Vehicle Noise Disturbance on African Wildlife

My thesis at Columbia University and why I think it’s so important

Stop whatever song you are listening to on Spotify… What do you hear? For most of us, we hear the sound of tires on the pavement, the honking of horns and the acceleration through a yellow light or the slamming of breaks. And, especially in New York, it’s constant. There is never a day where there is a break from the traffic and the noise from these roads. In fact, road development is one of the most spatially extensive sources of anthropogenic noise and is directly related to the increase of human populations [Barber et al. 2009]. Chronic noise exposure, such as vehicle traffic, is annoying while we try to sleep or block out its frustrating distractions, but it can also cause negative physiological responses to us [Barber et al. 2009]. This doesn’t just apply to humans but also to wildlife. Studies have found that chronic noise exposure has significant impacts on birds, small mammals and cetaceans, including affecting communication and physical deterioration. Even though road ecology and its effects on species have been researched, the majority has focused on birds, amphibians and cetaceans, and few studies have focused on large terrestrial mammals, and those that have merely focused on North American wildlife [Barber et al. 2009]. More specifically, even fewer studies have looked at large African terrestrial mammals.

ImageNow, why is this an issue? Or, rather, why is this more of a pressing issue than other species affected by vehicle noise exposure? Africa, according to researchers at Yale, Texas A&M and Boston University, is predicted to have the fastest urban expansion between now and 2030, growing at 590% [citation]. As human populations and road infrastructure grow, so do the number of human-wildlife conflicts. South Africa’s economy and infrastructure has increased significantly in the last decades, resulting in previously conserved land now being used for human settlements. Before excessive road development continues it is critical to understand the impact of vehicle noise pollution in order to combat possibly detrimental effects on wildlife and local communities.

Wildlife have different reactions to noise exposure, and African species are no different. The wildlife has varying degrees of sensitivity to disturbance [Vanthomme et al. 2013]. Some species, such as the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) and the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), will avoid areas of high human disturbance such as roads and highways [Buk & Knight 2012]. Animals with a greater tolerance to disturbance, such as the lion (Panthera leo) and cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), may become habituated to roads and use them to their advantage in order to move from point A to point B in an effective manner [Coffin 2007] . All four species rely heavily on their hearing in order to survive, either for hunting or to avoid danger. As development continues to expand throughout Africa, and especially South Africa, wildlife in small, protected areas are becoming surrounded by roads, and these roads are becoming more frequently used. Animals with less space to utilize within the reserve are having constant, forced exposure to chronic noise from commuting vehicles. Imagine relying on your hearing in order to find your food, but you are constantly listening to honking horns and the hustle and bustle outside of your house. It’s going to make it harder to find that food, don’t you think? Other wildlife populations exposed to noise pollution have had such effects such as hearing loss, hypertension and elevated stress hormone levels.


Not only is exposure to vehicle disturbance negative to African mega-fauna, but wildlife populations and human relations are interlinked. Negative impacts to wildlife can result in economic loss for property holders, social tensions and fragmentation in affected areas and communities, and physical harm and/or death to both humans and wildlife.

So what I am going to do about it? Well that’s a great question! I will be using the data collected between 2006-2013 on a small private game reserve in South Africa and using spatial models and analyses I will determine the impact noise disturbance on lions, cheetahs, elephants and rhinos based on habitat preference and utilization. I will also be going back out to South Africa this summer and determine the distance and impact which noise negatively impacts these animals.

The research will provide vital information about the future of small, protected areas and quantify the true role human development has on large mammals. If species avoid roads due to vehicle noise disturbance, conservation measures must be taken to prevent further human-wildlife conflict and address infrastructure expansion near conserved areas. This will improve development around conservation areas in South Africa as well as contribute to refining areas surrounding protected areas all over the continent, and even the world.

ImageOnce the known impacts of noise on large African wildlife are determined measures can be taken to mask these negative impacts. It is impossible to prevent environmentally-irresponsible infrastructure and human-wildlife conflict without knowing its effects first. This project will not only help determine the degree of impact chronic noise has on the focus species, but also provide insight to the optimal habitats to foster sustainable and ecofriendly infrastructure. This will include determining various masking techniques to help dissipate noise disturbance.

Conflict cannot just be interpreted when opposing parties have equal strength and destruction, but rather when at least one party has a significant and detrimental effect on the other, even when the opposing party cannot retaliate in kind. Development expansion exacerbates human’s deleterious impact on wildlife and therefore the impacts of noise pollution on large mammals needs to be explored. Human-wildlife conflict, and the serious detrimental effects that cause it, must be further surveyed not only to preserve wildlife species but also in order to find a solution for humans and wildlife to co-exist peacefully for future generations.

And don’t worry (I knew you would be) but I’ll be sure to keep blogging as I conduct all my research. I’ll probably be writing even more blogs while I’m out there, because it’s much more fun to be writing about the snake I found in my bed or the amazing hyena encounter rather than a post about how Butler Library’s internal architecture is phenomenal (even though, lets be honest, we all know it really is).


Literature Cited

Barber, Jesse et al. 2009. “The Costs of Chronic Noise Exposure for Terrestrial Organisms.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25 (3) (March): 180–9.

Vanthomme, H., et al. 2013. “Distribution of a Community of Mammals in Relation to Roads and Other Human Disturbances in Gabon, Central Africa.” Conservation Biology: Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology 27 (2) (April): 281–91.

Buk, K., and M. Knight. 2012. “Habitat Suitability Model for Black Rhinoceros in Augrabies Falls National Park, South Africa.” Southern African Wildlife Management Association 42 (2): 82–93.

Coffin, A. 2007. “From Roadkill to Road Ecology: A Review of the Ecological Effects of Roads.” Journal of Transport Geography 15 (5) (September): 396–406.


Woolly Rhino vs Paraceratherium

Who Would Win? Woolly Rhino or Paraceratherium?

Guest illustration by Jess Stitt

I have never been a huge sports fan. I love baseball and am completely dedicated to the San Francisco Giants but I have never felt a strong connection for basketball or ever participated in March Madness.

My March Mammal Madness Bracket

However, when I heard about March Mammal Madness (MMM) I knew I had found a bracket I too could get emotionally worked up about. Basically, just like March Madness Tournament, MMM has 64 species going up against each other in “simulated” fights. The battles are “live-tweeted” (check out #2014MMM) with interesting facts about each of the animals. As a passionate conservation biologist, and someone who has seen many of these animals in the African wild, I became very scientific about my bracket (some might have called it “crazy” or “overly aggressive” but I like to think I was merely “passionate”). While some of the upsets in my bracket I can understand (I should have known the giant ground sloth was such a beast!) I am still devastated and feeling a bit slighted by the woolly rhinoceros’s defeat to the Paraceratherium (otherwise known as Walter, since it’s so hard to spell the actual name). I was in fact so vocal about this my professor, Josh Drew, suggested I compose a 3000-word essay to him of why the woolly rhino should have won. While I didn’t go into that much detail, I have, for your amusement, written a short blog post of why the woolly rhino deserves more credit:

Woolly Rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) vs Paraceratherium: Battle Tactics, Statistics and the True Winner

The woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) is an extinct species of rhinoceros from the Pleistocene epoch and was found throughout northern Asia and Europe (citation). Its closest extant relative is the Sumatran rhino while its size was more closely similar to a slightly larger white rhinoceros. A male adult woolly rhino was estimated to be roughly 2 meters in height, 3.1 tons, 2.8 m in length and with a 1 m anterior horn, as well as a small interior horn (citation). Solid and hefty, the woolly rhino were built to survive its terrain and local climate as well as defend themselves against other nonextinct fossil predators (for more information check out this paper).

The Paraceratherium is one of the largest mammals known to have existed on earth, with adults estimating to weight 12 tons with a should height of 4.8 m and 8m in length (citation). Also found in Asia and Europe, they existed during the Oligocene epoch and are considered the extinct genus of the hornless rhinoceros-like mammals in the family Hyracodontidae (citation).

The defense tactics and strategies for the woolly rhino and the Paraceratherium are very different. Woolly rhinos, like their living relatives, use their horns for defensive purposes as well as to attract a mate. They are also short-sighted, relying heavily on their hearing and smell to sense danger. While in many cases this may be a disadvantage (human hunters, stealthy saber-tooth cat etc) it would almost be impossible for the woolly rhino not to notice a huge Paraceratherium heading its way. Nor are Paraceratheriums known for their stealth or agility. The poor eyesight of the woolly rhino is also compensated by heighted aggression if it feels threatened. A woolly rhino, as well as its living relatives, will charge at any perceived threat, using its horn and body size as a weapon. Paraceratherium, on the other hand, fight very similarly to todays giraffe species. Called “necking”, two Paraceratheriums will face head to head and whack their heads against each others bodies (Super amazing video here, go to 3:40). If the Paraceratherium was able to stand side-by-side with an enemy at all times it would be clear the Paraceratherium would win, however the woolly rhino is much more agile and aggressive than Walter and could easily avoid a large swinging head (video 1:30). Charging at a moments notice, the Paraceratherium would have no opportunity to defend itself or get the proper angle against a woolly rhino. One stab of the woolly rhinos horn and the Paraceratherium would go down faster than a dhole on a bandicoot (other MMM battle which occurred… result: bandicoot didn’t make it). The woolly rhinos stocky build and more agile movements than the Paraceratherium would prevent it from being run over. With extremely tough skin and build, the woolly rhino would not only not be killed instantly by the whack of the Paraceratherium but it would merely need one successful charge to pierce the skin of his opponent to win.

In conclusion woolly rhinos are by far the correct animal to chose if you’re every going into battle. And lets be honest, the Paraceratherium was also the model for the AT-AT walkers in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back… And we all know how that went…

And if that doesn’t convince you, these amazing drawings by Jess Stitt should:


Figure 1. A Woolly Rhino defeating the Paraceratherium, aka Walter, with a human for scale and Rex (from “Were Back! A Dinosaur Story”) as referee. Illustration by Jess Stitt.


Figure 2. A Woolly Rhino defeating Walter again. Illustration by Jess Stitt.

Ancestry Report Part 2

IMG_0966The results are here! Earlier this week I got news that my Genographic kit had been processed and I’d have access to the results! If you’re a bit confused about what I’m talking about, read my previous post. And to recap for those who half-heartedly remember it, these test results are part of a park Genographic Project in conjunction with National Geographic looking at information of our past ancestors, including how and when they moved out of Africa and their interactions with various populations through the thousands of years of migration. In order to do this I submitted a sample of my DNA to their labs, who traced “markers” (changes in my DNA) that help us map out my mitochondrial DNA over thousands of years (or Y-chromosome for paternal lines)

As I alluded to in my previous post, all women alive today are descendants from a common direct maternal ancestor born in East Africa roughly 180,000 years ago. In media today they call her the “Mitochondrial Eve” (there is also a Y-chromosomal Adam). This is not to say that she was the only woman alive during this time, but rather her lineage is the only one that was able to survive to this current generation. Over a great period of time Eve’s descendants gave rise to two lineages, which are characterized by a different set of markers, or genetic mutations, that each member carries. This continues again and again. One female undergoes a mutation in her DNA and passes it on to her children, thus allowing us to trace back our exact lineages based on markers in mitochondrial DNA. From East Africa different populations spread throughout Africa and then, roughly 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, these populations migrated to Asia. The further these populations travelled from one another, the more genetic drift and mutations occurred, causing us to have more and more genetic differences in our DNA.

When I received my results, I wasn’t too surprised (basically they informed me my lineage and the migration my great ancestors took before me led to me being white; who knew!?) but was thoroughly interested in how my maternal line migrated as well as the breakdown of my genetic markers. Turns out 41% of my ancestry comes from Northern Europe, while is a likely signal of the earliest hunter-gatherers in Europe, who also were the last to transition to agriculture as it caught on from the Middle East around 8,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period. Another 40% of my ancestry breakdown is Mediterranean, this component relates also to the Neolithic population expansion from the Middle East. And finally I have 18% Southwest Asia. This is common with people who have a large European influence in their ancestry because Southwest Asians and Europeans have been mixing with each other for over tens of thousands of years.  So what does this all mean? The Genographic Project was nice enough to explain that as well. Based on the samples collected from native people from all over the world, my genome matches up closest to Germany, and second to Romania.

Probably the most exciting to me was my hominid ancestry. As I’ve mentioned before, our ancestors were not alone 60,000 years ago when they first migrated out of Africa and into the Middle East and Europe. Two of our hominid cousins, the Neanderthals and the Denisovans also occupied the Eurasian landmass at the time. Most non-Africans have about 2% Neanderthal in them, though mine was at 1.5%. It is harder to determine with accuracy the Denisovan ancestry in your DNA, and partly how volunteering for this Genographic Project is going to help find more of the answers, but for the time being, they roughly estimate 3.5% of my DNA is Denisovan.

Conclusions? I can now spend 5% of every day acting like a caveman… I have the DNA to prove it.

Food Waste in America

foodszDid you know the equivalent of $165 billion dollars worth of food each year is thrown out by Americans (NRDC)? Think about it. How often to you throw out a bruised apple, or let that salad go to waste in your fridge? We all do it to some point. And this has especially been the case in the United States since World War II ended. Families that had sacrificed so much, and lived on so little, now had access to a plethora of food, and why eat the bruised apple or meat that smells a little off when you can just buy fresh produce for relatively cheap? The access to cheap, attractive food (as well as the boom in advertisements and commercials) has encouraged us to live in a wasteful lifestyle.

In the US alone, 31% of our available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten (USDA). That’s right, I am not talking about the produce that gets destroyed by pests while still being grown or even going bad while being transported to the stores, this is the number that gets thrown out after consumers such as you or me have the chance to eat it. In case you looking for more concrete numbers that is 133 billion pounds of food per year (USDA).

What does that mean from a random individuals perspective?  Most importantly, we can make a difference for the environment and the economy with only a little bit of effort. Did you know that our uneaten food just sits rotting in landfills, acting as the single largest component of the U.S. municipal sold waste system, and contributes to a large proportion of the U.S. methane emissions? What’s worse, a lot of things that get thrown out don’t actually need to be. Unless we are talking about dairy products (but even milk is usually fine for a week after the “sell by” date), most expiration dates don’t actually mean anything. That’s right, the majority of food companies only voluntarily put on a “consume by” date. My guess, to encourage you to either throw it out or eat it so that you can then go buy more.

1)   Shop for food more often but buy less. One of the biggest problems about food waste is that we buy in bulk and things go off before we have time to eat them. Try and cut back buying your perishables in bulk and instead stop by the market every few days to pick up whatever meals you already know you have planned. Especially if you can walk to your farmers market or close grocery store this can make all the difference!

2)   Make sure you buy things on purpose! Too often we buy food just because we want to, without having a proper meal planned out! Have an idea of what you’re going to make in the next few days, and then make sure you use all your produce in the fridge. If that means adding a couple different ingredients than you originally had planned because something is about to go off, be creative and go for it!

3)   Saving it for later. If you’re eating out, especially if you live in a big city, get a doggie bag to take your food home with you. Even better, and one of my favorite things to do, ask the restaurant for disposable fork and knife and then give your doggie bag to a homeless person on the street. Food doesn’t go to waste, you don’t have to think about it just sitting in your fridge, and someone out there is extremely happy about your generosity.

4)   Eat your leftovers. I feel like more often than not too much food gets made for dinner parties or lunches and the food gets shuffled around in the fridge for days before someone just throws it out. Heat it up, add a couple or ingredients or just throw it onto a sandwich (Side note: anything tastes delicious on a sandwich, no matter what. Shout out to Ben and Nico for this one)

5)   Be conscious. Just by being aware of the amount of food waste is generated per year should make you feel at least a little bit guilty (at least I hope so) and make you think twice before throwing something out.

Even if we just reduced our food waste by 15% we could feed more than 25 million American every year (NRDC). Even if our food goes into the compost, even if the alternative is just throwing it out, we are still actively wasting food.

Next time you go shopping, or consider throwing out those old bananas, stop and think if it’s really necessary. Cause lets be honest, making some banana bread sounds and smells a hell of a lot better than just letting the fruit rot in your garbage can! And with the internet these days, you can find a recipe for any conglomerate of food you have leftover in your fridge!

Ecosystem Valuation

Everybody loves an incentive. You can bet the moment my dad told me he would pay me a measly 2 dollars to clean the car, what originally was a ghastly request immediately turned into a coveted job. I’ll admit it; I would do practically anything my parents requested when I was younger if I could get a little money out of it. I used to give my mom head massages for a quarter a minute, included the entirety of “The Last Emperor” (160 minutes if you didn’t know, I made a fortune!). Even as an adult I can see the transition I have made (albeit I require larger incentives) where even if I value something intrinsically, or I support the “idea” behind it, if there is an incentive for me to do otherwise (especially as a poor graduate student) it’s hard to turn it down. But where do you draw the line? Placing a value on everything can easily get out of hand. I wonder how many of us go for the more expensive organic and locally sourced meat from the supermarket rather than buying the cheapest packaged beef… And when you start placing a value on ecosystem, or a species, it can become a dangerous line to walk. But in this world where money is such a driving factor is there a better way?

The real question is how far is too far. If something does not have a high economic value, or is “common” then is it worth saving? If a desert does not have that much valuation in terms of incentives for humans, then should we just wipe out those amazing creatures in favor of a giant hotel and pool? [The answer, if you had any pause, is no].

The real hardcore scientists and animal lovers would scoff at the idea of placing value on any sort of biodiversity, or trying to make a profit off of wildlife but placing a number on biodiversity is not always the worse thing one could do. There are many benefits to combining economics and ecology. Because if not money, then what is the best valuation parameter to enable conservation success?

  1. Playing hardball with the rest of the world. Environmentalists have been trying for decades to persuade the general public how important it is to save the environment. Finally they are talking in a way that everyone across the world understands. Economic valuation of ecosystem services is extremely persuasive to the policy makers and the voters. Placing a monetary value on the environment allows the public to comprehend the economic incentive in conservation.
  2. Attention to land and habitats that would otherwise be destroyed. By placing a price on conservation and sustainable practices, such as shark diving or private game reserves, locals and entrepreneurs see an incentive to keep pristine habitats and protect the local wildlife because people are willing to pay large amounts of money to
  3. Long-term sustainable jobs for locals. Ecosystem valuation gives an opportunity for locals to be employed not only in conservation, but if done correctly, then jobs that will last a lifetime. Local landowners can either drain their land of nutrients by intensive farming in a matter of years, or they can convert their land to a private preserve and charge people for years to come to see the wildlife available. Even national parks, which charge tourists to come visit, can use the economic gain to hire locals as rangers, ecologists, etc.
  4. Acknowledgement of economic value. If an ecological system does not have a known value decisions made about the ecosystems may not take into account all of the costs and will not incorporate correct policies.
  5. Counters the tragedy of the commons. It’s true. When people start finding individual incentives to protect the land, they are much more likely to do so rather than exploit the ecosystem because no one is really “in charge” and if you don’t do it someone else will. By placing a value on the environment people have a change to profit from conserving over a long period of time and making a profit.

Makutsi driverA perfect example of ecosystem valuation would be carbon credits. For those who don’t know, a carbon credit is a tradable permit or certificate that gives the owner the right to emit a certain amount of carbon emissions used by companies to “offset”, or neutralize, their carbon dioxide (or carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions (check out more here). Countries or landowners obtain carbon credits by reforestation, afforestation or just not cutting down ones forests to begin with. If your company has a high carbon emission you can purchase carbon credits, and then that money goes towards projects that include restoring forests, updating power plants or factories to increase energy efficiency etc.  By putting a price on carbon emissions, and a price on forests, people are more willing to protect their land in order to gain some incentive out of it. If you’re interested in carbon credits, you should read more about REDD’s (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) work.

So putting a value on wildlife and the environment… Good or bad? I’d go with good, as you could probably tell from this post, but I’m an optimist. There is definitely the possibility of pushing economic value too far, and then we’re all in trouble. Stay tuned for a post in the future about the Rainforest Standard, which is similar to REDD and the project I am currently working on.

A summary of a scientific paper about the global decline of carnivores and ungulates and why you should care

In Di Marco’s et al. paper on “A retrospective evaluation of the global decline of carnivores and ungulates”, published in Conservation Biology’s February 2014 issue, Di Marco and his colleagues use the IUCN Red List to determine the change in conservation statuses for carnivores, ungulates and elephants across the world between 1975 – 2008. Scientific papers can be a schlep to get through, I know, but I loved the article so much and found it pointing out important conservation issues today that I felt I should highlight and breakdown the paper for all those interested.

Currently 36% of the world’s carnivores and ungulates are now susceptible to extinction [1]. For every one single carnivore or ungulate that has improved its conservation status, a.k.a. increased its population numbers, habitat and probability to survive, since 1970, another eight have deteriorated [1].

We hear these facts being spewed out all the time. As a conservationist I might react even less than most people since every other lecture or presentation is on the decline of the natural world. But its not like we have been ignoring conservation efforts since the 1970s. In fact, it’s just the opposite. From the 1970s to today, the percentage of the world that were designated as protected areas increased from less than 2% to 13% [2]. Many regulations have also been implemented over this time to stop wildlife trade and worldwide attention has been focused on such charismatic mega fauna such as the Giant panda, the cheetah, and the Siberian tiger. So why has there been such a decline still? And why is important to specifically look at carnivores and ungulates?

The known cheetah population is approximately 7,500 adult animals (see section Population for details). Additional areas where cheetah status is poorly known are unlikely to raise the total to over 10,000. Given Myers (1975) estimate of 15,000 cheetahs in Africa in the 1970s, a decline of at least 30% is suspected over the past 18 years (3 generations). The decline is primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as killing and capture of cheetahs as livestock depredators, primarily, as well as for trade (IUCN Cats Red List Workshop 2007). (

The known cheetah population is approximately 7,500 adult animals (see section Population for details). Additional areas where cheetah status is poorly known are unlikely to raise the total to over 10,000. Given Myers (1975) estimate of 15,000 cheetahs in Africa in the 1970s, a decline of at least 30% is suspected over the past 18 years (3 generations). The decline is primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as killing and capture of cheetahs as livestock depredators, primarily, as well as for trade (IUCN Cats Red List Workshop 2007). (

Carnivores and ungulates are extremely important because they contribute to key ecological processes such as seed dispersal, herbivory, and predation as well as cause major top-down effects on the ecosystem (check out this great video on Yellowstone wolves). While this is extremely important to monitor, few studies have looked at the change in conservation status, and none have looked farther than 20 years. Carnivores and ungulates, especially the large-bodied ones, have lifespans which can surpass the timeframe of the study, making it more difficult to determine if its conservation status is declining or rebounding.  Their long generation lengths require this extended monitoring. They are also more susceptible to extinction than other mammals, and thus their conservation status is more likely to have changed [1].

So we get why this is important to observe, but how did Di Marco and his colleagues determine these numbers in the first place, and what were their findings?

Using the IUCN red lists as their criteria, they looked at all carnivores (n=284) and ungulates (Perissodactyla, n = 16, and terrestrial Cetartiodactyla, n = 244) that have been on the red list between 1970 – 2013. They also included the two species of elephant (n=2) with the ungulates, making it a grand total of 498 species.  Based on the species’ threat status (as described in the IUCN Red List criteria), which included data on population structure and size, the trends of the species globally, trends in known threats, trends in habitat availability and deforestation rates, and geographic range, they ranked each species based on their status. If the IUCN did not have a status for a species, Di Marco and his colleagues would considered the above factors to make the most educated and accurate guess possible. The rankings are as follows:

0  = Least Concern (LC)

1 = near threatened (NT)

2 = vulnerable (VU)

3 = endangered (EN)

4 = critically endangered (CR)

5 = critically endangered (possibly extinct) (CRPe), extinct (EX), and extinct in the wild (EW)


[screen shot from the actual paper]

The overall results were what I already stated: for every one species improving, there are eight deteriorating. From 1975 to 2008 the global percentage of threatened species increased from 28.5% to 36.3% [1]. What’s more though, is what Di Marco and his colleagues discovered when analyzing the data:

1)    The decline in conservation status for ungulates was much more dramatic than carnivores. There were, however, many improvements in the statuses of felid (cats) and pinniped (seals etc.) species.

2)    Species which were considered “large-bodied” (over 100 kg) had a steeper decline than those who were considered “small-bodied” (under 10 kg). Why you might ask? Small-bodied species have a greater ability to adapt, and need to less to survive. A Sumatran bull rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) has a territory of about 50 km. If the majority of that land is fragmented he won’t be able to survive off of the land or find suitable mates, not to mention he is more vulnerable to poaching. Small-bodied species. The African wildcat (Felis silvestris), on the other hand, can survive in almost any habitat, live off of rats and mice that can be found in both urban and natural habitats. While they face other issues such as interbreeding with domestic cats, they have a greater chance of survival.

3)    Status improvements mainly occurred in South and North America, while degradation in statuses came from Southeast and Central Asia. This largely is due to habitat loss, such as the spike in forest loss in order to build palm oil plantations [3]. Hunting and exploitation/harvest of species in these countries has also been a contributing factor [4].

4)    Many declines in conservation status were directed related to geopolitical events, international regulations, exploitation of natural resources and shifts in cultural values. For example, Soviet Union collapse directly caused a collapse of protected area systems, withdrawal of subsidies, and an abrupt transition to a free- market economy [1]. Species such as the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) greatly declined from the drastic and immediate changes [5].

[Now, remember, these are general statements and not necessarily true for all individual species. For example, the jaguar (Panthera onca) is a South American felid which status has deteriorated because of the global demand for its pelts, and not only is a felid but also found in South America. So all these statements can’t be directed related to individual speices…]

The findings in this paper are important for a myriad of reasons. Even though we hear statistics and information like this all the time, we need to start doing something about it. This is current, critical research. You can’t get any fresher and better than a February 2014 Conservation Biology paper… These topics and problems they are addressing are concerns we have to be completely aware of, especially in order to save declining species. Being able to understand the trends of global species decline is key to determining what the future may hold for these species, and what strategies and policies have worked or not worked in order to preserve as much biodiversity as possible. We can’t find a solution for the future if we don’t understand our past. Hopefully this will push us forward to find the answers and, hopefully, make some plans for the future of these species.

Please feel free to check out the entire article here.

 Literature Cited

[1] Di Marco, M., L. Boitani, D. Mallon, M. Hoffmann, a. Iacucci, E. Meijaard, P. Visconti, J. Schipper, and C. Rondinini. 2014. “A Retrospective Evaluation of the Global Decline of Carnivores and Ungulates.” Conservation Biology 00 (0) (February 13).

[2] UNEP-WCMC. 2012. The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). Cambridge, United Kingdom.

[3] Sodhi, N. S., L. P. Koh, B. W. Brook, and P. K. L. Ng. 2004. South- east Asian biodiversity: an impending disaster. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 19:654–660.

[4] Corlett, R. 2007. The impact of hunting on the mammalian fauna of tropical Asian forests. Biotropica 39:292–303.

[5] Milner-Gulland, E. J., M. V. Kholodova, A. Bekenov, O. M. Bukreeva, I. A. Grachev, L. Amgalan, and A. A. Lushchekina. 2001. Dramatic declines in saiga antelope populations. Oryx 35:340–345.

The Contrast of an Ecologist in the Big Apple

One of the first questions I get when I tell people I’m studying conservation biology in New York is “Why?” And I get it. It’s a little ridiculous. Especially since I’m interested in large carnivores and herbivores, specifically of the African variety. Not going to find much of that in New York unless you head over to the Bronx Zoo. Or you squint your eyes when looking at Roaree, the Columbia University mascot. Not exactly what I was used to when I lived in South Africa.

But New York has some major perks! The city is the international hub for, well, everything. Most businesses across the world have offices or departments set up in New York because, well to be honest, it’s a hotspot to bring conservationists, scientists and the general public together. Offices of American Natural History Museum, Wildlife Conservation Society, Panthera, Wildlife Trust and others are all based in New York. It is ideal for the big names and for getting your name out there. Not to mention an education from a superb school.

So I’m not that crazy.

However for the friends and family who know me they also know I am not a city girl. My claim of being a born and bred San Franciscan is waived by the fact I essentially left San Francisco at the age of 13 when I attended a small high school in the Ojai Valley. Thacher cultivated my love for the outdoors, and what better way to do that than the backdrop of the Los Padres mountains. Holiday breaks were filled with hiking or skiing, preferably in the Sierra mountains, leaving very little time to explore my native city. This didn’t stop in college. Attending a remote small liberal-arts school in Maine, I surrounded myself again by mountains, forests and rivers. The real kicker came from my life choice to move to South Africa, conduct large carnivore research on a game reserve, live in an old farmhouse with basic amenities and have limited electricity. To anyone who hadn’t picked up on it yet, I am far from a city girl.

 Male lion in Karongwe Private Game Reserve Roaree, the proud mascot of CU
Zero Roaree

Though even after the complete shift in lifestyle to New York, the small living quarters, the different smells, change in my biological clock (South Africa: going to bed with the sun; Academic life: never going to bed), I have found I love it here in New York. Everything about this strange and foreign land of Manhattan excites me and makes for a great quest of exploration. I have begun to blend in with some of the natives (I even yelled at a cab driver who almost ran me over the other day) and have picked up on some of the colloquialisms. Though for all the differences I see between South Africa and New York they both have some pretty great qualities to them. I never would have been given the opportunities to indulge myself in culture and the arts in South Africa, and in New York I am surrounded by them every single day. I am able to establish long-term contacts and start making a name for myself in the academic and scientific world. However, the longer I spend in New York more I find interesting (and sometimes entertaining) similarities and contrasts. I have selected a few below:


1. South Africa: Waking up at 2 a.m. to the sound of hyenas right outside my door.

    New York: Waking up at 2 a.m. because Happy Hour has just begun at the bar I live above.

2. South Africa: Worrying if the volunteers are going to injure themselves with a panga and where the lions are moving to next.

   New York: Worrying if the professors are going to injure me with the amount of reading and papers due and where my thesis is morphing to next.

3. South Africa: Worrying about the lack of money for my 110 Defender and fighting for a place in line at the petrol station.

   New York: Worrying about the lack of money for my thesis and fighting for endless grant fellowships.

4. South Africa: Going for a run on the reserve and noting the different tracks along the dirt road.

   New York: Going for a run in Central Park and noting different sized dog tracks along the snow.

5. South Africa: Eating endless amounts of pap (made from ground maize), pasta, and rice.

   New York: Eating endless amounts of EVERYTHING.

6. South Africa: Annoyed that I can never get reception to call my family.

   New York: Annoyed that I always get reception and can’t hide from my family.

7. South Africa: Keeping an eye out for predators while out on the reserve.

   New York: Keeping an eye out for predators while out in the city on a Friday night.

8. South Africa: Compulsively not leaving a single crumb out on the counter to avoid a giant infestation of rats and ants and cockroaches.

   New York: Compulsively not leaving a single crumb out on the counter to avoid a giant infestation of rats and ants and cockroaches.

9. South Africa: Going to bed with the sunset, starting work at 5:00 a.m.

   New York: Going to bed right before sunrise, finishing work at 5:00 a.m.

10. South Africa: No time to exercise. I am constantly sitting, either in a vehicle or around base, but at least I’m outdoors 24/7!

      New York: No time to exercise. I am constantly sitting, either in my apartment or around the library, but at least I have access to gyms 24/7!

11. South Africa: Spending 20 minutes warming up the generator on a cold day (15 degrees C) in order to get electricity in the house.

      New York: Spending 20 minutes warming up my body on a cold day (15 degrees F) by using my electric blanket.

12. South Africa: Waiting for the GPS to pinpoint my location to 5m or less in the Diamond Block in order to record an animals location.

      New York: Waiting for Google Maps to pinpoint my location in Brooklyn in order to tell me how to get home.

13. South Africa: Drive everywhere! Everything is too far away and/or there are too many dangerous animals around!

      New York: Walk everywhere! Everything is so close and/or there are too many vehicles around!

14. South Africa: Easy access to Kruger National Park, downside is that you are always surrounded by other cars or people.

      New York: Easy access to Central Park, upside is that (if you look hard enough) you can usually find a place that isn’t surrounded by cars or people.

15. South Africa: Forcing colleagues and friends to endure horrible renditions of all my favorite musicals at the top of my lungs.

     New York: With my colleagues and friends getting to experience the most beautiful performances of all the best musicals and plays.

16. South Africa: Using the Drakensberg mountains to orientate myself and find my way back to my vehicle.

      New York: Using the Eastern Mountain Sports store to orientate myself and ask for directions.

17. South Africa:  Nervous I’m going to get a flat tire on my drive home from research.

      New York: Nervous I’m going to break a heel on my walk home from school.

18. South Africa: Lost in the solitude and natural beauty.

      New York: Captured by the never-ending culture and experience.

IMG_0849             IMG_0187

Ultimately, there is an insane amount of perks for both locations. While at the end of the day I definitely prefer the solitude and beauty of the Drakensberg mountains as oppose to the New York skyline, I can’t complain that I get to live here for the next 2 years of my life.  Conservationists can thrive in any environment they are put in, and New York isn’t too shabby of a place to be… I am enjoying all the experiences while I can!