Student Research in Tanzania Published in Interdisciplinary Environmental Review

August 16th, 2006 by Adam

Two years ago, a group of Plymouth State University students had the opportunity to “see first hand what you read about in National Geographic,” in the words of graduate student Michael Hallworth. In July, 2004, Hallworth and eight other students, along with PSU professors Kate Donahue (social science) and Len Reitsma (biology), spent three weeks visiting Ndarakwai Ranch and Mazumbai Forest in Tanzania. Their research, on the effects of community-based conservation and elephant foraging in the east African country, was recently published in Interdisciplinary Environmental Review.

The 2004 trip to Tanzania was the second trip organized by Donahue and Reitsma to give students a chance to experience a different culture and natural environment, while participating in valuable research. Donahue, Reitsma and geography Professor Bryon Middlekauff traveled with students to the country in 2002, where they began research on what happens when local populations of elephants cause damage to the landscape next to a permanent, artificially-created watering hole near the western side of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The professors and students continued this research during their 2004 stay in Tanzania.

The damage caused by elephant foraging is just one challenge experienced when people, livestock and wild animals are forced to share a common water source, said Donahue. In the area of Tanzania where the PSU students and professors completed their research, a history of poaching, cattle grazing and deforestation have made the landscape inhospitable to wildlife. Through the efforts of local conservationists, working with the indigenous Maasai people, animals like elephants are coming back. But their return can pose problems for the human inhabitants who need the land and water to survive.

“There are lots of issues over the water,” said Donahue. “The Maasai don’t have steady access to it when they need it, and there are fights…cows, elephants, dogs and people all get involved.”

The Ndarakwai Ranch, a 10,000-acre area used for eco-tourism and wildlife preservation, has been featured on television’s Animal Planet channel, and is well-known throughout the region for its promotion of sustainable travel, support of the local economy and wildlife conservation. But efforts at the ranch don’t always meet the needs of the human and animal residents of the area, according to research done by the PSU students and faculty.

The articles published in Interdisciplinary Environmental Review were written in Tanzania (using two laptops powered by a generator) by undergraduate students Melissa Elander, Augusta Blackstone, Chad Cleary, Heidi Jardin, Kyle Parent and Zachary Johnson; graduate students Heather Clogston, Michael Hallworth and Jeannie Kornfeld; and professors Donahue and Reitsma. In addition, Melissa Elander presented two papers on community-based conservation efforts in east Africa at the 2005 Interdisciplinary Conference on the Environment held in Orlando, Fla.

Engaging in this kind of research as an undergraduate student was a powerful experience, said Elander, who will graduate from PSU with a degree in biology in 2007. Being able to observe wild elephants in their natural habitat, while meeting the people who call Tanzania home, made Elander a passionate advocate of community-based conservation efforts.

“The research and experiences in Tanzania impressed upon me the complexity of developing [these] conservation initiatives,” said Elander. “The interdisciplinary nature of our research was well-suited to this complexity. The trip was an invaluable experience and I hope to return to Africa soon.”

“The trip was absolutely amazing,” agreed Jeannie Kornfeld, who teaches chemistry and environmental science at Hanover High School and attended the 2004 trip as a graduate student. “It is one thing to read about conservation issues and agroforestry in text books and journals, but the experience of ‘camping out’ with the wildlife and interviewing the various stakeholders involved in community based conservation efforts provided me with a broader understanding of conservation issues common to East Africa.”

In addition to their time spent researching, Donahue and several of the students spent nearly a week climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain on the African continent (19,340 feet). Graduate student Michael Hallworth, who is working toward his M.S. in environmental science and policy, also remembers playing a soccer game against a group of local villagers, during which the entire village showed up to watch and cheer. Students and professors also spent time at a Maasai boma, or extended family household, where they learned about the traditional culture and contemporary challenges experienced by the Maasai people.

“The people are what affected me the most, even though the animals and wildlife were incredible,” said Hallworth. “Everyone was nice and friendly, and were so close to each other, especially the Maasai. The entire trip was out of this world.”

Plymouth State University (PSU) is a regional comprehensive university offering a rich, student-focused learning environment for both undergraduate and graduate students. PSU offers 42 majors and 62 minors in programs that include education, business, humanities, arts, and natural and social sciences. The College of Graduate Studies offers coursework that promotes research, best practices and reflection in locations on- and off-campus as well as online. For non-traditional students, PSU’s Frost School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers working professionals opportunities to pursue an undergraduate degree by attending classes in the evenings, weekends and online. Located in a beautiful New England setting, Plymouth State University has been recognized as one of the “Best in the Northeast” by The Princeton Review.