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‘We scientists engage in soft diplomacy’: Q&A with Christine Wilkinson

  • Christine Wilkinson is a carnivore ecologist, National Geographic Explorer and postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who uses technology to examine interactions between humans and wildlife in East Africa and California.
  • Her work is interdisciplinary, using participatory mapping to include local communities in her work and learn about how peoples’ perceptions about carnivores affects conflicts with them.
  • Wilkinson also notes that human-wildlife conflicts areas are rooted in human-human conflict, often based in socioeconomic and sociopolitical contexts as well as histories.
  • Wilkinson spoke with Mongabay about why hyenas get such a bad rap, her dream of a solar-powered camera-trap grid, and her work bringing together other African American scientists in mammalogy.

As deforestation and subsequent human expansion into natural areas continue, separating people from wildlife is unrealistic. Even in “pristine” landscapes, like national parks, humans and wildlife are always sharing the same space and interacting. And human-wildlife interactions can look very different, centering on factors ranging from infrastructure to noise pollution, to people’s perceptions about how risky some animals are.

Roads receive a lot of attention over how they affect wildlife movement. But there are other barriers and boundaries that exist between humans and wildlife, like fences.

“A lot of people kind of take fences for granted,” says Christine Wilkinson, a carnivore ecologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

“There’s quite a lot of studies in the field of road ecology … It’s been around for a couple of decades. But fence ecology isn’t really a thing.”

Wilkinson looks at how people and wildlife, especially carnivores, interact. She uses camera traps to monitor how animals deal with fences, and radio collars to track how carnivores move throughout a landscape. Her fieldwork has taken her to Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya

Making sure that local communities are heard is a central part of her research program. She uses interdisciplinary methods, looking at how ecology and social factors intersect to create a lasting coexistence between people and wildlife.

“One of the main things that I’ve learned as a conservation biologist is that it’s crucial to involve people in the research process,” she says.

Wilkinson uses participatory methods that highlight local communities as experts, prioritizes these viewpoints, and involves people in the decision-making process. Back home, she employs these methods in her own community in the San Francisco Bay Area and trains a similar social lens on her work. Specifically, she is looking at how movement and interactions intersect with systemic racism, redlining and gentrification.

“If we can use animals as this story illustration of the city and its inequalities and its systemic issues, we can bring the lens back to what people need too,” she says.

Mongabay’s Caitlin Looby spoke recently with Christine Wilkinson about how she uses technology to learn more about human-wildlife conflict, why participatory methods are important to answer her research questions, and how she helped create Black Mammalogists Week. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: I want to hear a more about your background and how you got started studying mammals. When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist? Did you know that you always wanted to study mammals?

Christine Wilkinson: I grew up in Queens, New York. And I was always as a kid running around finding a bunch of urban animals, like squirrels and cockroaches and cicadas and pigeons and even huge hornets and things like that. And I would bring cicadas to the dinner table riding on my shirt. My mom did not like that.

I knew that I wanted to work with animals. I watched all those shows on TV with white guy hosts. And I really wanted to be like them, but I had no idea how mainly because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me on TV.

But I also knew that somehow I needed to work with animals and that kind of morphed into working with wildlife. I started off in the veterinarian track in my mind as a kid, but then realized that there was this wildlife science aspect. When I applied to undergrad, I applied to all these wildlife-related programs.

The other life path would have been screenwriting and symphony orchestra and I got into that at university and then had a very hard decision to make. But the reason I chose to do wildlife work in the end was that I was fortunate to be invited to be part of a field science program funded by the National Science Foundation starting in the summer before my undergrad.

I had a lot of really amazing mentorship that I received during that program. I had a mentor throughout my whole undergrad that really helped me to get funding for different science things that I wanted to do and tap into that world. I really don’t think I would have ended up where I am today without that person whose name is Myra Shulman.

I did do my first research study on a bunch of different crustaceans and also some marine plants. That was before undergrad, and then I did a squirrel study during my first year in undergrad about their foraging habits. Then, my whole senior thesis was focusing on seabirds, so mainly on gulls and Arctic terns.

But then I traveled to East Africa for the first time during my junior year and ended up getting involved in some research projects around human-wildlife conflict with baboons and some other mammals and really sort of dove into the mammal and human-mammal conflict at that point.

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Mongabay: What is the holistic vision for your research?

Christine Wilkinson: One of the main things that I’ve learned as a conservation biologist is that it’s crucial to involve people in the research process and to deeply understand how human perceptions and values intersect with ecology and behavior to influence conservation outcomes just as much as the ecology would.

For my research, I use interdisciplinary and participatory methods with people to understand how the social and ecological factors intersect, and what we can learn from that intersection to create more lasting coexistence between people and wildlife.

Mongabay: You looked into how wildlife interacts with fencing around protected areas in Kenya. Tell me about this work and what you found.

Christine Wilkinson: A lot of people kind of take fences for granted. And they’re the background behind doing this work. There’s quite a lot of studies in the field of road ecology … It’s been around for a couple of decades. But fence ecology isn’t really a thing.

We made a review paper saying we need to understand the ecological effects of fences. They’re orders of magnitude more dense and more numerous than roads. And there are all sorts of ecological winners and losers with different types of fences and we’re not really studying that. And we know that the amount of fences in the world could likely reach the sun. But we don’t really know much about their overall impacts on wildlife behavior and on ecological processes more broadly.

With wildlife increasingly living alongside people, conservation fences in particular are becoming pretty popular in various parts of the world … a lot in sub-Saharan Africa and in other areas.

We have these conservation fences being erected and what I mean by that is fences that are either partially or completely surrounding protected areas, and they’re meant to prevent human-wildlife conflict and to protect habitat. We don’t really know how effective those fences actually are, despite their popularity, and what unintended consequences they might be having.

For my work, which was mainly about my animal behavior around fences, I used camera traps to see how wildlife are moving through and generally acting around the Lake Nakuru National Park fence in Kenya. And what we found is that out of the 38 mammal species that approach that fence, 27 of them cross at least once over a one-year period. And carnivores in particular are crossing quite a lot to and from the national park. The fence also poses no barrier to primate species. And on top of that, we saw no clear effect when the fences were maintained, so animals often breached those holes that were fixed, pretty much within a day or so.

What all this means is that fences for conservation really need clear target species and goals for which proper resources are devoted, ensuring those goals are being met. This is a pretty difficult task. The jury’s still out on whether conservation fences are useful and in what contexts. It’s a very context-dependent issue.

As a sort of tech-related bonus for this study, we developed a way of classifying fence-specific mammal behaviors from still camera imagery. It’s logistically difficult to take videos in this kind of rural region and many others because of battery and other limitations that you have. Having the ability to classify fence-specific behaviors from still imagery can be really useful for people who are trying to further understand the ecological effects of these fences.

Mongabay: Were you surprised by these findings? What do these results mean in terms of solutions and polices?

Christine Wilkinson: We were super surprised by the findings. We originally had the cameras up to supplement another part of the research. Long story short, they banned all wildlife collaring for a minute because of something unrelated to wildlife collaring. And we’re like, OK, let’s put up some cameras so you can get a sense of the movement of these carnivores while we wait to be able to collar. But because of what we saw, we ended up adding more cameras and keeping them up longer because we’re seeing so many species crossing the fence.

Our results essentially mean that we need a lot more studies on how these fences are impacting the ecology. What species are the ecological winners and losers for different types of fences in different regions? And as I mentioned before, it also shows that having sort of clear target species and goals for this is pretty important to consider when determining whether the fence is going to be useful, how long it’s going to be useful, and what unintended impacts it’s going to have.

Christine Wilkinson and her collaborators capture and collar a spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) in Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya. Image courtesy of funding by the National Geographic Society.

Mongabay: In this scenario, what would make an animal an ecological winner versus loser? What does that mean and what does that look like?

Christine Wilkinson: There have been some interesting studies on how certain carnivore species have learned or have the ability to use the fence as a prey trap. They make the fence into a barrier that the prey gets stuck up against and they get eaten. So, there’s a very clear ecological winner or loser.

But thinking in a more nuanced way, fence lines often have a lot of grass and vegetation growing along them. And that creates a microhabitat that wouldn’t be there otherwise in, say, a savanna ecosystem. That’s creating more habitat for rodents or insects or maybe even birds to be able to use that wouldn’t be there otherwise, even if it’s blocking, say, your large ungulates from getting through the fence to forage on the other side.

Mongabay: Had this work been done before in other areas?

Christine Wilkinson: The closest that this work on conservation fences has been done [is in another area of Africa]. But rather than looking at what the fence was letting through and not letting through, they were looking at what happens when you remove a portion of the fence and block certain animals from getting through but let others through. And whether they use those fence gaps in specific ways. They were looking at the opposite, like how they navigate around fences to get to the set gaps in those conservation fences.

In the western United States, they’re on a different timeline of their fence political ecology. Right now, we’re working on removing and revising fences to be wildlife friendly, whereas in other areas of the world, they’re working on erecting fences to prevent conflict and to create coexistence and barriers. I know some folks that work on pronghorn and other species in the western United States and how to make those fences more wildlife friendly.

And there’s a little bit of work that’s also been done in places like Patagonia on how guanacos are getting stuck in fence lines. But [there isn’t much research on building fences] for conservation and whether they’re actually detrimental for conservation.

Mongabay: In another study, you put GPS collars on hyenas to track how they move throughout the land and learn more about conflicts. Tell me more about the technology that you used. What did you find when you looked at the tracking data?

Christine Wilkinson: We were trying to look at hyenas’ movements at really fine scales, so we used five-minute fixed rates for that, which is pretty extraordinary. And the way we were able to do that is we use these GPS GSM collars from a company called Savannah Tracking based out of Nairobi, and we put an extra battery pack on them to support those really fine-scale fixed rates for at least a year.

And it was really important to us use these fixed rates because we can easily determine how hyenas use the landscape broadly, and how they’re behaving in relation to infrastructure, like fences. Also, when they are near livestock and other human attractants and activity.

And then what we’re finding with the tracking data, so far, we’re seeing that spotted hyenas choose where to move differently depending on the scale you’re looking at. At a landscape scale, using things like resource selection functions, these animals are selecting for different elements than they are on the scale of immediate decision-making.

And it’s also looking like hyena movement in this region can be at least partially predicted depending on people’s perceptions and attitudes regarding carnivores. That means that perceptions might be playing out in some way on the ground that we’re unable to determine from the data, by people hazing, maybe even poisoning or scaring off hyenas and other ways.

And we’re refining it to be able to use a supercomputer here on campus to dive even more deeply into these really fine-scale data sets, rather than just looking at them from a broad view. I think this is also the first time that someone has tried to integrate sociocultural perception data with ecological data when looking at animal movement.

Mongabay: It seems that hyenas have a bad reputation. Can you talk more about that? Is this bad reputation warranted?

Christine Wilkinson: Yes, it’s true. They do have a bad rap. It’s pretty much all sub-Saharan African countries: hyenas are reviled in some way or they have negative connotations around them. The only difference being some places in Ethiopia where they’re viewed a bit differently, they’re supplementally fed and the attitudes are very different.

Some of the reasons, I believe, and from some of the work that I’ve done there, that negative reputation is because they’re super intelligent. They’re seen as being pretty crafty. I mean, hyenas can outperform chimpanzees in some problem-solving tests. They’re very smart.

Historically, if you look at intelligent species, they’re often some of the most feared. Look at coyotes and crows. They have this folklore around them. The other thing is that people view them as being dirty scavengers, when actually the fact is they are apex predators that kill more than 60% of their own prey and lions are more likely to steal from them rather than the other way around. The other main thing is that spotted hyenas have a very special genitalia and people historically have thought that they’re related to witchcraft or hermaphrodites.

They’re implicated in human-wildlife conflict around Africa. They do take advantage of when a lion jumps into a cow enclosure. And the cows get out and trample out of the enclosure and hyenas will be, they’re taking advantage of that and will take the livestock.

They’re very, very crafty. I’ve heard of them taking someone’s arm off in the middle of the night while they’re sleeping in their tent because they forgot to close their tent. That’s very rare, but those one-time stories … they really stick with people. This perceived conflict is just as important as what you actually see on the ground. So it’s worth thinking about.

Mongabay: Can you tell me what a typical day in the field looks like for you? What are some of the challenges you face?

Christine Wilkinson: In Kenya, a typical day in the field could look like getting up at least an hour or so before dawn so I can get out to the hyenas during their early crepuscular hours while they’re still active. I’ll usually go and observe at the den or at any kills, like various prey that they’ve taken down overnight, and sit there and take voice recordings of my observations to transcribe later on. I also have these ID books that I and some others have been working on where you can ID the animals by their individual spot patterns. I’ll usually bring those out with me and like try to see who I’m looking at for the voice transcriptions.

And then during the day, because I chose to become an interdisciplinary scientist. I don’t sleep. I often do community work, like participatory mapping or other aspects of connecting with people. If I could squeeze in a nap in the middle of day, that’d be great, but it usually doesn’t happen.

I also would do a lot of the fence work during the day: mapping the weak points in the fence where animals are crossing, placing, checking or replacing camera traps. And then about an hour before sunset, I’ll set myself up near a den or a kill again or drive around known hyena areas and see what I can find. And I’ll usually stay out until at least an hour or so after sunset since these animals are nocturnal. I might stay out even later.

Hyenas in some of these parts where we’re working are very skittish because there have been bounties on their heads not so long ago. Building up trust with them and habituating them to my car is a lot of work.

And then for the Bay Area, I don’t yet have a typical field day. We’re hoping to collar some coyotes, bobcats, foxes and raccoons starting in the spring. But for now, we’re working on building relationships, setting up camera traps. Field days I have had involve setting up and checking camera traps in the bay as well as meeting with various organizations and community members to prepare for the research.

Christine Wilkinson, a carnivore expert, National Geographic Explorer and postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, conducting fieldwork on the shore of Lake Elmenteita in Kenya. Image courtesy of funding by the National Geographic Society.

Mongabay: You also do participatory mapping. Tell me more about what that is and how that is helpful to learn more about human-wildlife conflicts.

Christine Wilkinson: Participatory mapping is one of the meaningful ways to try and involve community members in the research process, and to really elevate the voices of people that are dealing directly with these conservation challenges and conflicts with animals. For my participatory mapping work, I use a platform called Field Papers that simplifies the digitization and georeferencing component with digitizing paper maps. Typically, if you don’t have that kind of website, you’re usually doing this by hand in a way that’s extremely tedious.

And then I also used an anonymous way of associating people’s interview data with what they drew on the maps that I came up with so that we could associate their demographics and their attitudes with what they feel is important across the landscape.

I really like using this tool because it’s a way of engaging people and helping them to feel heard and acknowledging the fact that us scientists are not actually objective. We are these soft diplomats. We engage in soft diplomacy. In my case, although they knew I was a student and didn’t have much power, they also knew that I was a conduit to government agencies that they couldn’t get hold of. And so I was able to connect the communities with a lot of resources that they wanted to deal with some of these issues.

All of these elements, the data themselves, the elevating of people’s voices and perceptions and what that means for conservation and serving as this conduit to resources for people, are really important for both understanding what will work for coexistence but also making more lasting choices about those policies and those practices.

Mongabay: Can you tell me more about the work that you are doing in the Bay Area?

Christine Wilkinson: I am a postdoc working with Dr. Chris Schell here who just started at University of California, Berkeley, but was at the University of Washington before, and I’m looking at how carnivores navigate the city and its people around the Bay Area.

I’m also doing a project in Los Angeles right now. And for my research I’m trying to understand the impact of inequality, gentrification, other socioeconomic factors as well as ecology on carnivore movement and interactions with people and broader wildlife communities. I’m also super excited because I get to work with my own community here. And I have already given my lab some of my traditional ecological knowledge to help with their research. It’s pretty cool.

And this is kind of building on some of Chris’s work. He has done some interesting papers looking at the effects of systemic racism, redlining, gentrification on urban wildlife ecology and evolution. And we’re trying to build on that and look specifically at movement and interactions with people in relation to some of those factors.

And for me, the guiding philosophy behind most of this work is that understanding these sociocultural and ecological determinants of where animals are moving and how they’re interacting with people and looped back into some of the conversations around equity for people and health for people. If we can use animals as this story illustration of the city and its inequalities and its systemic issues, we can bring the lens back to what people need too. That’s kind of the hope for me.

Mongabay: You mentioned carnivores in this area. What carnivores are present in the San Francisco Bay area?

Christine Wilkinson: I’m focusing mainly on coyotes right now for the Los Angeles project. But starting in the spring, we’re going to try to collar coyotes, bobcats, red and gray fox and raccoons here in the Bay Area.

And that’ll be hopefully a long-term project where we’re collaring. We’ll hopefully get a permit to collar a good chunk of animals per year and that’s going to be in Oakland, Richmond, El Cerrito and then also in San Francisco, and maybe going down toward the South Bay as well.

Mongabay: Human-wildlife conflict is a problem all around the world, which is clear considering you are doing this work in Kenya and in the United States. What are some common themes that you’ve noticed when it comes to these conflicts from the perspectives of both animals and humans?

Christine Wilkinson: I would say the absolute number one thing is that many of us who study human-wildlife conflict also know that these conflicts actually are human-human conflicts.

They’re based in these sociopolitical contexts and histories that lead to conflict. Even though, of course, the ecology behind conflict is also very important.

We also seen that around the world. Human-wildlife conflict is pretty context specific. That’s why the solutions for it are so hard to come by. And because of that, we’ve actually seen very little evidence about the effectiveness of different interventions and tools that are targeted at conflict.

But that kind of evidence-gathering effort is something that lots of folks around the world are now working on. We are spending quite a lot of money, not just conservation folks, but also people in the livestock industry. People with small-scale farms are dealing with a lot of these issues and spending a lot of their money and time for the tools out in the landscape that may not work or may not work for a long time. The next step here is gathering as much evidence as possible for the tools.

Mongabay: You are also one of the co-founders of Black Mammalogists Week. Can you tell me a more about that? How did that start?

Christine Wilkinson: We created Black Mammalogists Week after seeing the success and really widespread reach of the other weeks, like Black Birders Week was the first one, and then all these other weeks.

I’m a National Geographic Explorer and I saw an article in one of the NatGeo platforms that referred to my friend Rae [Wynn-Grant] as being the only African American female large-carnivore ecologist in the world. And I was like, I know at least a few more.

[Wilkinson said in a follow-up that she contacted NatGeo about it and they changed the article to reflect what she said.]

This means that we are not connecting with one another, and we need to build that community. Rae and I and one other person got together with that as the catalyst to find and bring together Black mammalogists and mammal enthusiasts to provide tangible ways to connect and support one another. Now, not only do we have community, but we also have these role models that are really visible for people to look up to.

It’s our way of addressing systemic racism in academic and conservation spaces in the United States, while also boosting mammalogists and mammal enthusiasts from the African diaspora around the world.

We really are kind of using this initiative in the hope that young and aspiring conservationist mammalogists will be inspired and know that the community is here for them. And at the same time, we’re doing some other tangible things, like we have a big scholarship through the American Society for Mammalogists that we raised the money for. We raised about $50,000, which means we’re about $10,000 away from our endowment, and then it’ll be there for perpetuity. That’s a super-exciting aspect of it as well.

Participatory mapping session with community members living near Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya. Image courtesy of funding by the National Geographic Society.

Mongabay: What is next for you in your research? Do you plan to use any other kinds of technology that you want to tap into in your future work?

Christine Wilkinson: Pretty pressing for me is building up a way to keep the hyena project up and running and further connecting the community there with wildlife and with other resources to alleviate conflicts that they’ve asked for.

The region that I work in, that’s really special because it’s kind of a microcosm representing the world’s future. In fact, it’s developing so quickly and people are coming increasingly into contact with wildlife as development intensifies. That area is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s pretty special in a lot of different ways. And I’m working on applying for various grants for that hyena project right now to try and keep that going.

As far as tech for that project, it will be excellent to set up a functioning solar-powered camera-trap grid to understand more about the human infrastructure and how it’s affecting wildlife on a broader scale. The logistics of getting batteries for camera traps to Africa is insane.

So you cannot bring lithium batteries on a plane because they have the risk of setting on fire. You can only you can bring them if they’re in the cameras already. In your first trip over when you’re bringing all your cameras, you load them full of batteries and that’s the most batteries you’ll ever bring at one time with you on a plane.

And when I get to where I work, I’m buying out every supermarket in town to get these batteries, and it’s a mixture of alkaline and lithium and it’s just a mess. My friend has a grid of 80 cameras in Mozambique, and she has Energizer ship them to South Africa and then pays an enormous amount of tariffs to get them to Mozambique. That’s how she gets her batteries to her cameras.

It would be great to do solar power. That has its own challenges as far as theft, but it seems like the only sustainable option especially in a place that’s literally on the equator.

Another tech thing I’m hoping to do is to contribute to the geofencing efforts for conflict mitigation, and collar additional hyenas if possible. The conservancy has been piloting these alarm systems that go off when collared animals are within a certain distance and the alarms aren’t necessarily there to scare off the animals, but to alert the herder that there’s something in in the vicinity. They’re really helpful, but they have such a limited number, and they also are super glitchy, so it’d be great to be able to help refine that with the group that’s working on that.

And then for the Bay Area work, we’re planning to collar all those animals as I mentioned earlier, and we’d like to use 15-minute fix rates for understanding their fine-scale landscape views and interactions with people. Because this is going to be a longitudinal project going on long after I’m gone here, we’re also seeking new innovations and tracking devices. For instance, we’ve applied for a trial set of devices from Icarus, which are super tiny and not necessary for animals as big as a coyote, but they are useful because they last for a decade.

We’d like to be able to track at least a subset of our coyotes over a long period of time to see how climate change and wildfire and other aspects influence their behavior on a long time scale. And then the last bit is that we’re trying to figure out, best practices to use community apps like Nextdoor and others to engage the community and understand these kinds of interactions and attitudes toward carnivores.

The apps have a lot of limitations as far as who gets involved in them and the perspectives represented, but they also have some limitations as far as you have to be part of certain neighborhoods and live there in order to get all of the access to those comments.

Caitlin Looby is the 2021 Sue Palminteri WildTech Reporting Fellow, which honors the memory of Mongabay Wildtech editor Sue Palminteri by providing opportunities for students to gain experience in conservation technology and writing. You can support this program here.

Editor’s note: This story was supported by XPRIZE Rainforest as part of their five-year competition to enhance understanding of the rainforest ecosystem. In respect to Mongabay’s policy on editorial independence, XPRIZE Rainforest does not have any right to assign, review, or edit any content published with their support.