In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Nyeema Harris, an ecologist who works with mammalian carnivores as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. After a few unexpected extra months conducting her field research in West Africa this year, Harris describes working alongside local park managers and government officials to research how endangered lions use space both in national parks and outside those designated conservation zones. Harris expands on her work beyond these field sites, as well, exploring her involvement with Black Mammalogists Week and her commitment to ensuring that people of color feel they belong in scientific spaces.
Listen to the Podcast
- Availability of prey drives geographic distribution of lions: “Prey is what’s driving how lions specifically are using space—you’ve got to follow your food, right? … Even though we went in with the idea of expecting that the national parks would support a larger lion population or a greater diversity of wildlife, [which would] support a greater use of the park by the lions, that's not what we found. We found that the space use was comparable in the hunting concessions and the national parks.” (13:56)
- The controversial consequences of trophy hunting: “Biodiversity can be viewed as a resource. So, are we consumptively or non-consumptively valuing and using this resource? Depending on which camp you're in, you're going to have very adamant and visceral opinions around trophy hunting … There can be benefits in terms of the economic revenue that's generated, but then once it's generated, how is it distributed? That's where a lot of tensions arise … You put this dollar amount on this species that perhaps some people view should never have a dollar amount.” (19:57)
- Events hosted by Black scientists bolster diversity in environmental work: “There's been a movement largely happening in the Black community that intersects with environmentalism or environmental issues. From Black Birders Week to Black in Microbiology, a number of events are meant to … showcase that Black people are here, that we are in these spaces, that we are contributing and enjoying the natural world … [When people] don't see us in these spaces, it perpetuates a narrative that either we don't belong or we don't care.” (23:54)
Top of the Stack
- “Where lions roam: West African big cats show no preference between national parks, hunting zones” by Jim Erickson
- "Comparable space use by lions between hunting concessions and national parks in West Africa" by Kirby L. Mills, Yahou Harissou, Isaac T. Gnoumou, Yaye I. Abdel-Nasser, Benoit Doamba, and Nyeema C. Harris
- Black Mammalogists Week
- A Terrible Thing to Waste by Harriet A. Washington
- "Trophy hunting – can it really be justified by ‘conservation benefits’?" by Melanie Flynn
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talked with Dr. Nyeema Harris, assistant professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Director of the Applied Wildlife Ecology Lab at the University of Michigan. Dr. Harris is the co-author of a recent study showing how communities of lions are distributed across national parks and hunting concessions in West Africa.
We'll talk about how these different environments affect their patterns of movement and how those findings can inform conservation policy. We'll also talk about the controversial and fascinating topic of trophy hunting. Stay with us. All right, Professor Nyeema Harris from the University of Michigan. Thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Nyeema Harris: Thanks for having me, excited to talk.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, me too. So, Nyeema, we're going to talk today about your work on wildlife, in particular on lions in West Africa. But before we do that, we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental issues, and, for you in particular, on big cats. So what led you into this field?
Nyeema Harris: So this is one of my favorite stories; it's my transformative experience. So when I was a freshman in high school, I worked at the Philadelphia Zoo as my first job, and a part of the program that they had allowed youth participants to go on a safari in Africa. So I participated in the program. On the safari as a freshman—I wasn't supposed to go as a freshman, but we'll leave that detail out. So I went on safari in Kenya for two weeks. We saw, of course, lots of wildlife, everything that I imagined, everything that I was seeing on television. We did a night safari, a night game drive, and we watched lions.
The lions were hunting, they were teaching their young how to hunt. They eventually killed the gazelle. The gazelle was pregnant. They ripped out baby gazelle. So literally, this is National Geographic. I'm snapping pictures. There's bloody mouths. You hear all these sounds. You feel all this energy. People are crying and sad and I was like, "Okay, whatever this is called right here, this is what I want to do the rest of my life." I didn't know the name for it, but that set the tone in me appreciating the natural world and recognizing that I wanted to contribute to the conservation and the management and the persistence of those kinds of interactions, wildlife carnivores in their natural setting. That was my transformative experience, and so, that set the tone for my career trajectory.
Daniel Raimi: Wow, that is such a great story. That is amazing.
Nyeema Harris: It is.
Daniel Raimi: Oh my gosh. Wow. So I want to ask you more questions about your safari experience, but that'll have to wait until after we finish. So let's talk a little bit now about your work. One of the things that I learned about your work as I was doing some background research for today's conversation is that you have all these cool approaches that you use to try to understand the geography of different ecological communities here in Michigan, in West Africa, and in all sorts of other places.
Can you tell us a little bit about some of the methods and techniques that you use and your colleagues use to try to understand how those communities are distributed across space and then how they move over time?
Nyeema Harris: Yeah, so that seems like a very simple question, but we really need to know where animals are, where the processes that we're interested in studying exist across the globe, and so you have to survey. There's different survey techniques that people use. One of the common categories of surveys are called non-invasive techniques. That means that I don't have to necessarily trap something or put a collar on something. Instead, I can use alternative methods. So sometimes it's poop or scat or feces, whatever your favorite word is. Also, we use a lot of camera traps. There's also the inclusion of drones now for monitoring wildlife movement and habitat change and environmental conditions, all of which are considered non-invasive.
So commonly, in the research that we're using, we use a lot of camera traps where we're putting remotely triggered cameras on trees or a post so that when an animal or a person walks by, we get this image. We get this lens into nature that we often don't get to observe ourselves. Then we also collect a lot of poop. So the poop gives us information about the health of the organism. It gives us information about the diet. It also gives us information about hormone levels, parasites, lots of information that we can learn about the actual ecology and the behavior of the wildlife that we're studying using those techniques.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. Many of the people that we have on the show are policy people and researchers who spend most of their time in offices and buildings. Hearing about all this field work makes me somewhat jealous. So it makes me wonder during your typical year, and obviously 2020 is not a typical year, but during a typical year, how much time are you out in the field and how much time are you back in Ann Arbor?
Nyeema Harris: Honestly, not enough. I didn't become a wildlife biologist because I wanted to be inside or behind my desk or giving a lecture necessarily. The environment, the classroom, the learning spaces outside, we need to be observing. We need to be inspired by the natural world. So that ends up being a really important component of my job and that I do get to travel literally all over the world to study animals in their natural setting. So right now—and you're right that 2020 was not a typical year—but I actually got more time in the field because I was stuck in the field because of travel restrictions.
Daniel Raimi: Oh wow.
Nyeema Harris: More time than I had anticipated. But usually in the West Africa system, I spend about four months. This year, I spent about six months. So I try to do about half and half of field time and classroom or teaching or lecturing or analysis and writing, balancing that half and half.
Daniel Raimi: Great. That's interesting. Well, I'm interested also to ask you about your extended stay in West Africa. Maybe we'll get to that during our conversation. But let's talk now about some of the work that you've done in West Africa over the last several years. I came across a study that you published with coauthors recently about the distribution of lions in West Africa, across the national parks and hunting concessions. Can you start off by giving us a basic understanding of the current lay of the land of lions in West Africa and why you are interested in investigating this particular topic?
Nyeema Harris: Yeah, so of course, lions are this charismatic megafauna. Going back to my first experience with lions as a high school student, I've always been intrigued. So now fast forward 20 years later, finally getting to study them on a research project, but West Africa lions end up being particularly important. So unlike other populations in Africa, they are classified as critically endangered, meaning there are even more threats, even greater concerns around their persistence in nature. So that attracted me into West Africa. Even though, again, there are other parts of the continent of Africa, but West Africa ends up being a really, really special place. There's not a lot of work happening there. There's not enough work happening there. There's not enough attention.
In building my own research project, I wanted to make sure that I was working in geographies and partnering with communities and collaborating with governments to ensure that the work that I do can lead to action. That I can do science, that I can deliver research that has conservation and management implications. So West Africa allows for that kind of career aspiration and those goals to my research to be realized. So, and specifically looking at the West Africa lion, they are in a number of different protected areas across the region. Some of those protected areas vary depending on the management type.
They are occurring in national parks that are thought to have stricter kinds of regulations around human use and human pressures, but they're also current and present throughout hunting concessions. So that in itself represents a very distinct dichotomy in terms of the conditions and the potential threats that the species could be exposed to. So one of the things that we hoping to understand—and this was based on collaboration and conversation, us going into the region, us developing partnerships and relationships—was what are some of the research needs, and what are the ways that we can contribute to providing answers to some of the questions that people want to know in order, again, to make decisions.
So one of the questions came up around space use and around the distribution of lions across these management zones. So that wasn't initially my original interest going into the system, but we wanted to make sure that, yes, we are delivering, again, science that people can use. So we made some adjustments and designed a project to ensure that we could deliver some of those key pieces of information that were needed. Again, going back to those methods that we use, we had to decide: Do we want to go into the system and just start trapping and coloring and trying to track the movement of individuals, or do we want to take a different approach?
Given that the scale that we needed to survey in terms of hunting concessions and national parks, because the lion is critically endangered, we knew the densities would be really low. So going in and trying to trap initially, probably would not be a good idea either. So we decided to start with a very huge systematic camera survey where we deployed over 200 cameras throughout this protected area complex in West Africa in order to look at the distribution of how West African lions were using hunting concessions versus national parks.
Daniel Raimi: That's so interesting. I want to ask you about what you found. But first, when you say West Africa, can you give us a sense of which countries we're talking about or portions of countries?
Nyeema Harris: The place that I am working is in the largest protected area complex in West Africa. It is called the WAP complex. It spans Burkina Faso, Niger, and Benin. I also mentioned that we have another project that we have launched this year in Senegal, another country in West Africa that has lions.
Daniel Raimi: Great, thank you. That's really helpful. So now let's talk a little bit about what you found in this particular study. I mean, as someone who knows nothing about lions, I wouldn't even say next to nothing, I know nothing about them. My sort of presumption would be that they might avoid hunting concessions and spend more time in national parks because they're presumably at less risk and national parks. But is that what you ended up finding?
Nyeema Harris: So let me correct you. I'm sure you know lots of outlines. You know that they live in groups. You know that the males have manes. You know some things about lions.
Daniel Raimi: Okay, I guess you're right.
Nyeema Harris: But to answer your question, yes, that was the assumption going into the protected areas that we thought that the amount of space use, their behavior and the distribution of resources, and the availability of prey and their food would be higher in the national parks. So yes, they would spend more time in the national parks. Interestingly, what we found was first, we wanted to depict the different kinds of human activities that were present in the hunting concessions and the national parks. So we categorized people on the cameras. Again, we didn't go into the study system saying, "Hey, we want to survey people and see what they're doing in these places." No, but they end up being a kind of by-catch, if you will, in that people are using these spaces, and animals are using these spaces.
So they're coexisting or trying to co-exist in these shared landscapes that end up being really resourceful, both for humans and supporting livelihoods, but also for wildlife. So we wanted to first depict the activities that people were exploiting or utilizing resources inside of the national parks. Then we could start to understand, okay, what does the distribution of pressure or human activity look like? Is it the same across these management types? Then how does that affect the wildlife and specifically the African lion?
So the first thing that we found is that we were expecting to document lots of poaching and illegal activity. We certainly documented that, but that was not the highest threat. The most common human activity had to do with livestock—people grazing and moving cattle through the national parks. So livestock and herders and herdsmen, that was the dominant human activity that we documented on the cameras inside of the national parks. Now, we did document that there was lots of human activity in the hunting concessions. That is commercial management for economic reasons, for tourism, et cetera. So yes, we certainly documented lots of human activity inside of the hunting concessions.
But we found that because the prey distribution—given that prey is what's driving how animals and how carnivores and how lions, specifically, are using space, right, you’ve got to follow your food—so, given that, because the prey availability was comparable in both the national park and the hunting concessions, we actually found that the space use was comparable between the hunting concessions in the national park. So even though we went in with the idea of expecting that the national parks would support a larger lion population or a greater diversity of prey or a greater diversity of wildlife and then support a greater use of the park by the lions, that's not what we found. We found that the space use was comparable in the hunting concessions and the national parks.
Daniel Raimi: That's so interesting. You think that was predominantly driven by just the availability of prey?
Nyeema Harris: Yeah, we did lots of fancy modeling, of course. So we put different kinds of variables into these models. We looked at human pressure. We looked at the distribution and the density of roads. We looked at distance to edges. We looked at the size. We looked at the competitor community. We looked at the prey community. We put all these different variables into this model in order for us to explain space use. So this work was led by a graduate student that's in my lab, and so she was awesome in putting this model together. The model results highlighted the importance of prey availability, driving the space use patterns for lions.
Daniel Raimi: Got it. Super interesting. So you mentioned earlier that you specifically designed this work to be relevant to policymakers to inform conservation decisions. So what are some of the applications that you're able to draw from this work about how governments can effectively manage their parks, to support conservation or any other relevant takeaways in that area?
Nyeema Harris: Yeah, so it was really interesting in that, as we were designing this work, I didn't come in as this foreign researcher saying, "Hey, this is what I want to do in your place." It was really us having a conversation like, "These are my skills, these are my interests. This is my background. What are the needs? How do we come together? What does a collaboration look like?" So after several individuals, national park managers, government officials explaining some of the interests and some of their needs and designing this project, they are contributors. They are collaborators. They are co-authors on the research. They are setting the agenda for the scholarship.
So throughout the entire process, from conceptualizing the research to implementing, to us going out into the field and collecting the data together, them looking at the images and putting the images in context, they have been involved. I mentioned that we categorized human activities. Well, that's not my community, so I may look at the image and say, "Yeah. That looks like a bad guy to me." They're like, "No, actually, they're just going to get some Baobab fruit, " So this kind of local knowledge and community context ends up being really important to how we're even interpreting the data that we get out of these places.
So working with them throughout the entire process, now we have the results and the published papers. Now, the conversations are like “okay, so given what we've learned from this research, what are the levers that we can change?”
Alright. We know that prey availability is really important. We know that prey availability is linked to water management. Okay, great. Let's think about how we do a better job managing the water resources inside of the national park. Okay. We learned that the human activity is really dominated by this livestock pressure and grazers and herdsmen moving cattle through the park. Okay. Let's think about maybe is there a corridor that we need to create? Maybe is there a different kind of permitting? Is there a different kind of designated zone that facilitates the movement in a less disruptive way?
Those are now the conversations that can be had and the interventions that can be made in order to, again, promote this kind of coexistence between the human demands, and again, supporting livelihoods from the benefits that we get from nature, as well as supporting the conservation of some critically endangered species like the African lion.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That all makes sense. Super interesting. It'll be really interesting to watch how, well, I'm sure for you to watch how it plays out on the ground of what kind of strategies are implemented to sort of address these challenges that you've helped identify.
Nyeema Harris: Yeah. Seeing our work actually translate into new iterations of their management plans of the national parks, that certainly makes you feel really relevant and that the work that you're doing matters. Even though it takes a lot of effort, and a lot of energy, blood, sweat, and tears sometimes go into the work. But to know that it is benefiting and contributing and meeting the goals, that's really rewarding.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. So one related, but distinct topic that I wanted to ask you about is related to a really controversial topic, which is trophy hunting.
Many of us have probably seen images online of people who have been on these trips where they track and maybe hunt or kill a lion or another large animal, another charismatic megafauna, which is if I started a band in the future, I'm definitely calling it “Charismatic Megafauna.”
But seriously, these trips can, at least in theory, support local economies and raise revenue that can be used for conservation efforts. But there are also really clearly significant ethical concerns here. Again, as someone who hasn't thought deeply about these issues, I'm sure you have. So I'm just curious what your view is on the benefits and drawbacks of trophy hunting as it actually exists in the real world.
Nyeema Harris: Yeah. So that ends up being a really controversial topic. It's controversial for a lot of reasons. One aspect has to do with the fact that wildlife can be viewed as a resource. Biodiversity can be viewed as a resource. So are we consumptively or non-consumptively valuing and using this resource?
Depending on which camp you're in, you're going to have very adamant and visceral opinions around trophy hunting. You're right in that there can be benefits in terms of the economic revenue that's generated, but then once it's generated, how is it distributed? That's where a lot of tensions arise in that. Okay, you put this dollar amount on this species that perhaps some people view should never have a dollar amount, how much is something worth. Then I don't get to reap the benefits if I'm a community member living in that environment. This resource got extracted and I didn't reap any benefits.
So that creates tension between local communities and foreign visitors or hunters or politicians and government officials. Tensions arise from that perspective. I have personal opinions about trophy hunting, and I have scientific opinions around trophy hunting, some of which are kind of integrated and merged together.
I would say first and foremost that one of the dangers around trophy hunting is us not actually setting the proper quotas. So if you're going to remove individuals out of the population—this is me wearing my biologist hat—If you're going to remove individuals from the population, how many should we remove so that it does not harm or change the trajectory of that population in terms of making it even more endangered or populations declining?
So that's the first question. Do we actually have the scientific data and the survey, have we surveyed these populations to know, okay, we could remove these many individuals knowing that individuals are going to be removed for natural causes as well? If we add additional mortality on top of that, does that cause the population to decline?
If we're answering those questions, and so we're going through the due diligence of scientifically investigating to know how many we should remove, then we could argue that trophy hunting won't have a detrimental effect on the populations. So that's where my concern comes in: Are we setting quotas so that the removal of individuals does not harm the population trajectory?
So if we do that science, if we do that research and we say, "Yeah, alright. We can take five out, or we can take 20 out." As long as we've done that science to justify our decisionmaking, I think that that part is really important. Sometimes that's not happening. Most of the time, I would argue, that's probably not happening.
Daniel Raimi: Interesting. Yeah. That's what I was going to ask you is whether you think to what extent is that playing out in the real world? It sounds like, yeah, not as much as it probably should.
Nyeema Harris: Yeah. We need to be doing more science, more research in order to help make better decisions around trophy hunting and which individuals get removed from the population.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Interesting. Well, we don't have enough time to talk about trophy hunting in much more detail, but I just want to acknowledge how interesting and complex the issue is. Maybe we can find another time to talk about it in greater depth, or we can do another show where we spend some more time on it.
Nyeema Harris: Sounds good.
Daniel Raimi: So last question, before we go to our Top of the Stack closing segment is about an event that you helped organize in mid-September called Black Mammalogists Week. I had looked on the website of the event and it had these really wonderful illustrations. It sounds like there were all sorts of great talks that were to be going on sharing information and encouraging young people to get involved in this field. Can you tell us a little bit about the event and what it sought to accomplish?
Nyeema Harris: Yeah. So there's been kind of a movement, I would say largely that's happening in the black community intersecting with environmentalism or environmental issues, from Black Birders Week, there's Black and Microbiology, Black Mammalogists. There are a number of events that are meant to, number one, showcase that black people are here, that we are in these spaces, that we are contributing and enjoying the natural world. We are studying the natural world. So it's really an opportunity. It really was an opportunity to showcase black mammalogists, our love and our passion for the natural world when oftentimes people are not seeing us. They don't see us in these spaces.
So it perpetuates a narrative that either we don't belong or we don't care or this isn't for us, and that's not true, and that's not a narrative that we want to promote. So it was an opportunity to incite an enthusiasm for representation that we are, again, in this space and we are contributing. It was also an opportunity to highlight the scholarship in terms of the different research, the different activities that are happening around mammals and our relationship to mammals, whether we are hunting and harvesting them. So we had a Forage Friday. We had a Threatened Thursday where we highlighted threatened mammals. We had Techniques Tuesday where we talked about the methods used in studying mammals. So it was really a platform that we wanted to organize ourselves and activate an energy, and again, showcase that we are in this space to highlight the representation. Yes, of course, to inspire the next generation, but also to inform our colleagues and to reiterate that this is a shared space, whether you like it or not. We are here and we are staying.
Daniel Raimi: Great. That's super interesting. There's a website of course, that people can check out and hopefully... Do you think this event will carry on in the future? It will be an annual kind of thing?
Nyeema Harris: Yeah, actually, we've set up a scholarship. So you can go to that Black Mammalogists website, blackmammalogists.com. People can contribute to a scholarship fund where we are supporting black ecologists, supporting students or community leaders that are involved in mammalogy. This is an event that we are expecting to have annually. This is an opportunity for us to strengthen the community among black ecologists and black mammalogists, but also facilitates different kinds of conversations. So there's lots of different kinds of spinoffs. There's lots of different opportunities with us participating in different workshops or showcases, again, to highlight and elevate the contributions that black mammalogists are making across the globe.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Great. Very cool. Well, thank you for sharing that and I hope people will check it out. So let's close it out now by asking you the same question that we ask all of our guests. So asking you to recommend something that you've read or watched or heard recently that is related to the environment, even if tangentially, that you think is really interesting. I will start with a very brief recommendation on this topic of trophy hunting that we really just touched on. It's an article that I read in The Conversation by a woman named Melanie Flynn who's a lecturer in criminology, interestingly, at the University of Huddersfield in the UK.
The piece is called “Trophy Hunting,– can it really be justified by ‘conservation benefits?’ Like other arguments that I've read in this sphere, I don't have a strong view where I come down, but it's fascinating to learn more about the topic and some of its complexities. But now I'll turn it over to you, Nyeema, and ask you to tell us what's on the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack.
Nyeema Harris: Yeah, I'm excited actually. There's a new book that I want to read. It's called A Terrible Thing to Waste and it's written by Harriet Washington, and it's about environmental racism, and it focuses on environmental toxins and kind of the disproportionate effect that communities of color or marginalized communities being exposed to that affects their health, that affects their intellect and IQ. So this relationship between the environment and communities of color and intellect, this whole intersection. So really excited to read that. Again, A Terrible Thing to Waste by Harriet Washington.
Daniel Raimi: That sounds really interesting. Well, we will put links to that book and also to the article that I mentioned on the webpage in the show notes, so people can easily access them. We'll put up a link, of course, Nyeema, to your website and to the Black Mammalogists Week website so people can check those out at their convenience.
Nyeema Harris: Great.
Daniel Raimi: So once again, Nyeema Harris from the University of Michigan. Thank you so much for coming on Resources Radio and telling us about your work tracking mammals and learning about mammals and informing policy decisions.
Nyeema Harris: Thanks again for having me.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Learn how to support Resources for the Future at rff.org/support. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.
Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.