Coexistence on the Savannah: Human-Wildlife Conflict & Landscape Management
Mary Burak uses her knowledge of genetics to understand how carnivores move across the savannah in Tanzania, in-turn, interacting with the human communities.
Mary awoke with a start. Her arms enfolded in her sleeping bag, it took a second to adjust to her surroundings. But her grogginess faded quickly as the footsteps outside her tent grew closer. With a thin layer of canvas between her and the East African savannah, she wondered what this creature could be. A lion? A leopard… no, she wouldn’t hear it coming. Even more dangerous, a buffalo? And it sounded like there were several animals. Would this be how she goes out? She was surrounded. It could be the end. And then, she suddenly became aware of her need to pee! Clearly, she had made a poor decision to go to bed directly after dinner.
Rest assuredly, Mary survived the night and found dozens of zebra tracks around her tent the following morning. What may seem like a dream to us, was a daily reality for Mary. These moments stick with her today as some of the best on the savannah, living with nothing but a thin veil between her and the world’s greatest array of large mammals. Her experience reminds her that the region’s native residents must also coexist with these creatures everyday; that her science must also be applicable to the humanity of a socio-ecological system.
Mary studies these human-wildlife interactions by investigating how these large carnivores (notably lions) move across the landscape. As a rule of thumb, large carnivores like lions, leopards, and hyenas will follow their prey. Prey, on the other hand, migrate to the best available food sources. On Tanzania’s Massai Steppe, Tarangire National Park is a haven for these large mammals. However, this protected sanctuary only provides adequate grazing in the dry season. In the wet season, herds of grazing mammals, like zebra and buffalo, move away from these national parks to grassland habitats recently replenished by the rains. Yet, many of these habitats are unprotected landscapes occupied by local livestock and tribes.
Historically, locals have come into conflict with carnivores that kill livestock in these jointly occupied areas. To understand how carnivores move across the landscape, Mary uses her background in genetics to analyze feces and map the corridors that these carnivores travel. Knowledge of carnivore connectivity can advise conservation efforts, while mitigation efforts can target unprotected areas with high human-wildlife conflict. This knowledge is crucial for interdisciplinary sharing with local tribes, so she has partnered with African People and Wildlife, a local NGO that mitigates human-wildlife conflict through community education and entrepreneurship support
For Mary, half the battle has been establishing relationships in a series of foreign cultures. With the challenge of multiplicative expectations – as a researcher, American, woman, and an interdisciplinary scientist – Mary needs to exchange many hats between the field and villages. However, it’s worth all the extra effort. These relationships enrich her experiences and give purpose to her research. Mary’s passion lies beyond the science, in empowering young Tanzanian researchers and fostering international exchange within a region where conservation science has historically been dominated by western institutions. With her first field season now under her belt, Mary has laid the groundwork in her study area and nearby communities. YIBS is proud to fund research that transcends pure genetics to partner with local communities. As Mary spends more time in the Massai ecosystem, she begins to pierce that thin veil between humans and wildlife in hopes of facilitating coexistence on the landscape.
Mary Burak is a PhD Candidate in Dr. Os Schmitz Lab at Yale University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with research questions and inquiries.
Edited by Ben Zukowski, YIBS Science Communication Fellow