Research

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.

Some of my current and former research projects, encompassing multiple research questions are described below.

1. Citizen Science and the Monitoring of Protected Areas (SNRE SEED Grant)

This research will establish a protocol for embracing citizen science into natural resource monitoring strategies, within the context of mobile species conservation and development. This preliminary investigation will be used as a proof of method for larger and newer research endeavors. Citizen science, also known as public participation in scientific research, is an emerging area of research that relies on people within particular places to help collect social and biophysical data. The research objective, which citizen science will be relied upon as a method to achieve, is to identify the spatially and temporally explicit locations of wildlife and livestock at fine scales of space and time. The rationale for this research question stems from on-going debates within the literature on the nature of the relationships between wildlife and livestock within and around large protected areas. This debate, which has reached heightened proportions within recent years, is driven by the fact there is limited empirical evidence of the extent of spatial and temporal overlap between wildlife and livestock, at appropriates scales.

2. Vegetation Off-take Under Different Scenarios (NSF Grant)

Savanna vegetation comprises a large percentage of the total land surface area in East Africa and savannas are important for the sustainability of millions of livestock keeping pastoralists and wildlife. The ecological processes underlying the dynamics of savanna vegetation are the result of interactions between moisture, nutrients, fire and herbivory. Recent research on these dynamics has yet to more fully consider how these determinants differ in areas where the overlap between wildlife and livestock is growing, or how precipitation gradients and increased climatic variability are likely to affect vegetation dynamics. The objective of this research is therefore to rely on experimental field studies, which incorporate more real-world conditions, in order to better understand vegetation dynamics of savannas. In order to achieve the objective, this research will query how the method of vegetative off-take matters for regrowth by relying on experimental treatments through enclosures across a precipitation gradient within the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem of East Africa. These treatments include: grazing by domestic cattle only; grazing by wildlife only; grazing by both domestic cattle and wildlife; lightly burning vegetative cover; and artificial clipping of vegetative cover. Three research questions are posed: (A) How do different off-take methods influence the structure and composition of savanna vegetation? (B) Are there significant differences in the nutritional composition of grasses under different off take scenarios? (C) How are these nutritional differences affected by precipitation gradients?

3. Long-Term Ecological Monitoring in the Maasai Mara (UM Startup Grant)

This project is a continuation of some of the earlier research on livestock movements and monitoring in and around the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Using a network of 28 monitoring plots, we are assessing how changes in both livestock and wildlife density affect species composition, percent cover, soil compaction, crude protein and neutral detergent fiber content of grasses. We are also looking to see how these variables are influenced by increasing climatic variability.

4. The spatiality of pastoral livelihood systems (NSF Biological Infrastructure)

This project is concerned with better understanding the spatiality of pastoral livelihood systems under regimes of climatic and political uncertainty. Investigations are aimed at understanding how the mobility of pastoral systems is changing with increased climatic uncertainty and the governance of rangelands. GPS collaring, social scientific surveys and GIS databases are being developed to delineate how changes in mobility are a reflection of these changes, and the extent to which these changes influence the resilience of dryland ecosystems.