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MSU leading wildlife conservation effort in East Africa

Wildlife conservation in Africa is an important and difficult environmental issue for the continent as many of the planet’s most majestic animals are under threat. A group at Michigan State University is working to find creative ways to minimize the loss of animals such as lions, giraffes and elephants.

Robert Montgomery, an assistant professor with MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Tutilo Mudumba, a graduate student from Uganda, joined Stateside to talk about their efforts with the RECaP Laboratory.

Poaching is a big reason why many of the traditional African animals are seeing their numbers in the wild drop considerably. One poaching method is the use of wire snares that are harvested from the skeletons of radial tires. The wires are laid down on traditional game trails with the intention of snaring animals like antelope. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the wires will ensnare much bigger animals like lions.

This problem is an example of human livelihood tightly tied with wildlife conservation ... To understand the problem, you have to engage with it

“This problem is an example of human livelihood tightly tied with wildlife conservation,” said Montgomery. “To understand the problem, you have to engage with it.”

Montgomery talked about how men and boys will risk their lives to transport large numbers of wires by crossing the Nile River. If the boat tips over, they will likely be eaten by crocodiles or hippos. If they manage to make it to shore, they can be trampled by elephants or buffalo, or hunted down by lions or leopards. This high risk can produce very little reward financially. This clearly shows that it is a human livelihood issue.

One way they are working to help this problem is by finding another use for the wire, a use that could provide an income for a struggling population without the risk of human life, while also minimizing the risk for animals that are seeing their numbers plummet in the wild.

The Snares to Wares initiative teaches children how to take the wires and turn them into toys and crafts that can be sold at national parks. The purpose is two-fold. First, it gives people a source of income, which minimizes the need to poach and second, it raises awareness of the problem through the people who buy the toys.  

“We are making them crafts of the very animals that the wires would have killed,” said Mudumba.

The hope is that the people will take the money they earn and buy their meat rather than having to track it down themselves.

Montgomery also acts as the director of the RECaP Laboratory that is focusing on two major conservation efforts. The core goal is to stop the decline of the wildlife population.

If we don't begin to address these problems then we're actually going to lose these species from the wild

“We have dramatic losses in East Africa in the wildlife species that live there,” said Montgomery. “In the last 15 years, we’ve lost 40% of giraffe populations. In the last six years, we’ve lost 50% of elephant populations. We’ve had ten-fold reduction in lions. We have less than 25,000 lions left in the world … huge populations are in East Africa. And so if we don’t begin to address these problems then we’re actually going to lose these species from the wild.”

The second goal is intended to help the first. In addition to Michigan State offering students the opportunity to study conservation in East Lansing, they are also working with Makerere University in Uganda to create East Africa’s first-ever PhD program for animal conservation. The goal is to add more diversity to the animal conservation effort. Montgomery feels that animal conservation on the continent can be better helped by producing more local leaders who can make local decisions, rather than relying on foreigners or leaving those decisions to be made by under-qualified officials.  

Listen to the full interview below to hear more about Michigan State University’s effort to protect African wildlife and the historic PhD program in Uganda. 

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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