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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 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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