Jassiel M’soka covers broad swaths of the Liuwa Plain astride a motorbike in pursuit of hyenas, cheetahs, wild dogs and lions.
On the western edge of Zambia’s Western Province, this vast grassland is remote even by African standards—a wide-open landscape crossed by the world’s second-largest wildebeest migration. Spotted hyenas are the most conspicuous residents, and the only roads are scant sand tracks.
A research ecologist and graduate student at Montana State University, M’soka will motor right into the middle of a hyena clan feeding on a kill and set to work collecting data. Which individual hyenas are at the kill? What species have they killed? Did they kill it or steal it from cheetahs or wild dogs? How old was their prey and in what condition? What habitat did it occupy?
One day at a time, a picture of relations between predator and prey emerges.
“They don’t mind if I’m there,” said M’soka, who is so familiar with Liuwa’s hyenas that he can identify roughly 100 different individuals on sight. M’soka is employed by the Zambian Carnivore Programme, a non-governmental organization, or NGO, working to protect the region’s large carnivores, their prey and the habitats that support them in three of Zambia’s most important ecosystems—the Luangwa Valley, the Greater Kafue and Greater Liuwa systems. Together, the areas are four times as large as Yellowstone National Park.
Matt Becker, the MSU doctoral graduate who is CEO of the Zambian Carnivore Programme, said ZCP researchers such as M’soka live full time in the bush for most of the year so they can intensively study the carnivores and their prey. Using Land Rovers and motorbikes, Becker, M’soka and other ZCP project scientists follow the hunts to gather data on interactions between five predators—lions, leopards, hyenas, African wild dogs and cheetahs—and 21 prey species. When ZCP scientists use radio telemetry to track the carnivores, a radio collar signal might be coming from anywhere within thousands of square miles of sub-Saharan wilderness.
“When we find them, we collect as much information as we can on them,” Becker said. “We have (more than) 700 individual animals in our databases, and they provide critical baseline data on population dynamics—numbers, survival, dispersal, reproduction, etc.”
Because the research areas are located in a country roughly the size of Texas, which is inhabited by 13 million people mostly clustered around a few large cities, Zambia presents a special opportunity, Becker said. And because ecologists have rarely done in-depth studies of the wildlife in Zambia’s protected ecosystems, ZCP is filling significant gaps in the data needed for conservation management.
Scott Creel, an MSU professor of ecology and one of three principal investigators on a $1 million National Science Foundation grant that has dramatically expanded ZCP’s efforts, said the scope of ZCP’s field-based operation in Zambia makes it one of the most comprehensive studies of predation ever undertaken.
“It is hard to study just one large carnivore,” Creel said. “Species like cheetahs and wild dogs are inherently difficult subjects. Consequently, broad inferences are often pieced together from the results of single-species studies that used different methods.
“But, if we can measure the effects of an entire set of top predators on 21 prey species in three ecosystems, using carefully standardized methods, we will substantially extend our understanding of the role that predation plays in these ecosystems.”
Becker added that the goal of the organization is to bolster the research and conservation needed to protect what is one of Africa’s last remaining strongholds for viable populations of large carnivores.
“We know that populations of large carnivores are in decline around the world, but in Zambia, where 40 percent of the land is managed for wildlife, we still have a rare opportunity to help preserve large functioning ecosystems with all the various ungulate species and top predators, and the communities that depend on wildlife revenue,” he said.
The Zambia-MSU connection
Rewind to one chilly day last April, during the annual break from field research during Zambia’s rainy season, when ZCP’s de facto headquarters migrates halfway around the globe from a tented camp along the Luangwa River to a basement laboratory in MSU’s AJM Johnson Hall.
The meeting this day was focused on how ZCP would coordinate its multiple projects in the coming months. The group included M’soka, Becker, Creel, MSU master’s student Elias Rosenblatt and Wigganson Matandiko. The group’s makeup underscored how ZCP’s two-way exchange benefits the work of both MSU and Zambian conservation efforts.
“By bringing highly-motivated Zambians into the project as graduate students, we hope to build Zambia’s capacity for wildlife conservation,” Creel said.
Including M’soka and Matandiko, four of ZCP’s field biologists are now graduate students in Creel’s carnivore research group, which has studied African carnivores in Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia since the late 1980s. A fifth member of the ZCP team, Egil Dröge of the Netherlands, will start his doctorate next year. Two of Creel’s students, Matandiko and MSU doctoral candidate Angela Brennan, a Minnesota native, are Fulbright scholars.
As the group met in AJM Johnson Hall, photographs of Northern Rockies wildlife on the cinderblock walls stood in contrast to the sub-Saharan ecosystems the team discussed. Yet, lessons learned from Yellowstone’s wildlife inform the group’s plans for research in Zambia.
Yellowstone runs through it
Becker and Creel both have previous experience researching predator-prey relations in Yellowstone, as does MSU doctoral graduate David Christianson, a co-leader of ZCP’s efforts to understand predator-prey interactions. Christianson, now an ecology professor at the University of Arizona, also conducts an intensive long-term study on the Liuwa wildebeest population with ZCP.
Paul Schuette is a third MSU doctoral graduate on ZCP’s roster. Schuette spearheads efforts in Kafue National Park with Matandiko, having previously studied the highly successful conservation of lions in a region used by Maasai people to raise livestock.
Becker said progress ZCP has made in expanding its efforts should be attributed to the training he and his colleagues received from MSU’s Department of Ecology. The son of two former MSU employees, (Mike Becker, a retired MSU professor of English, and Stephanie Becker, formerly an assistant director at MSU’s Office of International Programs), Becker was still an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin when he began ecology work in Yellowstone. He joined MSU ecologist Bob Garrott’s field team during the early years of Garrott’s 20-year large mammal ecology project in Yellowstone. Becker later joined the project as a doctoral candidate focusing on the predator-prey dynamics between elk and wolves.
Creel noted that Becker, Christianson and Schuette all went through the MSU Department of Ecology at about the same time.
“It’s pretty exciting that these three MSU graduates now collaborate to supervise the research of a new generation of Zambian and American students,” Creel said.
Another ZCP researcher bringing Yellowstone into the mix is Brennan, the ecology doctoral student and Fulbright fellow whose research in the Yellowstone ecosystem has examined the transmission of brucellosis, a bacterial disease that has raised contentious issues because it can cause cattle to abort.
Brennan has spent three years documenting how factors like land use, snow conditions and predation from wolves affect the size of elk herds and their movements across the landscape, which ultimately affects the spread of disease. She is taking the same approach in Liuwa, where she works with M’soka and Dröge to examine how wildebeest movements and aggregation patterns affect patterns in diseases such as ruminant catarrhal fever, which also affects cattle.
“While the context of the two studies is very different, the fundamental questions and methods are the same,” Brennan said.
Another of the Yellowstone-gleaned insights ZCP is taking to Zambia comes from Creel and Christianson’s research on wolves and elk, which aimed to understand the effects of predators on prey animals beyond the obvious effect of direct killing.
“Studies on everything from spiders to songbirds to snowshoe hares to elk all show that the simple presence of predators alters the behavior, movements and diets of prey animals, and ultimately their survival and reproduction,” Creel said. “Until we measure these effects, we will be stuck with an incomplete view of the role of predators in ecosystems.”
Taking the lessons the MSU scientists learned in Yellowstone to Zambia, Matandiko will be studying how the risk of attack, or predation, shifts grazing animals across the Zambian landscape, affecting nutrients, plant growth and pathogens in the soil.
Research, conservation, education
Becker had studied African wild dogs before graduate school and wanted to return to Africa. After graduating with his doctorate from MSU in 2008, he was hired to take the reins of what was then called the African Wild Dog Conservation. As a result of the four-year, $1 million NSF grant (Creel, Christianson and Becker are the principal investigators) to conduct research on predator-prey relationships in Zambia, ZCP has expanded. The one-time single-species project now includes intensive studies of all five of Zambia’s large carnivores and their prey. In addition to research, ZCP has also expanded its mission of conservation and educational outreach aimed at Zambian students.
To that end, ZCP is actively engaged with the Zambia Wildlife Authority and local NGOs on a wide array of conservation activities. They range from anti-snaring work (wire-snare poaching is one of the most insidious threats to wildlife in Zambia and seriously impacts large carnivores and their prey), to wildlife disease control programs, to land-use planning and human encroachment evaluations, and assisting in the reintroduction of large carnivores into depleted ecosystems.
“Collectively this ensures that research findings have an immediate means of feeding into on-the-ground-action and policy impacts,” Becker said.
For example, soon after Zambia halted lion hunting in January, Creel, Becker and their students, along with dozens of prominent African ecologists and wildlife managers, published a paper in the prestigious journal Ecology Letters critically evaluating recent arguments that fences are necessary for lion conservation.
“We rejected that idea,” Creel said. “The research ZCP is doing certainly does not support the widespread use of fences in lion conservation.”
Educating future ecologists
For Matandiko, who is often apart from his wife and small children for months at a time in the quest for ecological research and an advanced degree, ZCP brings something unique to Zambia because it is involved not only in research and conservation but also in education efforts.
“ZCP is not just trying to do research,” said the 48-year-old Matandiko, who was the head of veterinary operations for the Zambia Wildlife Authority prior to joining ZCP. “But (it is) showing (it wants) to help develop the local manpower to keep continuity in our efforts at conservation.”
In that vein, ZCP supports student conservation clubs in the Luangwa Valley. The group teaches secondary school students, many of whom have never seen a computer, to conduct their own research with camera traps, analyze data, write it up and present their community with PowerPoint presentations, with the goal of preparing them for advanced education and careers, hopefully in wildlife related fields.
“Our hope is to have these students looking at what people like Wigganson and Jassiel are doing and saying, ‘I want to do that,’” Becker said.
If Becker’s own career path as an ecologist—wild dogs-to-wolves, Yellowstone-to-Zambia—sounds like something from a modern-day Rudyard Kipling parable, that’s fine with him.
“Being able to come back to Africa to run a long-term research program was my dream when I came home to Bozeman, and Yellowstone was an integral part of my training to do that,” Becker said. “Now, projects that are being led by Zambians and MSU scientists—a tremendous group of committed, hard-working and talented people—are allowing us to help Zambia address some of its immediate conservation problems.” ■