BLACKSBURG, Va., May 15, 2014 – Large carnivores are disappearing from vast portions of their historical ranges in Africa. A Virginia Tech student is doing something about it.
For her doctoral research, Lindsey Rich of Evergreen, Colo., a fish and wildlife conservation graduate student in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, is working with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust to determine the status of 13 different carnivores, including six cat species as well as the endangered African wild dog.
“In order to mitigate population declines and enact effective conservation measures, we need information on the densities, distributions, and ecology of wildlife populations,” she said.
Because information is lacking for many carnivore species in Botswana, development of a carnivore monitoring program has been identified as a research priority by the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks.
“Having widespread data on carnivores will help the government and local communities make informed decisions regarding carnivore conservation and management,” said Rich.
She has identified three study areas of about 100 square miles each. The sites have different levels of human impact, from high impact, such as livestock grazing, to low impact, such as a wildlife game reserve.
Rich’s research requires estimating the numbers of each carnivore species and determining what influences their distribution, such as human development or prey density. She is comparing surveys that use motion-sensitive cameras with traditional track surveys.
Rich conducted track surveys with the help of local wildlife guides who are experienced in identifying animal signs.
“They can easily distinguish carnivore tracks, even in the dry sand,” she said. “Track surveys are generally the preferred method for monitoring wildlife in Africa because they are less intensive and do not require any technical equipment.”
But tracks do not identify individuals within species. “Animals with patterns in their fur, like stripes or spots, can be identified to the individual level because each pattern is unique. Every cheetah, for example, has a different pattern of spots,” she said.
“For species with unique fur patterns, we identify photographs taken by the motion-sensitive cameras to the individual level and use this information in a statistical model to estimate density.”
“Animals that are a solid color, such as lions, can sometimes be recognized by scars and ear nicks,” she continued. “For these species, we employ a different statistical model that uses information from photographs identifiable to the individual level as well as photographs only identifiable to the species level.”
During her project’s first field season, Rich photographed all of the medium and large carnivores native to the area, including aardwolf, African wild dog, bat-eared fox, black-backed jackal, caracal, cheetah, African civet, honey badger, leopard, lion, serval, spotted hyena, and wild cat.
“I also photographed 40 other wildlife species such as aardvark, African buffalo, African porcupine, elephant, kori bustard, springhare, and vervet monkey,” she explained.
Rich and the wildlife guides also detected all of the large carnivores with track surveys. “Spotted hyenas were detected the most often and cheetahs the least,” Rich said.
She is currently working on preliminary analysis of the data collected from the camera trap and track surveys during the first field season. She says she plans to return for six-month field seasons in 2014 and 2015.
Rich’s goal is not only to provide data for decision making but to develop a study design that may be used by government agencies, such as the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, and others, including local communities. She will offer workshops and present her research to government officials, wildlife researchers, and local communities.
In addition, Rich and her assistant on the project, Monthusi “Sixteen” Sinvula, a wildlife guide from the rural community of Sankuyo, have developed an environmental educational program targeting children from local communities to run in tandem with Rich’s research work.
“People from around the world pay tens of thousands of dollars to travel to Botswana to see wildlife,” Rich said, “yet children who live within 10 miles of these animals rarely have the opportunity to travel into the bush to share this same experience. Indeed, the majority of the children’s encounters with wildlife are negative, such as when predators kill their livestock.”
“We need to provide an opportunity for children to have positive experiences with wildlife so that they can begin to identify value in sustainable use approaches,” she added.
In August 2013, Rich and Sinvula held their first conservation outreach program, which they call Wild Joys. They held six different day-trips, each accommodating seven children. The program was provided in Setswana, the youngsters’ native language.
“The small group allows for every child to have a window seat, plenty of opportunity to ask and answer questions, and a safe environment for being outside of the safari vehicle to learn about animal tracks, animal dung, and plants as well as to take snack breaks by the river,” Rich said.
“The children see wildlife in their natural environment and learn natural history, animal behavior, and field research methods,” she said. “We hope to inspire the youth to be concerned with conservation, thus increasing the chances of wildlife persisting in and outside of protected areas.”
In addition to cultural and ecological incentives, there are economic reasons for preserving the animals that have come to be associated with Africa.
“The high-end, low-impact tourism industry is now the second largest contributor to Botswana’s gross domestic product,” said Rich. “The value of tourism is also part of the lesson for village children.”
Rich, who received her bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University and her master’s degree from the University of Montana in wildlife biology, has nine years of field-based research experience and has previous experience in Botswana leading and teaching a conservation study abroad program for undergraduates.
Her statistical modeling research on pumas in Central and South America was featured in an article in the Journal of Mammalogy in April 2014. Rich, her advisor Marcella Kelly, associate professor of wildlife in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and others discuss the use of advanced models to estimate densities of animals that are uniform in color. That study is the first to estimate the density of a population of carnivores in which only a subset of the individuals are naturally marked, using camera-trapping surveys in combination with spatial mark-resight models.
“I have worked in a diversity of ecosystems, from rainforests to savannas to pine-fir woodlands, with a focus on carnivores,” Rich said. “I have been fortunate enough to work both nationally and internationally and hope to have a long career focused on the sustainable management and conservation of wildlife populations and their habitats.”
The College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, which consistently ranks among the top three programs of its kind in the nation, advances the science of sustainability. Programs prepare the future generation of leaders to address the complex natural resources issues facing the planet. World-class faculty lead transformational research that complements the student learning experience and impacts citizens and communities across the globe on sustainability issues, especially as they pertain to water, climate, fisheries, wildlife, forestry, sustainable biomaterials, ecosystems, and geography. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.
The summer 2015 issue of the college’s quarterly newsmagazine features a rundown on the new cross-colleges water degree, a graduate student's wildlife research in Madagascar's rainforest, and much more.