrying that I won’t have enough to say and then realizing I probably have too MUCH to say to be concise! How to pull together these complex, interrelated themes without minimizing them or making them larger than life?
     Not to mention it’s the end of the semester (finally!) and there’s all kinds of absurdly long papers and cruel, unusual final presentations to do, and it’s hard to keep focus. I want to make sure that the material I create to finish up this project does the full experience and research justice. I keep stalling by making more and more maps or finding some new way to tie them together (I’m using online mapping software) and waiting around, as if I expect that if I do enough maps, a beautifully crafted full-length analysis will pop into my head, fully formed.
Finals1-e1326497361395
     In all, I think it’s bittersweet. Of course, here in this moment, I want everything I have to do for the semester to just be over and done with. I want to move on to holiday celebration, sleeping until 2pm, and not having any deadlines to even consider. Yet there’s a whole other part of me that wants it to continue. I want more time and more space to write about it, because in many ways, the interviews – the issues themselves – that we studied became important to me personally. I find myself regularly thinking about the problems and subject matter that I spent so much time organizing and analyzing. In some ways, it has become larger than life for me.
     We’ve all got until Friday to pull our masterpieces together, and I’m hoping we can make them just that! It has been more than fulfilling to spend so much time with this research, so here’s hoping we can all produce some worthwhile thematic analysis from it.
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     The KRAC Lab research assistants this term have struggled mightily to work though a ton of crazy data.  They’ve ridden a rollercoaster from learning how to code all the way through to their final analysis.  Their learning process is very much the same that socio-cultural anthropologists of all levels go through – down to the part of having so much to say and so little space to say it.  Their analyses has contributed to one submitted NSF proposal and two more in the works.  Their work will also go into a report for the Mozambican government and local communities, as well as multiple anticipated articles (and depending on how much work they’ve put in may include their names as co-authors).  I’m really proud of all of them.  ~ JS
* Gold Leader to Gold Five, Star Wars: A New Hope (Ep. IV)

The Home Stretch

by Hayatt Mohamed

So we’re in the home stretch! After weeks of coding we have finally reached the analysis phase, which feels like even more coding. While coding had its own share of frustrations between deciding whether or not a segment fits the criteria of the description of the code, the tedious re-reading, or the constant insecurity that you’re doing absolutely everything wrong (something that I personally always am worried about and anyone who is the lab with me probably gets tired of me asking and re-asking to make sure) it has been interesting. That’s the funny thing about coding though, what you may interpret the definition of a code may be different than how someone else may think the code to be. And you won’t even know that they are looking at it differently than you until you ask them a simple question, or until you are organizing and analyzing a code. Coding for the Health in the Social-Ecological model proved to be hard because I couldn’t help but think SES stood for socio-economic model, and I couldn’t help but focus on that. Even when coding I would look at the blockers that affect the community’s health like lack of infrastructure or transportation. I had to constantly re-remind myself to also look at climate and ecological factors. Though often ecological factors tied in with infrastructure at times (for instance in regards to quality of water and sanitation both factors in the spreading of malaria and cholera). There were times where I didn’t even use certain codes and times where I felt like something should have been created into its own code rather than lumped in a broad code but was overruled. The thing about coding is that it’s subjectively objective; the facts are there but are very open to interpretation.

rock-climbing-desktop-hd-wallpaper-free-mountain-pictures

The analysis has proven to be just as daunting as coding-if not more. Here is where we see if our coding was even remotely similar to our group members and also comparing how we coded and what our interpretations of the codes were. In my personal group when I have analyzed codes I noticed slight differences in what each member has found to be appropriate to code. Also some people tend to be more generous with their coding-something I tend not to do but the great thing about working in a group is that they might have caught something you intended to code and didn’t but it also becomes frustrating when you feel like maybe that should not have been coded and it is (once again these are times where it is great to have someone else in the room working beside you so you can ask them a few questions). Color coding the analyses by comment has definitely made these excel spreadsheets easier to look at and more fun and I just feel like color makes everything better. I’m still not quite done with my analysis but it’s oddly comforting. It feels good to turn disorder to order so although it’s tedious, I’m enjoying the process.

Staying Focused

by Maria Sharova

These first few weeks of school have been crazy—between family issues, the GRE, and my amazing new internship at the U.S. Global Change Research Program, I am finding it difficult to sit down and flush out ideas for longer than an hour at a time. But I have made some progress!

Maiombe Forest, Angola

Maiombe Forest, Angola

When I left off my Independent Project last semester, I had compiled a series of 10 photos from Angola and Mozambique depicting visual change over time—whether it be environmental, political, or economic. This semester, I am working on my honors thesis, which involves the same set of images, but with a different set of questions in mind. I will still be doing a comparison of old pictures to modern images, but I will be focusing on landscape photographs rather than portraits. The main idea I hope to address in my research is that of pictures being a legitimate source of information (in the way that quantitative measurements are). Can images created for non-research purposes be used as scientific evidence for identifying and quantifying environmental change? What changes can be measured based on images we have?

Zambia

Zambia

With this set of questions in mind, there are already several aspects of my research that I would like to identify more thoroughly. I would like to solidify my methods for comparing the images I select. What exactly will I be looking for between the old photograph and the new photograph? Erosion? Change in water? Change in crop yield? Change in crop type? This will of course depend on the images I select. Furthermore I would like to identify methods of quantifying that change. Will I be literally taking a ruler to the picture? Most likely not, but how will I quantify change in the photographs? Unlike last year, I am not confining myself to a specific country—instead I am working with the full range of images I have.

Elming Beach Area, Western Region. Ghana

Elming Beach Area, Western Region. Ghana

 

I have a few meetings set up with other faculty members who have done some visual anthropology, and I am excited to discuss their methods and projects with them. My project, I feel will be significantly different, since I am viewing my analysis as a form of citizen science, without the citizens knowing that they are participating in research. Social networks and social media can be regarded as an untapped data source. People are constantly taking pictures of the places they visit, so developing a methodology for using those photographs to analyze changing climates could be very interesting and useful to scientists. Here’s to hoping the next few weeks go well!

 

Welcome Back

by Bryan Gerard

As the summer ended and the fall semester began, it was time to begin our research with Dr. Shaffer. The research team began to meet to discuss the direction of the study and learn what would be expected in this lab. During the first two weeks we were provided the opportunity to practice both inductive and deductive coding. However, this past Friday, 9/26, we decided to break up the research into several projects (Wildlife Conflict, Health, Indicators of Change, and Agency — also Local Mapping of the Social-Ecological System and GIS). Dr. Shaffer differentiated these projects to enable the research assistants to gain experience in fields that interest us. More importantly, the various projects, while seemingly diverse, also exemplify the interconnectedness of the challenges in an area experiencing a plethora of social and environmental changes.

However, before we focus on the varied projects, we are all coding interviews about wildlife conflict. This has become a major issue for the local population and Mozambican government as elephants from the neighboring reserve have wreaked havoc on the local community, destroying crops, homes, and in several cases killing humans. This work will then be used to write a report for the Mozambican government – which will ideally highlight where and how to make changes.

IMG_7120Anthro Student Researchers at the 26 Sept 14 KRAC lab meeting.