To achieve its object of study in the eastern Tibetan plateau, Yufang Gao hiked a mountain 15,000 feet above sea level. Along the equator, Mary Burak traversed the high and dry landscapes of Kenya. Kaggie Orrick cruised through thick forests and dense sand in Botswana, and Julia Monk drove 12 hours in a four-by-four truck on sometimes flooded roads to search the Andes.
These current YSE doctoral students have deployed across the world in search of big cats. From lions to pumas to leopards, they study different aspects of how these predators and their prey interact with humans and landscapes and influence each other. Their work will shed light on human-wildlife conflict and advance mutually beneficial ways for communities on the ground to coexist with the big cats.
âMany large carnivores are disappearing locally due to habitat loss, human encroachment, exploitation or retaliation for preying on livestock. And this is happening because humans are expanding their use of landscapes for their own livelihood purposes, âsays Os Schmitz, senior associate dean of research and Oastler professor of population and community ecology at YSE.
The traditional approach to conflict mitigation has been to move people away from specific areas and create dedicated spaces, such as national parks, for wildlife. But these actions, Schmitz says, often have little buy-in from local communities and can minimize the significant effects of predators and their prey on landscapes and ecosystems.
âWhat this new research tries to do is be much more sensitive to local communities and indigenous livelihoods and knowledge. Once you build that trust, you feel like you could make great strides in conservation, âhe says.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has held back everyone except Gao in the United States, the students’ previous field studies have provided them with enough data to advance their research. Here is an overview of their work.
Yufang Gao – Snow leopards in China
Gao ’14 MESc, who is pursuing a combined doctorate in wildlife conservation from YSE and Yale’s Department of Anthropology, focuses his thesis on the quest for a harmonious coexistence between humans and snow leopards and other large carnivores.
To obtain his data, he set up camera traps and collected droppings from snow leopards in the Nyanpo Yutse area of ââQinghai Province to analyze their diet in different seasons. He hasn’t seen one face to face yet.
Born in Fujian Province, Gao traveled across China to study tigers, brown bears, alligators, and the ivory trade. For his current research on snow leopards and other carnivores, he interviews, observes and travels with Tibetan Shepherds and environmentalists who are Buddhist monks.
His work here has led him to think differently about the terms âconflictâ and âcoexistence,â he says.
“One of the main conclusions I come to is that the problem of human-wildlife conflict is at least partially caused by our conceptualization of what conflict is and is not,” Gao said. âConflict is part of coexistence. Conflict is not necessarily the opposite of coexistence.
The main diet of snow leopards in winter is mainly livestock, but Gao questions the assumption that farmers compete with predators.
âFrom the perspective of the locals, people and large carnivores are not competitive. They are interdependent. They coexist in an integrated landscape, âhe says. âTibetan herders generally understand that it is normal for snow leopards to occasionally attack their livestock in order to feed their young. Because of this empathetic understanding, they say, âOh, actually, we don’t have a very serious conflict with the snow leopard. “
What is needed for human-wildlife coexistence is a different perspective on conflict, not necessarily new national parks or financial compensation for livestock losses, he says.
Julia Monk – Pumas in Argentina
In the high desert of San Guillermo National Park in the Andes, Monk has spent months in the field studying the important role that pumas and their prey, especially vicuÃ±as (a type of camelid), play in storing the carbon and nutrient cycling in landscapes.
Pumas fascinate her, she says, because they are found all over the world, from the icy regions of Canada to the southern tip of South America. She has always been intrigued by large predators and their behavior in the wild. When she was a research assistant studying monkeys in IguazÃº, a subtropical rainforest bordering Brazil, a rare sighting of a puma during a field study crystallized her interest in the species.
âIt was very close, and we were just a little bit frozen,â she recalls. “And then he finally turned away from us and started casually walking the path, not running away or anything, until he finally disappeared.” And it wasn’t until then that we kind of let our breath go. “
For his YSE research, Monk collected data on the nutrients that seep into the soil from vicuÃ±a carcasses that pumas leave behind after a successful hunt, by tracking down where the pumas have been using GPS collars. She also analyzes vicuÃ±as’ droppings and their impact on plant growth. Pumas are the main killer of herbivores in the region. Where they kill their prey and the decomposition of their prey has a big impact on the sustainability of the ecosystem.
“I hope that some of our work will strengthen the case for the conservation of these animals,” said Monk, who won the 2021 YSE Oswald Schmitz Award for Excellence in Research Communication for the best doctoral presentation . âIf we can see how these animals have a real impact on the landscape, then we will better understand their conservation value. Once they’re gone, ecosystems could be really different in ways we didn’t expect. “