Research, education and outreach

Jake Goheen, right, a University of Wyoming associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, works with Alois Wambua to measure elephant shrews for a study about how ecosystems respond to the extinction of large mammals. Courtesy photo

Jake Goheen, an associate professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Zoology and Physiology, has been studying Kenyan wildlife for almost 15 years.

As a graduate student studying the influence of elephants on the grassland-forest balance unique to the savannah ecosystem, he noticed there weren’t a lot of Kenyan wildlife biologists doing similar work.

He also noticed examples of conservation problems that might have benefitted from the presence of a Kenyan biologist instead of a Western one. That thinking has remained with Goheen during his career, including the last five years at UW.

“I thought, if I’m ever lucky enough to do this professionally, I’m going to make this a big part of what I do,” he said. “It’s important.”

To that end, Goheen has trained several Ph.D. and master’s students from Kenya, and in summer 2015, he taught a course in Kenya aimed at undergraduate and master’s students studying mammalogy.

The course was led by scientists from UW, the National Museums of Kenya and the Smithsonian Institution, while the 10 participating students were from Kenyan universities. The aim of the course, conducted at the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya, was to expose the students to field practices they couldn’t learn at their home institutions.

During the course, students trapped and handled animals while learning how to create research questions, prepare specimens, analyze data and estimate species diversity and abundance. They worked with animals including elephant shrews, gerbils, jackals and mongoose.

Funders for the first-time effort included the Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, the UW Department of Zoology and Physiology and the Mpala Research Centre.

Goheen said Kenyan institutions often don’t have the money for things Western students take for granted, such as access to electronic journals, which results in a less rigorous education.

“Just because those institutions don’t have the money doesn’t change the fact that those students desperately need it,” he said.

Cyrus Kavwele, one of the students, said he was very appreciative of the course.

“The acquired skills will have multiplier effects as we look forward to sharing the same with other scientists,” he said.

Amos Chege, another student, said the course was one of the most informative of his career.

“I learned a lot from the instructors and I learned a lot from my colleagues,” he said.

Brian Barber, director of science programs at the Biodiversity Institute, said the institute funded Goheen’s project because he combines high-level research with education and outreach.

“We can sit in our ivory tower and talk about these things, but when we get the community involved, there’s a sense of ownership — they’re going to invest in their own community, but we need a system that supports them,” he said. “In that way, it’s transformative.”

Goheen has an undergraduate degree from Kansas State, master’s degree from Purdue and Ph.D. from New Mexico. He said that with many conservation problems in Kenya, figuring out the problem isn’t hard. The hard part, especially for a Western scientist, is implementing a workable solution.

“Many challenges in conservation are not limited by biological knowledge,” he said. “They can be limited by economics and cultural inertia as well.”

For example, Ph.D. student Abdullahi Hussein Ali is working on a dissertation about the hirola, an endangered antelope that lives along the Kenya-Somalia border, an area beset with political unrest.

The hirola’s range occurs outside national parks and other protected areas, so its protection depends on the cooperation of local ranchers and residents.

Goheen said Ali grew up in the area and speaks the local language, and he can benefit the species in a way no American scientist could. But, he also needs the formal skills he can learn at a Western university.

“You have to have this level of pre-existing rapport with folks in that area to do that,” Goheen said. “So, he had that, but he didn’t have a ton in the way of statistics classes.”

Ph.D. student Caroline Ng’weno is working on the interactions between ranchers and predators, such as lions. Her research involves developing strategies to protect wildlife while also protecting livestock from predation.

Both Ng’weno and Ali are currently working in Kenya right now and were unavailable for comment.

Goheen said he sees working with Kenyan scientists as one of the best ways to have a positive influence on Kenyan wildlife.

“If I’m going to have a broader impact through the Kenya work, I believe it’s most likely to occur through training Kenyans,” he said.

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