Browsing Tag

Wildlife Conservation

U.S. Fulbright

Going Batty in Oz: Conservation of the Critically Endangered Southern Bent-wing Bat in South Australia

October 31, 2014
Kristen Lear - 1

Kristen Lear, 2011-2012, Australia, with a Southern Bent-wing Bat (Miniopterus schreibersii bassanii) in Bat Cave, Naracoorte, South Australia

Happy Halloween! In honor of the Fulbright Program celebrating #BatWeek on Twitter, today’s blog post is from Fulbright U.S. Student Program alumna Kristen Lear, who studied the conservation of the Southern Bent-wing Bat in Australia back in 2011. Enjoy!

The wind stirs as I sit under the bright stars and listen to the rustle of bat wings as they flit past me. The bright screens of my laptop and the thermal imaging camera are the only lights shining in the dark. The stream of bats gets heavier until there are over 1,000 flying out of the cave every minute. I spend most nights like this, sitting outside Bat Cave at Naracoorte Caves National Park, South Australia, taking fly-out counts to determine the population size of Southern Bent-wing Bats (Miniopterus schreibersii bassanii). The aim of my Fulbright project is to monitor the bats at the maternity cave (Bat Cave) and at their overwintering sites throughout South East South Australia.

The Southern Bent-wing Bat was listed as Critically Endangered under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 based on the fact that the sub-species has undergone a reduction in population by about 67 percent over three generations (from about 100,000-200,000 bats in the 1960s to about 30,000 in 2009) and that it has a highly restricted range, relying on only two maternity caves (Bat Cave in Naracoorte and Starlight Cave in Warrnambool, Victoria). During my Fulbright year, I have been taking regular fly-out counts with thermal imaging cameras to monitor population trends at Bat Cave and determine the peak population size, monitor pup health to watch for signs of disease or starvation and conduct overwinter cave surveys in the South East region. The information gathered from this study will help guide management strategies that will aid in the recovery of this species.

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U.S. Fulbright

How I Came to Pursue a Fulbright Grant: Pygmy Hippos and Conservation in Sierra Leone

October 16, 2013
April Conway - 1

(From left to right) Joseph Flomo (The Environmental Foundation for Africa), April Conway 2010-2011, Sierra Leone, and Mohamed Konneh (Across the River: Trans-boundary Peace Park) taking a break from painting the environmental mural on a market wall in Bandajuma

I first arrived in Sierra Leone in 2008 and spent nine months on a remote river island called Tiwai to study the endangered and enigmatic pygmy hippopotamus for my dissertation research. As I continued my research and learned more about the Mende people’s lives, I realized how important it is to incorporate the needs of people living near protected areas into conservation. I returned to the United States determined to find a way to continue to learn more about the pygmy hippo while also helping those who I lived and worked beside.

My Fulbright experience first began when a colleague of mine, who had received a Fulbright grant to study in Uganda, contacted me, and told me about the possibility of conducting research through the program. I immediately began my application. Unbelievably, in August 2010, I was on a flight to Sierra Leone as a Fulbright Study/Research grant recipient, this time armed with resources and knowledge to make the most of my ten-month stay.

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U.S. Fulbright

The Three Rs: Research, Relationships and Reciprocity

June 18, 2013

Marisa Rinkus, 2010-2011, Brazil (left), and her research assistant inspect a sea turtle on the Brazilian coast

In February 2011, I left a snowy Michigan winter and headed south into the warm Brazilian summer to study community engagement and sea turtle conservation on my Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant. While excited by the prospect of living near the beach, I knew that conducting research in another country would require hard work with the assistance and collaboration of others.

In reality, relationship building on a Fulbright grant begins before you leave the United States–often via email and Skype. Having already made a few contacts in Brazil by email, and even visiting a few months before my Fulbright application was due, I assumed securing an in-country affiliation would be easy. However, my request for a formal letter was denied at the last minute. With little time to spare, I turned to the Internet and stumbled upon the graduate program in Society and Environment at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas which mirrored my research interests—community participation in coastal conservation. With a little bit of convincing, a translated copy of my proposal, and a draft letter of affiliation outlining the terms of our collaboration (which included a joint publication), I soon had my Fulbright affiliation. Once I arrived in Brazil, my host-country adviser provided feedback on my research and helped me navigate the paperwork required to conduct research as a foreign researcher in Brazil, including securing research ethics approval for conducting research with human subjects (similar to Institutional Review Board approval in the United States).

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U.S. Fulbright

Food Web Interactions in a Changing Coral Reef: One Step to Forming a Baseline Ecosystem, By Maya deVries, 2010-2011, Panama

September 19, 2012


It’s no secret that the world’s coral reefs are declining at alarming rates. I witnessed this fact firsthand during my journey as a Fulbright U.S. Student in Panama. I conducted my research at Galeta Marine Laboratory, which is situated on Panama’s Atlantic Coast ten miles away from the Panama Canal. Disturbances to coral reefs, such as overfishing, waste disposal and oil release from ship traffic, have negatively affected many coastal communities whose livelihoods depend on healthy, productive oceans. To understand how these changes will impact the coral reef ecosystem, researchers must study interactions between coral reef organisms so that when a group of organisms is in decline, researchers will know how other organisms and overall reef health will be affected.

I studied feeding interactions between a ubiquitous coral reef predator, the stomatopod crustacean (or mantis shrimp), and its prey. With the help of five local undergraduate students at the Regional Branch of the University of Panama in Colón, we determined that stomatopods eat many small animals including hard-shelled prey, fish and worms. Stomatopods are also eaten by common coral reef fish. Thus, these little known creatures are actually very important links between the large and small animals that make up the Caribbean coral reef ecosystem.

Unfortunately, debris that destroys coral reefs also washes onto Galeta’s beaches. After three months of spending everyday in the water, I could no longer bear the sight of plastic, old shoes and tires on Galeta’s otherwise beautiful shores. In response, I created a beach cleanup program that organizes a cleanup every two months with local students and scientists. A highlight for me was when 350 local students, along with the U.S. Ambassador to Panama, volunteered at a beach cleanup that I organized with the U.S. Embassy. This program inspired me and Galeta Marine Laboratory staff to start recycling programs in Colón schools near Galeta. Galeta Marine Laboratory now gives talks to local schools about recycling, provides them with recycling bins and connects them to local recycling companies.












My most rewarding experience was working with Cambio Creativo (Creative Change), a non-profit organization started by former Fulbright Students. Cambio Creativo works with youth in the underserved community of Coco Solo, Colón. With Cambio Creativo, I taught students about biology and paleontology in their own “backyard.” Although only five minutes from Coco Solo, we took a field trip to Galeta since most students had never visited this unique marine reserve. These students are now regular participants in Galeta’s beach cleanup program.












Working on these outreach projects dramatically changed how I view my role as a scientist. In Panama, I learned that many important scientific research findings never reach a broad audience.  Yet, interacting with Panamanians at Galeta forced me to find concrete connections between the public and my academic research. The Fulbright Program encourages its participants to engage in cross-cultural exchange and direct involvement with local communities. This focus taught me how to bridge the gap between local Panamanians and academics so that their communities could benefit from the valuable scientific research generated in their country.

The Fulbright Program also gave me the courage to take chances.

For those who are interested in applying for this amazing opportunity, here are a few pieces of advice:

  • Have a relative or friend outside of your field read your whole application. That person should understand every word of your application and find it interesting. For example, my mother read mine!
  • If you are applying for a research/study grant, explain why your past experiences are relevant your project and your future goals in the personal and grant purpose statements instead of simply stating your accomplishments.
  • If your application is accepted and you become a Fulbrighter, try to say yes to as many opportunities in country as you can to get to know your local community, even if they are not directly related to your research. Your Fulbright year is your time to learn as many new things as you can about your country, so enjoy it!

Top photo: Maya deVries, 2010-2011, Panama (second from left), watches videos of stomatopod feeding behavior with undergraduate students from the Regional Branch of the University of Panama in Colon (from left to right: Nayara Rodriguez, Yarlenis, Gina Ruíz, Eudocia Rodriguez and Roxana Martinez)

Middle photo: Over 350 volunteers participated in Galeta’s beach cleanup sponsored by the Embassy of the United States, Panama

Bottom photo: Maya deVries, 2010-2011, Panama (third from left) with Coco Solo students learning about fossil snails found in dirt left from dredging for the Panama Canal in Cambio Creativo’s afterschool program

U.S. Fulbright

Pygmy Hippos: The Real Diamonds of Sierra Leone, By April Conway, 2010-2011, Sierra Leone

February 29, 2012

My journey began when I travelled to the remote Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary located on the Moa River in Sierra Leone. I set out to study the endangered pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis), a very solitary and elusive animal that is notoriously difficult to study in the wild. Armed with 20 remote-sensing camera traps, my goal was to capture pygmy hippos on film. In addition to obtaining photographs, I explored methods to physically trap a pygmy hippopotamus so that we could attach a collar and track the animal through the forest. To raise awareness for the plight of the pygmy hippopotamus, I collaborated with several conservation organizations to conduct environmental education in schools and villages.

I spent almost every moment with my two local field assistants. We worked together in the forest and travelled around the countryside to explore areas for hippos. While we worked, we discussed all aspects of our cultures, trying to understand the differences and find where we had common ground. These men became my brothers, and the villagers, my second family. Kenewa, one of my field assistants, loaned me his grain storage room to sleep in when I needed some “people time” off the island. He carved my name into the door and declared the room would always be mine, no matter where I was in the world.

Although work took up much of our time, my team and I would sometimes go to the local dances.  Dee-jays would set up shop in a village meeting area and we would dance the night away. The relationships I developed gave me a unique perspective on conservation. I witnessed the frustrations that wildlife conservation can bring in an area where people are struggling daily for survival. I have learned to enjoy every day as it comes and cherish relationships. I have also learned to work better with people, to maintain patience even when things are difficult, to manage employees and to try to understand all sides of conflicts before making a decision. By employing over 60 local people over the course of my research, the villages began to see some benefits for conserving the island.

Fulbright enabled me to interact with and influence hundreds, if not thousands, of people. I am a stronger person when dealing with adversity and have come through the experience with a new insight into the world. I also obtained some great results for my research: video footage of pygmy hippos eating and pictures of animals never before documented on the island including the majestic bongo. The highlight of my research was when the U.S. Ambassador came to visit the island for a night, and the villagers put on a fantastic cultural show complete with a ‘pygmy hippo devil.’

My advice to those applying for a Fulbright grant is:

  • Pick a project that is your passion. This is your time to do what you want!
  • Tell a story with your personal statement and explain your project in a way comprehensible to those outside your specialty (no jargon!).
  • In country, try to do an extra project outside of your own research. You’ll meet new people and maybe have an adventure you never expected.

Top photo: April Conway, 2010-2011, Sierra Leone (center), training local field assistants in radio telemetry techniques that track wildlife through the forest using radio waves

Middle photo: A pygmy hippopotamus caught on camera on Tiwai Island

Bottom photo: April Conway, 2010-2011, Sierra Leone (left), with women preparing rice flour for a funeral in Kambama village

U.S. Fulbright

My Time with the Bleeding-Heart Baboons: An Ethiopian Fulbright Experience, By David Joseph Pappano, 2010-2011, Ethiopia

July 5, 2011

Most people have the same image of all primates. This generic ape or monkey swings through the trees, eats bananas and lives in a small social group of about 20-30 individuals. Few people imagine monkeys that sleep on sheer cliffs. Even fewer folks think a primate could eat grass. And only a handful of people have ever observed over 1,000 wild primates living together in a single social group. Through my Fulbright grant, I had the fortune of spending time with a peculiar primate species that exhibits all three of these behaviors. During a 10-month stay in Ethiopia, I studied the behavior of geladas (Theropithecus gelada).

Geladas are known by their nickname, the “bleeding heart baboon.” Geladas are not, however, true baboons. While baboons eat meat, fruit, and nuts, geladas are the only primate species to feed nearly entirely on grass (over 90% of their diet). Their “bleeding heart baboon” nickname comes from the unique bare patch of skin located on the chest and neck of both male and female geladas. In females, this patch changes color from light pink to deep red with beaded vesicles and is thought to be a visual indicator of estrous. The male chest patch is likely a sexually selected signal, as chest color varies across males and is associated with dominance status.

My Fulbright grant allowed me to conduct dissertation research on the social and hormonal factors that influence bachelor geladas’ behavior living in all-male groups. In these groups, males may form bonds with other males that may persist through adult life. Young bachelors are often smaller than dominant leader males and may cooperate to overthrow leaders in order to mate with females. My research examines the nature of these relationships, particularly if young males are more likely to cooperate with their buddies when fighting leader males. Additionally, I collected feces to understand stress hormone level variation among bachelor males. These data will allow me to understand the relationship between stress and social bonding among male geladas, and is important for an understanding of how human friendships evolved.

While geladas may have been the primate of interest for my thesis, they were not the only primates involved in my Fulbright experience. I worked closely with many humans as well during my time in Ethiopia. Since I worked at Simien Mountains National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), I lived with the park scouts and their families. I worked with a field assistant, Esheti Jejaw, and trained him in various scientific methods. In turn, he taught me how to speak Amharic, make injera (traditional Ethiopian bread), and navigate the cliffs of the Simien Mountains. Finally, my relationship with the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa allowed me to speak to high school students about my research and conserving Ethiopian biodiversity. I hope that at least one of these students pursues a future in wildlife biology, but I’ll settle for eco-minded doctors, lawyers, and future leaders of Ethiopia.

  • If you are interested in applying for a Fulbright study/research grant, I recommend you always be mindful of the Fulbright Program’s mission to promote mutual understanding between the U.S. and the people of other countries. Find creative ways to incorporate this into your research plan, even if you study plants, birds, or primates. You should be foremost an intellectual ambassador, and secondarily, a researcher.
  • If you are currently at a university, seek out faculty members that have had Fulbright experiences. Get to know them and ask them for reference letters. Do not think, however, that having a recommendation from a Fulbright alumnus guarantees a grant. It is far more important to have recommenders that know you both personally and academically.
  • Finally, your research proposal should be something that can be accomplished within an academic year. Think of it as the first step to a larger project that incorporates the Fulbright Program’s goals. You cannot cure diseases or save entire ecosystems in less than a year, but you can make significant progress and impact lives that will last well beyond your grant tenure.

Top photo: David Joseph Pappano, 2010-2011, Ethiopia (left), with his field assistant, Esheti Jejaw

David Joseph Pappano, 2010-2011, Ethiopia, speaking to high school students about his Fulbright research at the “Yes Youth Can!” conference held at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa on April 30, 2011

A male gelada looks out over the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia