RESEARCH

I have a wide variety of interests across the fields of zoology, ecology, behavior, disease ecology, structured decision making, rewilding, and conservation management and planning (and more!). Here is a brief look at some of the collaborative projects I have been involved with.

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A HUMAN WILDLIFE CONFLICT STRUCTURED DECISION MAKING MODEL FOR CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT

Abstract by Vasavi Prakash (https://www.linkedin.com/in/vasaviprakash/): Competitive interactions between people and large mammals can result in injury or death of people or animals and cause detrimental economic and conservation impacts.The costs and frequency of these negative human-wildlife interactions (HWI) are increasing globally.HWI can create issues of safety and food security for people especially in rural areas and developing nations. Thus, practitioners are challenged to find ways to manage wildlife populations while maintaining human health and livelihoods.To address this challenge, our goal was to create a universally applicable model for managing negative HWI in a transparent, scientific, and participatory process. We used structured decision-making to decompose the complexities of HWI mitigation and provide an iterative and locally adaptable model to inform management. This model was supported by theoretical and empirical research across species and continents while using the fundamental tools of structured decision-making. The model helps practitioners identify fundamental objectives, and define specific, measurable attributes to quantify the expected success of decision alternatives. Furthermore, our model incorporates local stakeholder participation and double-loop learning in an iterative adaptive management approach. To demonstrate the model and its potential applications in the management and mitigation of conflicts, we use two species with high instances of conflict, the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris). Findings on these species demonstrate that our model can be customized according to local context and needs. Finally, our model provides an adaptive approach for promoting human-wildlife coexistence and the preservation of biodiversity globally.

The abstract and our preliminary results were presented at ICCB in 2021. We expect manuscript submission in Spring of 2022. Co-authors: Prakash, V., Gitzen, R., Schulte, B.A., Lepczyk, C.A.

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STRUCTURED DECISION MAKING TOOLS FOR EVALUATING CANDIDATE SPECIES FOR DE-EXTINCTION

As genetic editing technologies develop and the possibility of species resurrection becomes more likely, de-extinction is being considered as a tool to restore extinct species and stem biodiversity loss. While promising, de-extinction poses a set of tradeoffs, including the potential restoration of ecosystem function and services versus the lost opportunity cost for other conservation priorities. Given such tradeoffs what is needed  is a decision tool to evaluate whether an individual species is a viable candidate for de-extinction. To address this need, our research team (Prakash, V., Chalkowski, K., Gitzen, R., Fantle-Lepczyk, J., Hartman, P., Lepczyk, C.A.) developed a framework for evaluating species for de-extinction based on the principles of structured decision-making. First, we established four fundamental objectives which evaluate the major concerns when assessing a species for de-extinction:  biological and ecological processes, socioeconomic conditions, political or legal processes, and cultural and ethical considerations. For each objective we developed evaluation criteria with Likert-type scales ranging from -2 (unfavorable) to +2 (favorable). The scores from each category can be weighted based on their overall importance to the local decision-making context and relevant impacts. The overall score provides insight into the many considerations for using de-extinction as a conservation decision alternative, which we illustrate with several example species evaluations. Overall, our tool lays the groundwork for a transparent and systematic evaluation of candidate species for de-extinction.


This abstract and our preliminary results were presented at ICCB 2021 as an objective look into the risks and benefits of de-extinction as a conservation management tool and we expect our manuscript to be presented for peer-review in the next couple of months.

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COMMUNITY MITIGATION WORKSHOPS

Rural impoverished farmers often lack adaptive capacity to deal with events such as crop raiding, family illness, or crop losses due to drought or pests. This has been especially exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the majority of farmers in this area feel their crop losses are due to elephants, it is imperative to approach the problem holistically to improve farmer livelihoods while protecting elephants. We recently delivered community workshops in 5 rural Kenyan villages that will brought information to farmers on 5 key strategies to mitigate human elephant conflict:

  1. How to construct, deploy, and maintain a variety of wildlife deterrent methods

  2. Smart farming practices that can improve crop yields through climate-smart agricultural techniques

  3. Information on alternative and sustainable livelihoods to farming

  4. How to safely leave near and interact with elephants

  5. The importance of environmental stewardship for a healthy and bountiful ecosystem for all

We delivered the workshops (following strict Covid-19 precautions) in July and August of 2021. The participants were the same as in our 2020 surveys and were given informational booklets to reinforce the information presented in person. A longitudinal study can be conducted in 2022 that will help us to understand the socioeconomic barriers to adoption of these presented strategies.

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ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOR OF VILLAGERS IN THE KASIGAU WILDLIFE CORRIDOR (KWC) TOWARDS CROP RAIDING AFRICAN ELEPHANTS

Across Africa, elephants cross into small shareholder farms and consume or trample crops as part of their natural foraging routine. This makes coexistence with people and wildlife difficult in areas where small shareholder farmers struggle with issues like poverty and drought. Farmer interactions with crop raiding elephants can sometimes become dangerous for both parties. To create management plans and plan mitigation strategies, it is necessary to understand the attitudes of local people towards wildlife and conservation and the challenges affecting coexistence. We conducted surveys in the KWC of Kenya in 6 different villages to assess these attitudes and understand how crop raiding and elephant tolerance varies across demographic groups.  Some of the interesting findings are that most respondents live in fear of elephants but yet few have received information on deterrent methods that can prevent crop raiding. I've also used generalized linear models to assess which factors are the most likely predictors of farmers who use deterrent methods.  Manuscript preparation is near completion and submission is targeted for spring 2022.

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UNDERSTANDING LOCAL DRIVERS OF NEGATIVE  HUMAN ELEPHANT INTERACTIONS THROUGH PARTICIPATORY MODELING

Lots of different biotic and abiotic factors affect crop raiding by elephants. But often the susceptibility of farming households and their crops are overlooked in our search for solutions such as deterrent methods. It's important to understand why crop raids can be so impactful to villagers, what hidden factors may be contributing to the issue, and how we can minimize those drivers. Issues like climate change, drought, and lack of access to alternative livelihoods can exacerbate farmers' ability to build adaptive capacity against the impact of elephant foraging in farms. Participatory modeling is a sociological tool used to create greater understanding of complex problems (such as human elephant conflict). Conservationists and stakeholders can come together to create mental models that reveal all the intricacies involved with a problem and create collaborative solutions. Six different villages in the KWC participated in modeling sessions and models have been created (example above) that compare how drivers of conflict and challenges to livelihoods compare between villages. Mental Modeler software has been used for the first time in this context to show the strength of associations between drivers and quantify which are the most impactful to farmers. With this knowledge, conservation priorities can be set that address the most prevalent causes to human wildlife conflicts. Expected publication submission, Spring 2022.

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QUANTIFYING CAPSAICINOIDS FROM ELEPHANT DETERRENT CHILI FENCES

Chili fences are one of the many mitigation methods used to deter elephants from crop raiding. To create a chili fence you crush locally grown peppers, mix them with used motor oil, saturate cloths with the noxious mixture and hang them on sisal twine attached to poles. The idea is elephants approach, get a good whiff of the mixture with their super-sensitive noses and then retreat. But little is known about how capsaicinoids (the active ingredient in chili peppers that gives them "heat") degrade in the environment. In addition, the use of motor oil can be harmful for the environment. Thus, our US team at the laboratories at Western Kentucky University set out to develop a methodology for Liquid Chromotography and Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS) technology to assess the capsaicinoids in chili and oil mixtures. We successfully created an assessment protocol with this technology for the first time. We used it to examine the capsaicinoid levels of different preparations of chili fence mixture. We found that boiling chilis before mixing with oil was an unnecessary step in preparation. We also found that there is a large loss of SHU (Scoville Heat Units, the measurement used to quantify "heat" in peppers) when creating these mixtures. You can read the results from our paper in Chromatographia HERE.


For the next phase of this project, we have analyzed data on alternative solvents to motor oil (vodka, rubbing alcohol, and boiling with oil) and an experiment that looked at degradation of oil and pepper mixtures on a mock chili fence created in the lab. We found that oil remained the best solvent for chili peppers and that over 7 days there was no substantial degradation of capsaicinoids in the mock fences. It has long been recommended that chili fence mixtures be reapplied after 10-15 days of being deployed in the environment. However, this is the first time that its persistence has been verified in the lab. All of these findings can help conservationists and farmers in improving chili fence efficacy.  Second publication currently in review.

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COMPARING EFFECTIVE MITIGATION MEASURES IN KENYA

Since 2016, I have been thrilled to be part of a collaboration between Western Kentucky University (WKU) and Auburn University in the US and Wildlife Works and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya. We have been graciously supported by the International Elephant Foundation and the Earthwatch Institute (Join our project HERE) as we host citizen scientist volunteers from all over the world to assist us with experiments. The focus of this research is to evaluate different types of deterrents to determine which is the most effective in the farming community of Sasenyi. Our colleague Simon Kasaine of Wildlife Works (and formerly WKU) invented the metal strip (or, Kasaine) fence you see above. When the wind blows or something comes in contact with the fence, it acts as a giant wind chime making a rattling sound that is sure to startle even the largest elephant. Over two trials, we were able to detect a significant deterrent effect. Now, we are working on trying double metal fences and different combinations of fencing. See our publication in the African Journal of Ecology HERE

We also partnered with Save the Elephants in nearby Sagalla  from the Elephants and Bees Team to test beehive fences as part of the mitigation study. We have found high efficacy in beehive fences as well, even within dummy hive control fields.

We continue to test different iterations of fence types and hope to expand the project to surrounding villages soon

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ELEPHANT IDENTIFICATION

The Tsavo ecosystem is home to over 12,000 elephants crossing between Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks. In our time in Kenya we have seen over 6,000 individual elephants. We created a databases to catalog known individuals and currently have over 130 bulls and 30+ family groups that have been sighted more than once.

We use distinguishing characteristics such as ear markings, tusk configuration, or scarring to recognize individuals. Many of the images come from camera traps (see above)  and even more from photos snapped on encounters. Volunteers help with ID and a system was created for easy searching from defining characteristics.

Bulls especially have constantly changing and interesting associations in bachelor groups. This database will help to establish which elephants may be active crop raiders and create association indices that allow us to see which bulls tend to spend time together.

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WILDLIFE TRANSECTS

There is an abundance of wildlife on Rukinga Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary, the site of our research camp. Operated by Wildlife Works, part of one of the world's largest UN backed REDD++ carbon initiatives, the ranch is home to many endangered species such as Grevy's zebra and 4 critically endangered vulture species.

As part of a search for indicator species that might foretell of crop raiding fluctuations, we perform driving transects across the ranch. Noting time of day, number of animals, sex, approximate age, and other descriptive features, volunteers also get to see the variation of wildlife on the ranch. Data analysis from hundreds of transects is currently underway by WKU graduate student Sophia Corde.

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ELEPHANT FORAGING ON NATIVE TREES

As part of their normal foraging routine, elephants strip bark, break branches, and sometimes fell trees. Their preferred forage is grass, but when seasonal drought happens they turn more often to local trees. Large number of elephants in other parts of Africa in enclosed spaces can create large amounts of damage to native trees. However, places where elephants roam free see a natural recovery.

Across Rukinga Ranch our research group has selected and monitored over 120 trees in six different areas of the ranch for elephant activity. We noted over a 75% increase in rates and type of foraging. Our analysis is underway to determine if changes in this type of foraging could be an indicator of crop raiding rate changes and how the foraging varies in relation to water hole ephemerality.

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CLIMATE SMART AGRICULTURE (CSA)

Kenya and many other countries along the equator are struggling to combat the effects of climate change. With decades of poor soil practices, scarce availability of irrigation methods, and increasing droughts, Kenyan farmers are facing difficult times. Add in wildlife crop raiding and other pests, and farming seems like a difficult career choice. However, climate smart agricultural methods exist that can help farmers make the most of rain water and use techniques that can increase crop yields and improve livelihoods. In conjunction with Dr. Urbanus Mutwiwa, agricultural expert at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, our research team has created experimental plots that look at several different CSA techniques. Experimental plots in zai pits (picture above) have thrived compared to controls, and we have also experimented with various different crop types and water catchment techniques. We look forward to expanding this work and creating instructional workshops to bring new CSA techniques to local farmers.