Situated Brainstorming: Field Site Scoping in East Africa

Christine Wilkinson, ESPM PhD Student, was a Rocca Fellow in Summer 2016. She sent us the following report.

 This past summer, I was able to use the generous support of a Rocca Pre-Dissertation Fellowship in order to explore potential field sites, network with communities and wildlife managers, and brainstorm my dissertation research questions. Having spent about 2 cumulative years living and working in East Africa previously, I knew that exploring field sites would be invaluable for truly understanding where my research interests best aligned with community needs. With this grant, I was able to learn experientially about my three potential field sites and finally decide on where I will be working. Here’s a quick look at my travels, and what I learned along the way:

Stop 1: Ruaha, Tanzania

Ruaha TentAfter a full day’s bus ride to Iringa, and another two-hour drive west toward Ruaha National Park, I arrived at the Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP) camp. Ruaha National Park harbors a large and ecologically important population of predators, and the RCP, run by Dr. Amy Dickman, works with communities adjacent to the park to mitigate and prevent human-predator conflict. I set up my tent under one of the few large trees in the camp, and spent my days shadowing RCP staff, and my evenings listening to the calls of numerous spotted hyenas wandering through the camp. I spoke at length with the director about my potential research questions for the Ruaha area: How are lions and hyenas moving on the border of the park and within village lands? How are cattle moving through the landscape, and how do these movements map with conflict instances (i.e. livestock being killed by predators)? What are the differences (if any) between actual and perceived conflict with predators?... The Ruaha area is an ideal place for conducting comprehensive research on livestock depredation events and community perceptions and responses to predators, yet its remoteness and some other factors provide some logistical challenges for conducting the type of research I am interested in.

Stop 2: Soysambu Conservancy and Lake Nakuru National Park, KenyaLion On Soysambu

After a long travel back to Dar es Salaam and over to Nairobi, some friends of my Nakuru colleagues picked me up and drove me to Soysambu Conservancy, a 48,000-acre swath of land that has been owned by Lord Delamere since the early 1900s, and today simultaneously functions as a cattle ranch and a wildlife area. The colonialist history of Soysambu is fascinating, yet equally as interesting is Lake Nakuru National Park, which is just across the road from Soysambu, and is Kenya’s only fully fenced national park. While at Soysambu, I was able to get a real sense of how human-carnivore conflict is affecting the ranch and surrounding areas, as well as an understanding of the potential effects of the semi-permeability of the park fence on carnivore movement. I also aided the Kenya Wildlife Service in responding to a cattle depredation event on the ranch, which not only gave me practice for my future research, but also helped me to see the nuance and challenges involved in human-carnivore conflict issues on the ground.

Stop 3: Nairobi National Park and Kitengela, Kenya

For my last field site visit, I hitched a ride to Kitengela, a town just outside of Nairobi, to meet my friend Nickson Parmisa, a Maasai chief. Nickson is deeply involved in mitigating human-lion conflict issues in the Kitengela dispersal area south of the park, and by staying with him I was able to learn first-hand about the challenges his community faces with human-lion conflict and land management. Luckily, Nickson, working with the non-profit Friends of Nairobi National Park, has been able to work with and educate his community about the benefits of wildlife in their area, which is particularly important given the myriad threats currently bearing down on Nairobi National Park. During my time in Kitengela, I also met with and established important contacts at the Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters, where I was able to learn about what areas of carnivore research are lacking, and how my interests align with what Kenya’s wildlife research division is attempting to accomplish.

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After I returned from Kenya and Tanzania, I spent several months brainstorming and discussing my field sites and potential research questions with my advisors and collaborators. After weighing not only my research interests, but also logistical, timing, and other aspects, I finally decided on the Soysambu and Lake Nakuru National Park region in Kenya. For my research, I am hoping to incorporate community participatory mapping, spotted hyena GPS collar data, and remote sensing in order to understand how spotted hyenas (one of the principle species involved in conflict) are moving through the increasingly developed landscape, how people are perceiving conflict with hyenas, and how hyena movement and conflict dynamics vary seasonally and in relation to the park and the conservancy. My hope is to use participatory techniques so that communities in the area are involved and possess agency in this process from the beginning, and thus may employ useful results from this research to inform their own land management decisions. Of course, as I write my prospectus this semester and embark upon my pilot field season this coming year, I anticipate changes and the need for immense flexibility in my research plan. Yet, I am excited to get started on this dissertation journey, and cannot express enough how the Rocca Pre-Dissertation Fellowship was instrumental in allowing me to deeply inform my research brainstorming process and decision. Stay tuned for more news to come!