Conservation Champions

By Melissa McHale and David Bunn

The world needs conservation leaders that have expertise and skills to navigate the complex linkages between science and society. This past year, the Lincoln Park Zoo and Colorado State University entered into a unique partnership to provide students with this kind of training and experience.

As part of a study and research abroad program called Communities and Conservation, CSU students travelled to the border of Kruger National Park, South Africa, armed with wildlife cameras provided by the Lincoln Park Zoo (Figure 1). In this place we study how legacies of apartheid, poverty, urbanization, and severe water limitations intersect in a world-renowned biodiversity hot spot.

Figure 1 – Kruger National Park is located on the northeastern edge of South Africa, on the border of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The Communities and Conservation Program travels in a big loop, from the University of the Witswatersrand’s rural research base (Wits Rural Facility), through Kruger, and stops in numerous communities while visiting a variety of game reserves, and conservation facilities.

Figure 1 – Kruger National Park is located on the northeastern edge of South Africa, on the border of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The Communities and Conservation Program travels in a big loop, from the University of the Witswatersrand’s rural research base (Wits Rural Facility), through Kruger, and stops in numerous communities while visiting a variety of game reserves, and conservation facilities.

Despite the daunting challenges presented by this place, its history, and its current socio-economic conditions, there is reason to believe that people and conservation can both thrive. In our work to date, we have found that people living in this region are committed to creating residential landscapes that provide numerous ecosystem services for their communities (Figure 2), while having a potentially positive impact on some local biodiversity (Figure 3). Local plots and gardens, in other words, are providing significant corridors linking biodiversity inside and outside protected areas.

Figure 2 – One of our graduate students, Scot Beck, mapped the tree cover in villages near Wits Rural Facility (the Bushbuckridge Local Municipality), and found that people are planting tree cover that would not otherwise exist in this area.

Figure 2 – One of our graduate students, Scot Beck, mapped the tree cover in villages near Wits Rural Facility (the Bushbuckridge Local Municipality), and found that people are planting tree cover that would not otherwise exist in this area.


Figure 3 – Although people often rely on collecting firewood from local communal lands, they are also committed to planting and maintaining biodiversity in their landscapes.

Figure 3 – Although people often rely on collecting firewood from local communal lands, they are also committed to planting and maintaining biodiversity in their landscapes.

There are many different land-uses in this region that could impact biodiversity and our students were determined to use the cameras for a preliminary analysis of biodiversity and urbanization in the Global South. These emerging conservation leaders set up cameras throughout their three-week journey, covering the world-renowned Kruger National Park, small private game reserves, rural and urbanizing villages, and a range of community-run parks and open spaces (Figure 4).

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Figure 4 – CSU students setting up cameras in a game reserves and residential areas in the Greater Kruger National Park social-ecological system.

Figure 4 – CSU students setting up cameras in a game reserves and residential areas in the Greater Kruger National Park social-ecological system.

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There were some surprises and trials as well. Our student teams had to negotiate thickets of one of Africa’s thorniest trees, Zizyphus mucronata ( the “wait-a-bit” tree), and of course we had to reposition cameras when we discovered that some of them were missing an entire parade of animals passing alongside down a dry river gully.

In some areas we mostly captured chickens and children – the “wild” life dominating many rural communities (Figure 5).

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Figure 5 – Multiple camera shots from one residential yard showed a diversity of visitors, however, not the typical “wildlife” one hopes to capture in a biodiversity study. Yet, the quick and blurry image of an African wildcat passing by in the night was definitely a good catch.

Figure 5 – Multiple camera shots from one residential yard showed a diversity of visitors, however, not the typical “wildlife” one hopes to capture in a biodiversity study. Yet, the quick and blurry image of an African wildcat passing by in the night was definitely a good catch.

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In other places we were able to capture the slow process in which a Giraffe attempts to drink water from a small concrete water hole or the sneaky movements of one of the world’s most endangered species, the African wild dog (Figure 6).

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Figure 6

Figure 6

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Our wild dog images were especially exciting, because we knew of a breeding pack in the bush nearby but had been unable to see them. Lo and behold, our Bushnell trail cameras picked up evidence of the enigmatic dogs at night, secretly visiting an area right alongside some houses.

Although this first phase of the project may still lack the rigor associated with a tried and tested scientific study, our students came back to the US on a mission to bridge the gap between research and development. To their immense credit, they started a new non-profit at CSU called Pivotal Places. By focusing on increasing the quality of life for communities on the border of conservation areas, we have hope that we can have a positive impact on both people and the environment in a way that supports biodiversity.

Our future champions of conservation are already developing solutions that will benefit both nature and people. The Lincoln Park Zoo and CSU partnership will continue on with a whole new group of motivated students traveling to South Africa this summer. Keep up with our travels on our websites, facebook page and twitter feed – and look out for our next blog!

Acknowledgements – We are honored to work with a host of amazing partners in South Africa including South African National Parks, Wits Rural Facility Management Team, and Tshulu Trust to name a few. And of course, we are grateful to our hardworking students! The 2018 Communities and Conservation team continue to inspire us every day.

By far the most productive cameras were located at Wits Rural Facility – a small game reserve and rural research base for the University of the Witswatersrand. Daily and nightly these cameras received regular visitors. Below are just some of the fun photos we captured. Can you guess the species?

Madison Waggoner