Monday, November 10, 2014

A call for a more holistic approach to conservation science


Conducting our fieldwork in the Gede restoration forest this week, we learned that there are large challenges looming for conservation in the vicinity. The Kenyan government has given permission to an energy company to explore for oil & gas in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, the main site where we have been working the past several years (and just 2km away from where we are doing fieldwork this week). This exploration will entail cutting large (4m-wide) swaths through the three different forest habitat types (Brachystegia woodland, Cynometra thicket, and Mixed forest) in order to sink drills deep into the ground - potentially disastrous for the resident wildlife, not to mention the integrity of the forest reserve. A Chinese company that has been subcontracted to conduct the exploratory drilling has decamped to a (former) corn field just adjacent to our restoration forest plots in Gede. The local newspapers summarized the situation in a a story they ran late in the week
View of BGP staging area for oil/gas exploration from our study site

This type of threat to the preservation of forest habitat and rare animals is, sadly, not uncommon - witness the ongoing challenges to conservation and indigenous rights faced in the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. Arabuko-Sokoke Forest (ASF) is home to a critical mass of endangered/threatened birds and mammals, and, as the last remaining big patch of coastal forest in East Africa, is extremely critical to numerous conservation efforts. For the past five years I've been working with a local NGO that has amassed a ton of data on many of the endangered species in the forest; together we've worked to collect more data and publish scientific papers that try to describe the habitat needs of threatened bird species as well as the complexities of managing for a disparate array of wildlife  (including a herd of African elephants) in the confined space of a small forest reserve, among other things. But arguably a much bigger threat to conservation is the fact that ASF is also ringed by 50+ villages of Giriama (one of the nine coastal ethnic groups that comprise the Mijikenda) residents - with a total population of 100,000 or so local residents who have historically relied to varying degrees on forest products (bushmeat, wood for charcoal production & fuelwood, etc.). Reducing some of the pressure on the forest associated with such intense anthropogenic disturbances is key to conserving the Arabuko habitat and the species within, of course. And, as elsewhere in tropical biodiversity hotspots, there have been some well-meaning and effective programs established over the years aimed at providing alternative incoming generating activities for locals, including butterfly rearing and bee-keeping programs as well as a terrific environmental education scheme. But these can seem woefully inadequate in scale when put in a geopolitical context. 

     Of course, apart from the poaching concerns, there is also the ever-present issue of security in this country - as I write this, rioting youth have blocked the streets with coral and burning tires in nearby Timboni village in protest over the inaction of police in response to a killing in the streets of Watamu Saturday night. The ongoing battle with Al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia (a conflict which just marked its fourth year anniversary) and its attendant unrest also continues to threaten stability throughout the country. This ultimately leads to heightened threats to the environment: as tourism has plummeted due to security concerns, many people have been reduced to relying on dwindling forest and marine resources for survival.

The challenge for conservation science is incorporating all of these issues into cogent, practical, and effective solutions. A scientific approach to the underlying ecological issues is of course absolutely essential -- as is a fierce and passionate dedication to the conservation of biodiversity. At the same time, conservation strategies that willfully ignore the basic needs and misunderstand the culture of local people will never be effective or sustainable. Working together with local communities to solve social, economic, and environmental challenges will be the key here. Several recent articles circulating in the scientific community have argued eloquently for a more holistic, inclusive approach to conservation science - a call that extends to working to ensure an increased diversity of perspectives within the scientific community as well. This approach would be well-suited to situations such as the ones facing many communities here in coastal Kenya.
     In the meantime, here on the ground in Kilifi District, a number of local community groups along with concerned NGOs presented the governor with a petition protesting the oil & gas exploration plan a few days ago. Let's hope this diverse array of voices will be heard, and more rationale attitudes prevail -- we already face enough challenges!

 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Gede fieldwork underway!

Sampling arthropod biodiversity with Kirao and Arnold in Gede restoration forest

With the help of intrepid field assistants Kirao and Arnold (local residents with the intern/volunteer program at A Rocha Kenya), we have been getting it done in the restoration forest at Gede Ruins. Each morning we've been putting out pitfall traps full of soapy water to capture  ground-dwelling arthropods (spiders and beetles), and malaise traps designed to capture flying insects (wasps/bees, beetles, flies). I have brought two kinds of malaise traps (visible in above picture) with me for this expedition -- a large white trap that is anchored on the ground and captures insects flying up to a meter or so off the ground, and another smaller gray trap that can be hung from trees used to capture insects flying around two meters above the ground. Each of these traps has a collecting chamber at the top of the netting material; insects flying into the netting make their way upwards (towards the light) and fly into the chamber, falling into alcohol with which we have charged the trap. We also put out yellow bowls full of soapy water, which attracts wasps and bees. Each morning we collect the specimens from all of the traps, and bring them back here to the Mwamba Field Centre , where we transfer them to vials containing 70% alcohol sorted by type (Order) of insect. I will deliver the specimens to a colleague at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi before flying back to the U.S. next week.
Kirao and Arnold placing scarab (dung) beetles into vials.
For this expedition, we are exploring the effects that the presence of Neem (Azadirachta indica) trees may have on arthropod communities. Neem has insecticidal properties -- the seeds are used to make biorational pesticides -- so it's possible that the mere presence of the tree may deter insects from lingering in plots with high concentrations of Neem. Our traps are designed to measure activity of insects/arthropods in the plots -- because they are "passive traps", they don't measure overall abundance -- so they are well-suited to comparing activity among plots with different concentrations of Neem. Our preliminary results from our last sampling expedition indicate that there may be a pattern, so we're checking to see if any sort of pattern emerges from a larger number of replicated plots.
Neem tree in Gede Ruins
 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hurry up and wait! or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the journey

 
On the tarmac in Nairobi


Patience...
Day three here on the Kenyan coast, and we have finally placed our first arthropod traps in the nearby Gede restoration forest.








Yesterday was a day spent wrangling with various bureaucratic headaches - replete with frantic phone calls/texts to colleagues back at the Nairobi headquarters of the National Museums of Kenya - the organization that oversees operations of the Gede National Monument here on the coast where we're working. As is often the case here, our dialogue was full of nuance and intimation - eventually it became clear that a sticking point was my lapsed membership as an Affiliate Member of the National Museums of Kenya.
By the end of the day we had resolved that upon my renewal (and accompanying fee payment), we would be allowed access into the forest to do our research. Thus ensued a frantic afternoon rushing into town to take care of transferring money via M-pesa, a cell phone-based service for which Kenya is quite well known (The Economist has highlighted this service several times recently, praising it's simplicity and practicality). Once we were able to load the money onto our phone, we then simply sent it to our colleague's phone in Nairobi, and we were all set.

M-pesa station, Watamu
This morning, as promised, we were allowed access to the forest (after another hourlong delay - but who's counting?) - finally putting in traps to capture ground-dwelling and flying insects in the restoration forest. We're looking forward to returning in the morning to see what we've caught!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Restoration fieldwork on the Kenyan coast - Gede Ruins



Back in coastal Kenya for a few weeks to continue fieldwork in a restored forest in the Gede Ruins National Monument. Continuing a collaboration with David Macfarlane of Michigan State University and Colin Jackson of A Rocha Kenya, I'm here collecting arthropod diversity data in plots within a forest that was restored with native tree species over twenty years ago. I'm focusing this time on plots that contain volunteer Neem trees --- an exotic species from India that has been proposed as a species suitable for timber production in Kenya plantations. Data collected at the site last year suggest that higher percentages of above ground carbon comprised of Neem is correlated with higher ratios of flying to ground-dwelling arthropods. Over the next ten days we'll be collecting more data to see whether or not this pattern holds up with more replication. if it does, it could have important implications for how we view the presence of introduced species in restoration areas.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

 
Spending a month in Uppsala, Sweden working with colleagues in the Department of Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet, or SLU) as a Guest Researcher in the August T. Larsson Guest Researcher program. Over the next three years I'll be working with the Ecosystem Services and Conservation Research Team on several projects, some short-term, some longer-term. Thematically, these projects are all (more or less) aimed at better understanding the factors that govern the population dynamics of insects important in agricultural production. Topics include modeling the effects of pesticides on bumble bee populations, exploring how parasitoid wasps (important for biological control of insect pests) respond to habitat fragmentation, and (along with colleagues at CSIRO Australia and the University of California) exploring the effects of vegetation diversity on pests and beneficial insects in agroecosystems.
Uppsala cathedral (Domkyrka)
 
 
'Fika" (coffee break) is an all-important Swedish tradition!
 
 
 
 
Stockholm sunset
 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Voodoo forests of Benin

Inside a sacred forest near Allada


Fishing in the bay, Cotonou
Bonjour! Just wrapped up an exploratory expedition to the West African nations of Benin & Togo, where I have been laying the groundwork for both research and study abroad opportunities with local contacts along with colleagues from Michigan State University. We spent much of our time with local voodoo practitioners learning about the sacred forests spread throughout this part of the world, with a focus on the interactions among their spiritual practices, stewardship of the sacred forests, and the biological diversity within and around the forests. My colleagues and I are especially interested in exploring the social and scientific issues that form the backdrop for these interactions. For my part, I'm interested in how arthropod diversity both within and around sacred forests may play a role in both the spiritual and the scientific (conservation) aspects of this interplay. For instance, forest stewardship may bolster ecosystem services such as pollination and biological control in nearby agricultural fields. I'm looking forward to setting up some experiments with colleagues at the university in Abomey-Calavi (Cotonou) to test some hypotheses related to these and other interchanges - as well as creating opportunities for UW Tacoma students to explore the myriad rich cultural and scientific aspects of life and conservation in West Africa.
Mono river, border between Benin & Togo


Market in Ouidah

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Human-forest mutualisms in Kenya

Preparing to enter kaya Kinondo
















I have just wrapped up a  two-week expedition in coastal Kenya, where, along with colleagues from Michigan State University, I've been helping lay the groundwork for research that explores the mutualistic relationship between coastal forests and nearby local villagers. Working with local collaborators that include the National Museums of Kenya, A Rocha Kenya, and the Kenya Forestry Research Institute, we have been meeting with members of local Community Forest Associations around Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Dakatcha Woodlands, Shimba Hills, and a few sacred forests ("kayas") around Mombasa and the South Coast. Many of these villagers (which consist of members of several of the nine tribes that constitute the Mijikenda coastal tribes, who originated from Somalia) rely on forest products such as cut stems/poles for fuelwood, charcoal production, and wood carving - all responsible for negative effects on forest ecosystems that are well-documented in this part of the world. At the same time, many villagers living adjacent to forests also contribute positive benefits to forest ecosystems, including such activities as planting native tree and plant species and beekeeping. Our interest is in documenting such human-forest mutualisms, comparing them with biodiversity metrics in a range of habitats subject to different governance systems. Furthermore, we hope to engage local residents in participatory planning processes to positively increase the scope and impact of these human-forest mutualisms.



Wood carvers at Lunga Lunga, Kenya-Tanzanian border


Colobus monkey, kaya Kinondo

Sunset, Indian Ocean