Friday, September 5, 2014

Perspectives on fieldwork in Africa

Africa. The very name brings forth visions of lush savannas, the origins of humans, and maybe David Attenborough's voice narrating a lion hunt. But it might also bring forth memories of news articles on political unrest, disease, crime. For a new researcher looking to work in Africa, it's difficult to gain an understanding of what the continent is really like before visiting. Fortunately, knowing people in the field helps! Here is an interview with two of my colleagues and good friends, Jen Guyton and Tyler Coverdale. Their answers are quite thorough so I'll let them do the talking from here on out.

Who are you? 

TC: I am a second-year PhD student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University working with Rob Pringle. In my first year at Princeton I worked on several projects spanning my broad interest in community ecology and conservation. For my dissertation I am planning to work on several projects related to plant defense strategies and the impact of plant defense investment on plant-animal interactions and community structure. 

JG: I’m a second year grad student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, in Rob Pringle’s lab. Broadly, my interests involve the human-wildlife interface: how humans are impacting the role of mammals in ecological communities and how wild mammals and intact (or recovering) ecosystems can benefit humans. Currently, I’m studying the role of bats in providing ecosystem services, especially as predators of disease vectors such as mosquitoes. I’m also interested in zoonotic diseases and how poaching or hunting can be both detrimental to and critical for human health.

What is your field site like?
TC: I work at Mpala Research Centre (MRC) in Laikipia, Kenya. MRC is in the central highlands region of Kenya and is situated on approximately 75 square miles of private land at a little over a mile above sea-level. On my first trip to MRC two things stuck out to me: the landscape is very dry and the plants are very thorny. MRC falls in the rain shadow of nearby Mt. Kenya, which means that it only receives about 15-20 inches of rain each year (for comparison, New York City receives almost 50 inches of precipitation annually). What little rain does fall in this part of Kenya occurs in discrete rainy seasons, which sometimes “fail,” leaving the country in drought. The other dominant feature of the landscape is heavily defended plants – because there are so many herbivores (e.g. elephants, giraffes, zebras, etc…) many of the grasses, shrubs and trees in this part of Kenya have conspicuous physical or chemical defenses. The most obvious is the heavily defended Acacia genus, but many understory forbs and grasses also have striking adaptations for preventing and tolerating high levels of herbivory. It is a dusty and unforgiving landscape, which makes the diversity of plants and animals that call it home all the more amazing.

The Centre itself is comprised of a fenced compound containing labs, living quarters, a dining hall, administrative buildings and a workshop for car repairs. Graduate students typically live in the newly constructed, solar-powered dormitories (funded by Princeton) or more traditional circular bandas with thatched roofs. Meals are prepared by a team of local chefs and typically feature some type of grain (rice, ugali, or pasta) as well as a vegetable and/or meat dish. There are several laboratory buildings with bench space and desks available for visiting students and many of the long-term projects have permanent offices with all the necessary equipment to perform world-class field research. Each year Mpala hosts more than 400 visiting students and faculty for field courses, independent research and workshops. Many of the researchers come from universities in the United States, but there are also a handful of scientists from East Africa, Europe and Asia. The workshop has its own gas station for filling up research vehicles (mostly Land Rovers, Land Cruisers and a variety of smaller trucks and SUVs) and repairing flat tires that result from driving on rough dirt roads covered in 3-inch long Acacia thorns. Last year we had 13 flat tires in three weeks.

One of the many limestone gorges awaiting exploration in the
northern part of Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.
Photo by Jen Guyton
JG: Gorongosa National Park, in Mozambique, is unlike anywhere I’ve been before. Imagine limestone gorges, unexplored by scientists, deep canyons filled to the brim with rainforest trees that seem almost as tall as the gorge is deep. Imagine clear springs trickling so thick with dissolved calcium that they fossilize the shells of giant land snails in less than 10,000 years – a blink in the eye of history. Imagine a place where every sunset is a blaze of crimson and lilac in shades that are not of this earth. Where red-leaved deciduous woodland turns over in an instant to towering yellow fever trees, their trunks like liquid uranium, in a dazzling display of landscape diversity. Where green plains stretch to the horizon and meet the tinsel-shimmer of Lake Urema, dotted all along the way with the prancing silhouettes of waterbucks and their calves. But the magic of Gorongosa isn’t in the megafauna – most of that was wiped out during the decades-long Mozambican civil war. What’s magic is standing at dusk in riverine forest, bush babies howling their human cry in the orchid-draped trees above you, when a rustle beside you entices you to gently crane your neck. It’s an elephant shrew, or sengi, a creature like a large mouse that walks on deer-like legs and has the wriggling snout of a tapir. The sengi, half of a monogamous pair, is snuffling through the underbrush in search of its dinner of crispy insects. It communicates with its partner by stomping the soil in morse code, its tiny feet tittering like a dog having its belly rubbed in just the right way. The creature looks at you with its inky saucers-for-eyes, adapted to see everything that happens in the forest in the blackness of night, and is gone. Gorongosa’s mystery and its allure lie not in its elephant encounters, which are better had and too easily won elsewhere, but in these moments for which your world must stop.

Those moments come almost daily when you start figuring out where to look, even inside the bedlam of Chitengo Camp. Chitengo is the park headquarters, the tourist lodge, and the research center all in one. The luxury resort has a pool and a restaurant at which we occasionally treat ourselves, but the research center is a treat in itself. Just opened this year, it’s a small cluster of wooden buildings, rising on flood-proof platforms among termite mounds and native trees. One tree even spears through the deck and the roof of the lab building, providing a quick escape for the lithe genet that sleeps in the building’s bowels. My room looks out over the woodland, and a few minutes spent sipping a gin and tonic on my porch is rewarded by sightings of bushbuck, civets, and the occasional bush baby. The porch light attracts all manner of insects, which in turn bring in my favorite mammals, the bats.

What is an average day like?
A large bull elephant walks in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro
at Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Amboseli is home
to some of the largest elephants left in Africa, and this
particular individual (Tim) has some of the largest tusks
of any elephant in the world.
Photo by Tyler Coverdale
TC: An average day at MRC starts when the sun rises around 6:30AM. Breakfast begins at 7:00AM and usually consists of milk, cereal and toast. Morning is also a great time to respond to emails, since Kenya is 7 hours ahead of the East Coast and I often miss emails that my friends, family and coworkers send during their work day. My field assistant arrives on a staff bus around 7:45AM and we aim to be leaving for our field site by 8AM with whatever tools and food we need for the day. We often pack a lunch to avoid having to return to the Centre since some of the places we work are more than an hour away. What we actually do in the field varies from day to day, but usually involves either setting up a large experiment or collecting data on an experiment that has been up and running for months or years. One of the experiments we set up this year involved cutting all the spines off of plants at the beginning of the summer and then revisiting them to measure how many of the spines had regrown and how much the plants had been damaged by herbivores. Despite being less than 1º north of the equator, the weather is great for field work: 80ºF with very low humidity and (usually) a consistent breeze to keep you cool. Dehydration is still very much a concern, though, and I usually drink between 3 and 4 liters of water each day to stay hydrated.

The work day ends around 5PM, at which point we return to the Centre to enter data into spreadsheets, clean tools and prepare for the following day. The afternoon is also a great time to work out since the sun is a little less intense and the temperature tends to drop a few degrees. MRC has a solar-powered gym with various cardio equipment and a dirt road the forms a 1 mile loop for jogging. Dinner is served at 7:30PM, after which there’s usually time for a few last-minute emails, data analysis and/or preparations for the next day before heading to bed around 10PM to repeat it all the next day.

JG: In Gorongosa, there are no average days. The only predictable thing is unpredictability. On a good morning, I wake up around 6:30, have some coffee and a bit of oatmeal with banana for breakfast, organize my field gear, pick up a field assistant and an armed guard, and get out the gate of our main camp by 8. The day goes smoothly, whether the task is vegetation surveys, collecting camera traps, or searching bat roosts. On a bad morning, I get up to see there’s no electricity to run the kettle or the stove for coffee and breakfast. I realize that someone has misplaced the key to the storage room where all of my equipment is. When I finally locate the spare and load the car, I notice the rear tire is flat. We change it, and I decide it’s probably a good idea to get more petrol. There is none in camp, so we have to run the risk of being stranded in the bush. By now it’s 9am and my field assistant isn’t here – turns out he’s gone into town. Because I haven’t had my coffee, I’m storming around the center like Godzilla. When we finally make it out of the gate at 10am, we encounter impassable mud/a tree fallen into the road/a herd of angry elephants… But eventually we get to our field site, and have a belly-laugh at the adventures and close calls. The bad mornings carve the good ones into sharp relief.

The ruins of Hippo House, a colonial-era restaurant
in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. It's a
fantastic place for catching bats.
Photo by Jen Guyton

In the afternoons, on bat-netting days, I’ll set up nets around 4pm. One of the best places to catch bats is over the swimming pool inside our main camp. Or, I’ll drive out to one of the seasonal ponds, another favorite spot for bats, or to the edge of the river or the lake. I’ll open my nets just before sunset. The hour after the sun sets is pandemonium – once, more than 30 bats hit my nets within 15 minutes between 6 and 7pm. Considering that each bat takes up to five minutes to untangle, that’s a lot for one pair of hands to handle – I ended up with a net like swiss cheese as the captured bats chewed their way out with teeth like tiny razors. Around 11pm, if I haven’t had a bat for a couple of hours, I’ll disassemble the nets and head back to camp. If I have any processing left to do, I’ll finish taking data from the bats and collapse into bed by 1am.

If I’m not mistnetting bats, I’ll join friends for sundowners (drinks at sunset) atop the ruins of Lion House. We sip a couple of Manicas, one of Mozambique’s signature brews, and watch herds of waterbuck grazing along the floodplain as they sink into silhouette with the ebbing glow. We drive back by headlight, pausing to watch a civet, a honey badger, or perhaps even a lion as it slinks into the bushes, blinking sleep out of its eyes. After a dinner of pasta and tomato sauce, and a little bit of preparation for the next day’s work, I get to bed around 10 or 11pm. I’m tired but satisfied, and drop into sleep amidst the wails of bushbabies.
What were your expectations for working in Africa before you left?
TC: I expected there to be a lot of differences between working in Africa and the previous work that I’d done in the US and Europe. Somehow the idea that working in Africa involved more hurdles, more hardship and more headaches had made its way to me and I was nervous about committing to five years of frustrating and difficult work. I knew that scientifically I would be entering a whole new world - all of my previous field experience had been in marine ecosystems and I’d now be working in the semi-arid savannas of equatorial East Africa. I was concerned about all of the unknowns: working with unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar continent on unfamiliar plants and animals. I tried to read as many papers as I could about savanna ecology while also searching for photos and videos of the places I’d be working in. I don’t like surprises, but my efforts to figure everything out before I left were futile and I got on the plane feeling nervous about what I was getting myself into.

JG: I first went to Africa at 19 with glossy magazine photos of acacias and red sunsets bubble-wrapping my brain. It didn’t take long to realize that the images of Africa that we grow up with, like so many other romantic notions, are half-truths. That first time, I went to Tanzania as a student with the School for Field Studies for an immersive course in wildlife management. I expected glossy photos. I expected to learn how to generate simple answers to wildlife conservation problems. I expected, or maybe I just hoped, like many bright-eyed youngsters shipping off to Africa, to change the world.

What surprised you most about working in Africa?
TC: My biggest surprise was that most of the rumors I’d heard (and worried about) just weren’t true. Working in Kenyan savannas was pretty much the same as working in salt marshes on Cape Cod or sand dunes in Italy. The thing about field work is that there are hurdles no matter where you work or what you study. For example, in the U.S. you have to worry about permits. Who owns the land you want to work on? Have you contacted all of the right people and filled out all the right forms? It’s the same in Kenya. The process is maybe even a bit easier here, because so many international researchers have done work here before and can point you in the right direction when it comes to dealing with the necessary (but unpleasant) logistics of doing field work. One of the rumors that I’d heard early on but can now dispel is that everything takes longer in Africa - in my experience, getting permits to do field work takes forever no matter where you work and patience will serve you well no matter what continent you find yourself on. Some things take longer here and some take no time at all.

A lion cub in the Lake Urema floodplain (Gorongosa
National Park, Mozambique) squints to keep tsetse
flies out of its eyes.
Photo by Tyler Coverdale  

The same goes for the work itself. I thought I could figure out what I needed to know about this new ecosystem by reading papers and sitting in my office at Princeton thinking deeply about elephants and Acacias. I hoped that a brilliant research topic would just come to me and everything after that would be easy. The truth is that here, just like anywhere else, you have to get out into the field and get a feel for the place. It takes a while (in my case, three trips lasting almost 4 months) to even begin to understand a new system, but it was the same learning curve I experienced earlier in my career when I began working in marine ecosystems. The similarities far outweighed the differences – the hardest part is still figuring out which questions are worth asking, followed closely by figuring out how to answer them.

JG: I found conservation in Africa to be vastly more complex than I’d anticipated; delineating more national parks and arresting more poachers isn't the answer (or at least, not the whole answer). “Africa” as we package it in the western sensibility is just a drop in a bucket swirling with unimaginable color and texture. Fortunately, I had a few more experiences in Africa (in
Breakfast: natal multimammate mice
(Mastomys sp), barbequed and fresh,
for sale at the market in Vila
Photo by Piotr Naskrecki,
South Africa twice, and then in Kenya) before I was thrown into the deep end of conducting independent research in Mozambique this year. In the interim I learned that conservation in African countries is insanely complicated. (I learned later that this is mostly true everywhere). One of the most challenging things was adapting to a palette of cultures; African countries tend to be much more heterogeneous than western countries. Each tribal or ethnic group has its own language, its own customs, its own angle. Understanding that diversity is crucial for good conservation, and if your work involves human subjects, for good research. 

To illustrate: I learned recently that hunting and consumption of rodents is extremely common in the villages around my research site. I was shocked – didn’t they know that rodents can carry some pretty nasty diseases? No – my field assistant told me with an incredulous laugh – It’s fine, Jen. They’re just mice. What you really have to worry about are crocodile brains. Deadly poisonous. Today I read an interview with a Beninese man who insisted that bats cannot carry Ebola: It’s just a rumor. Have you eaten bat before? It is very sweet. So how can anyone tell me that if I eat bat, it will kill me? When I dove into studying the human-wildlife interface in Africa, I wasn’t expecting that: to be up against a diverse suite of local beliefs. What’s true in this village may not be true in another. And each one of these things has a profound effect on conservation and on its scientific investigation. 

What is your favorite/least favorite part of working in Africa?
TC: My favorite part about working in Kenya is having the opportunity to do and see things every single day that most people will never be fortunate enough to experience. When I worked in the U.S., we commuted an hour each direction to our field site and experienced the kind of traffic that only arises when thousands of people are trying to cross a single bridge onto Cape Cod for their weekend of relaxation. Yesterday I drove an hour to my field site and the only thing that I had to stop for was to watch a baby elephant trying to figure out how to keep its trunk from flopping around as it walked away. The reason I started in ecology in the first place was because it afforded me the opportunity to work outside and be in nature every day. I've been fortunate enough to work in some of the most incredible parts of the world, but the wildlife and landscape in East Africa are stunning and memorable in a way that few places are.

My least favorite part about working in Kenya, aside from being away from friends and family, is constantly feeling crunched for time. Most of the grad students at Mpala only spend 3-4 months per year working in the field because of obligations at home and school. For me that means working sunrise to sunset every day to try to fit everything into one short trip. When I worked in the U.S. we routinely spent 6-8 months in the field every year. Here I’m expected to get the same amount done in half the time. It’s hard to drive back to Nairobi at the end of a trip knowing that you didn't quite make it to the bottom of your to-do list. The good news is there’s never a shortage of things to do on your next trip, provided that you can wait patiently through 9 months of teaching, grading and writing grants.

JG: My favorite part of working in Africa is the wildness. There remain whole tracts of land that have never been rigorously studied. New species creep their way into science from the

Sneaky chimpanzee hiding in a fig
tree at Nyungwe National Park,
Photo by Tyler Coverdale 

rainforests and mountaintops on a regular basis. There is still so much to be discovered, and I get to be out there discovering things every day. Secondly, I’ll expose myself as a sap by admitting that I felt an instinctive connection to the continent the moment I set foot in Tanzania in my second year of college. It’s something that many people express feeling on their first visit to Africa. Some have hypothesized that it’s the siren song of our evolutionary home – the old country, the motherland. Perhaps we have an inborn affinity for the sweeping savannas for which we were once best adapted. Perhaps it’s the act of putting ourselves into pseudo-dangerous situations (tiny car vs. charging elephant, face vs. spitting cobra, and deadliest of all, human vs. human) that clicks us into place, a well-oiled evolutionary engine at maximum capacity and running smoother in that situation than in any you’ll ever find in civilization. Either way, the flame draws me back every time.

My least favorite part of working in Africa is navigating bureaucracies. As with any place, they tend to be unnecessarily convoluted, circular, and at times downright absurd. The difference is that in many African countries, individuals in bureaucracies have substantially more power. They have the power to push your paperwork through if you charmed them enough; the power to lose it if you haven’t; and the power to be (or at least pretend to be) totally and completely ignorant about their job, their organization, and the laws of the country. Getting research permits or visa renewals is the stuff of nightmares for most African researchers. If you want to see what I mean, mention the name “Nyayo House” to anyone working in Kenya (it’s now the Department of Immigration but was once used to torture political prisoners. In other words, nothing has changed.)

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about working in Africa?
TC: For undergraduates thinking about working in Africa, I would suggest trying to find a field course or study abroad program that exposes you to what it’s like here while also providing some structure to your day-to-day life (e.g. Organization for Tropical Studies and School for Field Studies). It can be hard enough to work in a new place without also worrying about feeding yourself, arranging transportation and finding a place to sleep every night. Many universities also have their own field courses, but if yours doesn't I would also look into volunteering or interning with a graduate student or postdoc. That can allow you to get some field experience and see what it’s like to work on a “real” project without the pressure of coming up with your own research ideas (there’s also the added benefit of getting a glimpse of the graduate student life if you are considering graduate school yourself).

For graduate students, I think working in Africa can be hugely rewarding provided that you approach it with the right attitude and expectations. As with all field work, being flexible is critical to overcoming the small hurdles that seem to arise almost daily (e.g. waking up to a flat tire, finding that your experiment wasn't as elephant-proof as you’d thought). It also helps to be open-minded about what you want to work on. Whenever you work abroad it is easy to fall into the trap of writing the world’s greatest grant proposal only to find out that what you proposed just isn't feasible when you actually arrive at your field site. Most of the people who I've talked with out here are currently working on projects that are totally unrelated to what they thought they’d be doing six months or a year ago. That kind of flexibility will serve you well no matter where you work, but is particularly important when working abroad.

JG: Visit your region of interest early in your career if you can – undergrad is a great place to start, via study abroad or by jumping onto a research project (don’t be shy about asking around!). There’s nothing like being on the ground to get your scientific gears turning. Keep an open mind – sometimes local knowledge is more valuable than the published stuff. Learn as much as you can about local custom, and obey it whenever you can. It will earn you friends and spare you enemies. Learn early to dole out patience in gobs. Triple your sense of humor. Most of all, don’t be intimidated – the rewards (academic and personal) are far greater than the challenges.

Photo by Jen Guyton
Jen and Tyler can be reached at jguyton[at]princeton[dot]edu and tylerc[at]princeton[dot]edu. Check out the following links for more information.

Gorongosa National Park profile
- Sunbird Media
- twitter: jen_guyton

- Gorongosa National park profile
Princeton website
- twitter: tylercoverdale