Montana State University

MSU grad student returns to African bush to learn, serve

January 28, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Paul Schuette, left, and Scott Creel place a radio collar on a lion for research they are conducting in southern Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Paul Schuette).   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University graduate student who studies wildlife in the African bush has a box seat at an exotic parade.

Lions, baboons, spotted hyenas and warthogs pass by the cameras that Paul Schuette set up around his research area in southern Kenya. So do elephants, ostriches and secretary birds. Women carrying bundles of sticks walk by the cameras, as do Maasai herders.

"Lions and hyenas share the same areas with people and livestock," said Schuette, a doctoral student in ecology. "It's really interesting to see how there's kind of a spatial and temporal shift."

Now in his third field season, Schuette lives in a canvas tent from January through August while studying the interactions of wildlife, livestock and Maasai pastoralists on two community conservation areas and Maasai group ranches in the South Rift Valley. The overseers are interested in Schuette's findings, because they want to protect wildlife and improve livelihoods there.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and affiliated with two African organizations, Schuette uses radio collars and battery-powered cameras to survey the wildlife and see how people, wildlife and livestock share the land. Some of his methods expand on those used by his adviser, Scott Creel, to study elk-prey interactions in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

"There are some basic processes underlying predator-prey interactions in any system, and the Olkiramatian-Shompole area provides an excellent opportunity to understand how large carnivores affect prey species in ways beyond the obvious effects of directly killing prey," Creel said. "Also, the Maasai are notable for their success in conserving large carnivores and ungulates on the same landscape that people use for all of their everyday activities, including grazing livestock, which is the focal point of their economy.

"If we can understand their success in conserving large carnivores outside of protected areas and avoiding or mitigating conflicts, there may be some basic strategies that can help with these issues in other parts of the world," Creel said. "This is certainly a hot-button issue in Montana since wolves have recolonized their historic range."

Schuette has traveled to Kenya off and on for seven years. The Missouri native said he came to MSU because his interest in African carnivores meshed with Creel's research in Yellowstone and Creel's earlier studies in Tanzania. Schuette and Creel are now working together on the African project. Schuette is more involved in the day-to-day fieldwork than Creel is, but Creel joins him when he can. They have placed radio collars on four lions and two spotted hyenas so far, Schuette said. They would still like to collar one male and one female from a third pride of lions, eight more hyenas and, hopefully, some leopards.

"We have an interest in leopards because they cause a lot of conflicts and kill a lot of prey, but they are super difficult to study," Schuette noted. "They are very, very secretive."

Schuette and Creel also monitor 56 sites with trail cameras. Each location has two infrared cameras aimed at a rod covered with milk powder, meat or hunting lures to attract animals.

The cameras take photos day and night and have yielded 250,000 photos so far, Schuette said. He has seen many of them, but undergraduate students at MSU and workers in Africa need to organize the photos and enter data into the computer before he can analyze them. Analysis should take a year or two, Schuette said. He'll describe his findings in his doctoral thesis and provide that information to the African Conservation Centre, the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO) and the Maasai tribes. The Maasai created a community conservation area in 2001 to protect wildlife and establish a drought refuge for their livestock. The Maasai are also interested in attracting tourists.

Schuette said he already knows that 20 kinds of carnivores live on the 193 square miles that make up his study area. He's especially focused on lions, leopards and spotted hyenas, because they kill more prey than any of the other carnivores.

It's interesting to see animals and humans sharing the same spot at different times of the day, Schuette added. One camera, for example, photographed pastoralists at 12:25 p.m. and a spotted hyena at 10 p.m. On the other hand, a lion was resting 400 yards away from people, but no one saw it. Schuette only noticed it because the lion was wearing a radio collar.

His research has led to satisfying interactions between MSU and the local community, Schuette continued. In addition to the women who own the research camp where he lives and the Maasai men who assist him in the field, Schuette regularly visits the market and six schools in the area. He and Creel, along with Creel's wife, Nancy, and Schuette's fiancee, Christine Kovash, recently raised $4,200 in a Bozeman fundraiser to buy textbooks and other supplies for the schools. They want to contribute in tangible ways that will benefit the schools for years to come instead of making one big splash that dies down when they leave, Schuette added.

Roseann Hanson, U.S. representative to the African Conservation Centre, said by e-mail that, "It's shocking and disheartening to hear time and again how many researchers waltz into a community area, conduct their research with little contact with the local people, then leave and never share their findings.

"With Paul and Scott, it's different," she added. "They took extra time to develop close working relationships with the community leaders, both men and women, including countless and probably seemingly endless meetings where everyone has to have their say. They consult regularly with the community and have trained at least half a dozen young morani, or warriors, as field assistants and resource assessors.

"More importantly, they are also devoting a lot of the time to helping the community develop, improve and promote their South Rift Resource Centre, which is owned by the community and managed by the women's group," Hanson said. "So far the women have gained more than $7,000 in fees from the centre, as well as employment for a dozen people. This is hugely significant help to them.

"But what is more valuable is the information Paul and Scott are diligently sharing with the community -- about their land and wildlife and using that information to plan coping mechanisms for things like predation on their livestock that don't involve just killing the predator.

"It's a win-win situation for all: turning science into action on behalf of conservation," Hanson said.

To read more about MSU's research in the bush, go to http://www.southriftccr.blogspot.com/
To learn more about the African Conservation Fund, go to http://www.africanconservationfund.org

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu