Research Interests

Some keywords:

cultural and political ecology,
pastoralism,
livestock mobility,
conservation/development,
geospatial techniques,
rangeland ecology,
landscape ecology,
resource access strategies,
wildlife-livestock competition,
food security,
rural livelihoods,
identity and conflict

I am a people-environment geographer with expertise in the political ecology of pastoralism and a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa. As an inherently interdisciplinary scholar, my research is informed by critical natural as well as social sciences. My research focus is on how environmental decisions are made, managed, monitored, and to identify the effects of those decisions.

I am most concerned with dryland parts of the world, where an estimated 800 million to 1 billion people and their livestock live. In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 600 million people derive their livelihoods from raising livestock in drylands. Drylands are not only important for sustaining livelihoods, but also because of the high biodiversity value contained within them. In East Africa, much of the iconic drylands occupied by pastoralists and charismatic mega-fauna have been shaped by both human and animal influences. Despite this recent acknowledgment, decisions about how drylands should be managed, for whom and to what extent, are highly controversial, in part, because there is little sustained socio-ecological research on how drylands are rapidly being affected by changes in climate and the politics of land management. My research seeks to understand the drivers and consequences of environmental and socio-political changes in areas where pastoralists reside around protected areas in East Africa. I delineate the consequences of these changes for local peoples and protected area institutions with the broad goal of understanding the sustainability of dryland socio-ecological systems. This niche area is where I am making the greatest impactful research.

In dryland regions of the world, where pastoralists reside around large protected areas, pastoralists and their livestock are thought by some scholars to exhibit competitive relationships with wildlife. Much of this current thinking has been inspired by natural science oriented theories of habitat and dietary overlap, fit and exclusion, and have been formulated without appropriately considering the social and political contexts of the broader cultural landscape. These ideas have also been applied to protected area management strategies without regard to well-established criteria for competition to occur. Conversely, many social scientists have argued that the relationships between wildlife and pastoralists exhibit characteristics associated with facilitation rather than competition.

How one conceptualizes the relationship between wildlife and livestock is enormously relevant within the East African context for several reasons. First, wildlife are important to the economy of many countries, such as Kenya, where a large part of the national economy is derived from tourism and wildlife viewing activities. Second, the megafauna that are important to the tourism industry also play an important role in ecosystem structure and functioning and harbor some of the highest densities and distributions of ungulate and mammalian species in the world. Third, livestock are important to sustain rural livelihoods in environmentally heterogeneous drylands. Fourth, while pastoralism is a land-use system that is potentially compatible with wildlife, there is a growing spatial overlap with a large proportion of wildlife found outside protected areas. Poorly conceptualized understandings of competition have influenced the development and implementation of state and local policies associated with conservation and development, which are likely to have adverse effects on both wildlife and livestock.

My research seeks to clarify these relationships by relying on both natural and social scientific theories, methods and tools. I conduct empirical fieldwork in the Laikipia and Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem of northern and southern Kenya. Using sampling plots distributed along the borders of protected areas, I seek to understand: (1) the degree of overlap between livestock and wildlife of similar guilds; (2) how vegetation responds differentially to grazing pressures by wildlife and livestock (using measures of vegetation productivity such as crude protein content, and biomass availability); (3) the extent of seasonal and annual differences in vegetative responses to grazing actions over small and large time scales.

A second research thrust seeks to understand how pastoralists who reside around protected areas are confronted with the dual challenges of climate change and changes in land tenure security. Pastoralists are facing these new challenges and current systems of adaptation and mitigation inadequately consider the multi-faceted dimensions of pastoral livelihoods. My research in this area seeks: (1) to understand how different social groups are being affected by these challenges and; (2) to identify the consequences of these challenges.

To do this, I rely on unique methods, such as the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) collars placed on livestock, to understand how these changes are being manifested in the patters of livestock mobility and their impacts on the environment. Additionally, advances in the spatial, temporal and spectral resolution of remote sensed imagery to understand environmental heterogeneity, merged with household surveys and key informant interviews have unveiled how an increase in the frequency and duration of drought, coupled with the loss of land to create private conservation spaces, have meant that pastoralists with smaller herds are being subjected to greater pressures which limits their ability to sustain their livelihood systems.