Episode 3: From the Lion Center to the Epicenter: An interview with Abby Guthmann

On this week's episode, Greg and Bob are joined by Abby Guthmann. Abby is a Ph D. student at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Lion Center Team under Dr. Craig Parker. Abby discusses the fascinating conservation work she does near the Maasai Mara in Kenya
Published: December 17, 2020
By: Metamo
Category: Podcasts

On this week’s episode, Greg and Bob are joined by Abby Guthmann. Abby is a Ph D. student at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Lion Center Team under Dr. Craig Parker. Abby discusses the fascinating conservation work she does near the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the pivotal role the travel experience has played in her life studying ecosystems, behavior adaptation, and human-wildlife conflict mitigation. Abby hopes to contribute to the conservation of vulnerable populations in increasingly altered landscapes.

Her current research focuses on how cattle management strategies may affect ecosystem health and human-wildlife conflict mitigation in conservancies surrounding the Maasai Mara.

Learn more about Abby’s work at https://lioncenter.umn.edu/

Want to do some field research from your own computer!? Visit https://www.zooniverse.org/

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Episode Transcript:

Bob Spoerl: Hey there and welcome to the Metamo podcast, where you explore with you and our guests travel topics that push the boundaries in celebration of the human experience. I’m your co-host, Bob Spoerl here in Chicago, along with Greg Traverso, our co-host and founder of Metamo out in Stockton, California. 

Today, we have a really exciting guest I want to introduce you to. Her name is Abby Guthmann. Abby is a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota and also at the Lion Center team there. Abby, some doing some amazing things. Some of you don’t know what the lion center is maybe Abby. 

We can share a bit about your work there and kind of what the lion center at U of M is. 

Abby Guthmann: Yeah, sure. Hi, thanks for having me on today. So the Lion Center, my advisor, Dr. Craig Packer, has been working in the Serengeti in Tanzania for several decades. Still, I’m mostly based in East Africa. In Kenya, though, a lot of recent work that we’ve been doing is with collaborators in southern Africa. A labmate of mine has been working on setting up a large-scale network of camera upgrades in different parts of South Africa. The goal being to look to see how different environmental variables and management variables impact species richness, especially for more vulnerable species In general, South Africa is doing fairly well for a lot of wildlife species that might not be doing so well in other places. 

Greg Traverso: I mean, one of the things I wanted to ask you and welcome, by the way, it’s really exciting to have you here. This is Greg Traverso. I was going to ask about deep down what attracted you to the work that you’re engaged in, like what led you to where you’re at right now? 

Abby Guthmann: A part of it has been serendipity, sort of following my gut, things that I really wanted to do and hoping it worked out. And luckily enough, it often did. I’ve always been really fascinated by wildlife. I’m a student of ecology, evolution and behavior at the U, but I didn’t really necessarily know much about it. I was more sort of the memorized animal facts kind of kid. But then as an undergraduate, when I started learning more about what ecology was and learning more about evolution, and I was just sort of odd and amazed that there was this sort of hidden, intricate network of all these species interacting in various ways and how systems were so stable and resilient, but also so delicate. And I think that kind of fed into my conservation ethic that I already had as a kid. 

And it just sort of ignited, I guess. And I knew that that was what I wanted to keep doing. 

Bob Spoerl: Abby, you had actually as an undergrad too, you traveled to Tanzania and did some research there even before your Ph.D., right? 

Abby Guthmann: I did, yes. I did an undergraduate research experience studying abroad at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Dar es Salaam is kind of like the business capital of Tanzania, sort of like their New York studios like New York. And I studied for a couple specifically. I was studying at the university, but also involved in a field excursion where for two months we were out entering the national park doing some sort of fieldwork. And my work involves a behavioral study of African elephants that were living in the park. And it was a really cool time to be there because we were kind of on the cusp of the dry, wet season and transition. So at the start of the month, everything was brown there and animals were congregating around all these limited water supplies. And then by the end of our season, everything was lush and green and it was like a completely new landscape. I’m from Minnesota, so obviously I’m very familiar with the summer-winter transition, but I’ve never seen something so dramatic like that before. So that was a really cool experience. 

Bob Spoerl: Was that your first time in Africa? 

Abby Guthmann: Yes, it was my first. And even since then, there’s a lot of places in Africa I’d love to visit. I mean, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Uganda, I’ve never been in southern Africa. Doesn’t it all be great at the moment? Mostly I’ve stayed in eastern Africa, Tanzania and Kenya.

Greg Traverso: In one of your interviews you said it altered my personal conservation ethic, how interconnected ecosystem health is with the health and well-being of the people who share the land. 

That kind of caught me. I thought, well, I’m assuming you’re talking about the Maasai. And as it relates to the elephant and the environment, that seems to be really an important part of your work and your passion. Can you just elaborate on that just a bit? Because that really caught my ear. 

Abby Guthmann: I think as a younger, burgeoning conservationist, I had a little bit more simplistic view of, you know, animals, good people, bad. 

And I think being in a place like Tanzania allowed me to see you gray a little bit easier. I mean, there are many species that cause problems for people. 

Abby Guthmann: There are some places in Tanzania where there are man-eating lions where people can actually get killed by lions. People can get killed by buffalo, by elephants, cooperating is a serious problem, especially for people already living in poverty who might lose a lot of their food or income to wildlife coming in and eating it and acting as pests. So it’s not a simple picture. There’s no actual good or bad guys. There are beings and in varying states of vulnerability. And I believe wholeheartedly that if you are to conserve a vulnerable habitat, you have to also make it work for the people who live in that habitat. There needs to be met before they can have the luxury of caring about other species outside of them. If you can’t afford to feed your family, you’re not going to care about whether that animal you’re hunting is endangered or whether elephants have enough space for their population to be stable. And so that really has to be a priority if you’re going to be effective as a conservationist, let alone the ethics behind it,

Bob Spoerl: like a holistic approach to conservation?

Abby Guthmann: Yeah, yeah. Especially trying to be conscious as a white scientist in a country that has a history of colonialism. There’s definitely even in the sciences, there’s definitely a history of people coming over and saying, we know what’s best, do what we say, and let us manage your land and us managing your resources. 

And that has often worked out very poorly for citizens of whatever country, including Kenya and Tanzania. And so they’re not only doing you have to take the needs of local people into account, but you also have to be mindful that it’s not your space and to actually work to collaborate, I, I try to come in with all due humility. 

After all, I am an interloper. I’m a guest in the country. I’m doing research there by the graces of the Kenyan government. 

Greg Traverso: And your work in Masai Mara, which is part of the Serengeti corridor, the migration corridor of that area, the most popular park in Kenya. You work outside of that study. You work outside of that. Can you tell us a little bit because that’s ongoing? That’s right. Now, right. Those cameras up, there are things going on. 

Abby Guthmann: It’s such a cool system. It’s really interesting. So East Africa is interesting because we often think so. I’m sorry. I should preface very quickly that my particular research interests are kind of overlap between how humans and wildlife sort of coexist or don’t coexist and how they impact each other. And East Africa is a perfect place to do that because we often think about humans and maybe their livestock like cattle being purely foreign influence, kind of like an invasive species that all these native wildlife have to contend with. But people and their cattle have actually existent. I mean, people have existed in this land for a very long time. But there’s evidence that humans have raised cattle for several thousand years in eastern Africa and Kenya and Tanzania. 

The Maasai are traditionally nomadic pastoralist people. And owning and herding cattle is a really big part of their cultural heritage. And so wildlife has evolved to co-exist with cattle to a certain extent because these relationships are stable. Now, obviously, now there are big changes happening, kind of a push towards more commercialism, privatization of land. 

Not all of these things are bad because, I mean, they come with a higher quality of living for the people, greater access to schools and other resources. The con is, is that now you have less connectivity for wildlife within the landscapes. You have the risk of overpopulation or overgrazing, meaning there’s less resource availability for wildlife. So how do you manage the land that is owned by Maasai people that is rightfully theirs, but also sort of conserve this really critical habitat where all of these I mean, it’s got the greatest diversity of large ungulates in the world. It’s an incredible ecosystem. And so how do you manage that in a way that’s not stepping on people’s toes? And really, again, it comes down to what works for both people and wildlife, knowing that there’s never going to be a perfect situation. But you can try to approach some sort of optimization. People benefit from ecotourism. And so if you can help monetize the presence of wildlife for the people who have to coexist with them, you can create an incentive. The Serengeti, Masai Mara is a land of conserved national park space that spans Tanzania to the south and Kenya to the north. It conserves one of the most famous migrations in the world, which is the wildebeest and also zebra and gazelle migration that occurs every year where you have hundreds of thousands of wildebeest moving to the landscape. It’s an incredible natural phenomenon. But the Kenyan part of this migration corridor that’s actually conserved as national parkland is the only kind of this little tip of the iceberg in the northern part. And the land that’s surrounding it is also a really critical spillover habitat for animals outside of the migration season. But all of it is owned by my pastoralists, which again, is their inherited land. The land belongs to them. But the question becomes, how can you sort of make sure that this population of wildlife doesn’t crash because they have no reserves, spillover habitat to move through outside of this national park protected area? And so there’s been this movement of developing conservancies as buffers. So a conservancy system, I mean, its kind of a loose term here in Kenya. 

What it typically means is it’s a consortium of landowners and other interested parties who work together to co-manage this land. And also the land is leased from the Maasai landowners. So you’ll get together. 

A bunch of families ask if they’re interested in participating in this. You pay them for the right to manage this land collectively as one conservancy. And then those people, in addition to getting to continue to graze their cattle in the landscape, as long as they’re abiding by communally agreed on rules, get income revenue through the ecotourism that comes through. So you’re managing both for people and their cattle as well as wildlife, trying to balance the needs of both in one system. 

Bob Spoerl: Well, fascinating, Abbie. The conservation. Explain to me what tools are you are using. They mentioned the cameras you are using. How is that technology is it happening or how are you tracking in the field? 

Abby Guthmann: So I guess I should mention that one of the ways I’m kind of narrowing in to look to see how people and cattle impact wildlife in these wild systems is specifically focusing on wild ungulates. An ungulate is just a fancy term for a large herbivore. And I mentioned this earlier. This area has the highest diversity of ungulate species in the world, ranging from the tiny little diptych to an island which is the largest antelope you’ll find in Africa. So huge size variation, behavior variation, habitat variation and a lot of what people one of the theories behind why we think this many species of ungulate can co-exist is because they’re partitioning in the landscape, meaning these animals only eat over here, these animals only over here. They split up time of day. They split up parts of what plants they eat and that helps them to coexist without out-competing each other to local extinction. So the question is, how do cattle fit into this really complicated system? We’re using a couple of different metrics to try to get at this question. Camera traps are a really great one because it’s relatively cost-effective. It’s completely or almost completely noninvasive. You just go out to the field and set out a grid of remote cameras that are triggered by a combination of the motion sensor and heat sensor. So ideally, if an animal moves in front of the camera will be triggered to take a series of images and then we can, in the back half look to see. We can measure species abundance, occupancy, whether there are particular habitat variables that animals are drawn to, and look to see how different species relate to each other on a large scale within a landscape in a way that you really can’t do any other way. Collaring species has been a really big way that people look at the more fine-scale movement of species of animals in a landscape. But it’s cost-prohibitive, I think. I mean, I used to work on a Black Bear project in North Carolina and one radio caller for Black Bear was twenty thousand dollars. So you can look at an entire population within a landscape using camera traps, or you can look at five or ten maximum species at once and try to extrapolate to an entire population from there. 

Bob Spoerl: So you’re collecting that data over, what, weeks or months? I mean, how does that work in terms of the camera trap data years? 

Abby Guthmann: Ideally, yeah. 

And there is kind of a there’s a trend now in the scientific community of trying more and more to get long term datasets, more data you have, the more you can kind of rule out potential confounding effects, variables over time, you might span a five year period. But if that was a period during a drought, you’re going to have very different data. Compared to a five year period where there’s a lot of rainfall, so the more data you have over the long span, the more confident you can be in what you’re seeing. 

Greg Traverso: Where are all these cameras right now they’re up in a tree. Who puts them there and how do they not get stolen? 

Abby Guthmann: You know, I guess that’s always a trouble for sure. That’s trouble anywhere, for sure. When I was working in California, we would have a camera stolen as well. I don’t know why people want to steal a camera trap, but there you have it. 

Greg Traverso: The animals, too, right? 

Abby Guthmann: Like, you know, the number one way that we lose cameras aside from theft is elephant damage or hyena damage. Hyenas will have incredibly powerful jaws that can stand up and digest bone. And so a camera case is no problem for them. 

Greg Traverso: Oh, wow. 

Abby Guthmann: OK, so when we check out there, we have a grid point assigned ahead of time, looking at a map for where we generally want cameras to be. And then we check out there, put them about a meter off the ground if there’s a tree put on a tree. Otherwise, we just stick a wooden post out there and do it that way and try to we, I mean, it’s a little bit of the best guessing game. You try to position it towards where you think animals are most likely to pass by because if and if an animal moves behind the camera and doesn’t trigger it, that’s lost data. So you do your best. Yeah. And it’s just going to say that none of this would be possible without people in the conservancies like they are Abcam collaborators in every single way. And even more integral is that as I’m not able to be in my field site this year, they are continuing to manage the experiments that I’ve set up and send back data so I would not be able to do without them. Rebecca Karimi, Conservancy manager of Key Issue, and all of the Rangers who work within the Conservancy as well. And Michael Bolton, who’s been a huge help. 

Bob Spoerl: Abby, so with this data from years collected with some of the outcomes, are the positive things that can be done with it? 

Abby Guthmann: Largely what I’m trying to do is just look to see how the presence of cattle might be affecting different species in different ways. It’s very likely that cattle are going to out-compete certain animals that are functionally similar to them in the landscape. What I mean by that is you think about an animal that’s primarily a browser that’s eating shrubs and leaves if the cattle eat away all the grass. Well, that doesn’t really affect them so much. And even better, if people and cattle are keeping some of the larger predators away for more of the time or maybe making them even more nocturnal so that these animals can come out during the day easier. Well, that’s really good for that. Smaller ungulates. You might see a positive impact on those species, but then you look at a larger animal like Cape Buffalo, which needs to eat a lot of bulk mass in order to sustain itself. So if cattle are grazing down the grasses, there’s less forage for them. So they are more likely perhaps to check out into the reserve. What’s most likely to come out of this research is the assertion that you need multiple kinds of management strategies within a system, because we are never going to live in a world in which the impacts of humans are removed or reversed. We have to do what we can in very limited space. And so the more we can kind of diversify how we manage the land, the landscape, the more we can support a greater diversity of species. 

Bob Spoerl: So I think one thing that I’d love to do, Abbie, is sort of transition a bit from the amazing work you’re doing to just being in a different place than where you grew up and spending so much time there is a different place. And one of the things we love to talk about in this podcast is, is transformational travel. And for you, travel has become in many ways a way of life that you are there for months at a time and you probably take on practices and just become immersed in the environment. So I’m curious that that first trip to Tanzania when you were an undergrad, you mentioned how that transformed. Was that in part the reason why you think that led you to do what you’re doing now in terms of your postgraduate research? What kind of role did that initial trip to Tanzania play in your overall kind of worldview and what you decided to do with your life? 

Abby Guthmann: I definitely think that my undergraduate experience in Tanzania imprinted eastern Africa in my head as a place that I knew that I wanted to get back to someday. And when I was there, I was a student, which truthfully did allow me to interact with people in a little different way than I would have as a tourist. Just because they were sort of the immediate understanding, as I was talking to people, that I was there to learn for some, not for everyone, but for some people, it did sort of break down some walls that might have been there initially. The fact that I was learning Swahili helped a little bit. Still not great. So healing, but I’m OK. Luckily, it’s stuck around in my brain. I mean, it was amazing. It was really amazing. I’m definitely a people person, I suppose, despite being absolutely crazy, for I do have a mammal bias. There are people in my department who will shake their heads at me. 

I do have a male bias and that includes humans. I like that. 

I love talking to people and meeting new people and just hearing about their perspectives and lifestyles. I find humans to be really interesting. We’re a very interesting species in the way we think and interact with each other. And I feel like the more different kinds of people across different cultures you meet, the more the similarities jump out how there is certain sort of universal experiences, but also what experiences you may take for granted that are completely unnecessary, that as in things that function in the US standards, ethics, morals, that we just sort of assume are the only way to do things. And then you travel and you see how other people do things and they work just fine and you realize what is sort of arbitrary and unimportant relative to I guess you realize what matters and what doesn’t matter. It puts things into perspective. 

Bob Spoerl: Yeah, that’s a  thing we’ve heard from other folks talking to Abby. I mean, you’re almost saying almost the exact same thing in any way, how your lived experience changes. Did you have a kind of “Aha” moment or was it just a sense of clarity and sort of saying, like you said, this is what I want to do? I want I almost feel like an inner drive to come back here and do more work here and be a part of this place. 

Abby Guthmann: That was definitely when I was in the field. I don’t think there has ever been an experience quite as exhilarating as driving in a safari car at sunrise or sunset through the park during the dry season when the abundance of species is just so elevated. But the diversity of life in eastern Africa is especially macro species in particular is just breathtaking. It really is. And, you know, there was a time when North America would have looked fairly similar to East Africa. We had wooly mammoths, we had wooly rhinos, we had saber tooth tigers. We had a lot of similar species that went extinct. It’s kind of up to debate whether it’s because of warming temperatures or because of human activity. For whatever reason, they’ve been gone for many thousands of years. But I think one thing that is a common trait for a lot of ecologists is sort of this desire for preservation. In a lot of people who I’ve met, you have what you might call a conservation ethic. There’s this shared sense of loss for any species that go extinct. And I think that sort of motivates the urgency of a lot of research that goes on is we are losing species at a rapid pace. Obviously, we can’t sacrifice people to protect those species because it’s really easy from us sitting in our high horse, having already lost a lot of our North American species to say, you give up your land for an elephant or for a cheetah, but we need to do our part to make sure that we don’t lose even more because it’s happening. 

Bob Spoerl: It’s a loss. But on the flip side, is it this idea that there’s this kind of oneness with all of nature and the term great we’ve talked about in it? And you have to sort of this habitat rich relationship between people and animals and how the ecosystem, the Serengeti provides the opportunity to do that work. And at the end that year, that habitat rich, that that seems like kind of oneness with nature and with all of it, with every living creature, I suppose. 

Abby Guthmann: I suppose from an evolutionary perspective, that’s impossible to avoid, too. I mean, there is the misconception of how evolution works is that sort of progression of improvement. But really, it’s all just it’s just branching off into different species that are better adapted for whatever habitat they exist in. Humans have been really successful in a variety of habitats because we’re very adaptable and a lot of really adaptable species do well in our systems. Like you think about the species that thrive in cities, you think about raccoons, you think about coyotes, you think about rats, those. Are omnivorous, highly adaptive species, and we kind of create those systems that fit us. You can definitely call us ecosystem engineers more than probably any other mammal in the world. And so humans are well adapted to a lot of things. But in no real evolutionary definition could you say that we are the pinnacle of anything. 

Greg Traverso: I do want to ask one question. I love this. I love the spontaneity and serendipity early on. And I’m just curious, like with you and there a spontaneous moment in your life, perhaps on your travels, or if it didn’t happen, you wouldn’t be where you are today or who you are today. 

Abby Guthmann: I can certainly pinpoint moments where I felt a sense of accomplishment that sort of fed my desire for more experiences like that. I remember the first time in Tanzania I had a full conversation in Swahili. I remember a guy coming up to me to sell some things. And I mean, the bar and the bar is low for a lot of white people in Tanzania. And so he said Mambo, which is a common greeting in Swahili, not expecting me to know how to reply, but I replied. And I guess that, yeah, again, the bar is low. He was surprised that I knew how to say hello back. And so we had a brief conversation where he asked me what I was doing and I mentioned I was a student and we talked a little bit and then he just said, All right, nice to meet you. And then walked away without trying to sell me anything. And I just felt very vindicated that I had something entirely in Swahili. 

Yes. Speaking back to a person in their own language. I mean, even if you just know a few words, it just it opens doors. It says Nelson Mandela said so that you speak to a man in his own language. He goes to his heart. And with all of this, you know, it’s just a level of respect that you cared enough to think of them. And you just get these broad smiles. It just feels so good. I’m the same. I wish I should be speaking Swahili by now, all the years I’ve been going there. But we’ve been putting together a little Swahili language course for Metamo. And so I’m working with a person over in Nairobi right now and she’s going to record this. It’s been really fun. So I’ve been relearning some Swahili. So it felt good. 

Greg Traverso: And yeah, it’s language one like, yeah, it’s a great language. 

Bob Spoerl: Abby, this has been amazing. It’s been so fun to talk with you. And we wanted to let people know where can they find more about. 

I know you’re creating content, you’re sharing with people the experiences and the research you’re doing. But where can people find out more about you or if they want to follow you or learn more? 

Abby Guthmann: Our lab does have a website. It’s just lion center documents.edu. They’re a huge part of my lab that involves citizen science work. So through all these camera traps, we capture millions of images, which would be far too many to ever go through as a research team alone. And so we actually rely on citizen scientists through our through the Zooniverse website to go on and help us I.D. the animals that are in our images. And we have kind of a combination of human and machine learning algorithms. Essentially, each image is viewed a number of times. As long as there’s a certain threshold of agreement between the people in the machine. The image gets retired with a certain classification. The Snapshot Serengeti great in Tanzania has been up for about ten years. We had about a couple million images and people when Snapshot Safari first went live, people burn through those images in about three days. So they and this was with multiple people looking at each image, 10 or 20 different times. So the work that we can do is really only possible because of our citizen scientists who work with us. So if you like looking at cool pictures of wildlife and just kind of want to learn more about a certain area, I think right now there’s only one snapshot site that’s active, which is Grumeti, which is just north of the Serengeti in Tanzania. And it’s a really important part of the wildebeest migration. So you’ll get a lot of wildebeest pictures. You can go to snapshotssafari.org and then we can go through a little tutorial to learn how to tag them. 

Bob Spoerl: That’s cool, yeah, we can share that on our pages. That’s really cool. I love that it’s a way to kind of get involved and immerse if you’re interested in that kind of stuff. 

And yeah, I think that’s that’s really cool. So so, Abby, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you. So you’re a student. When do things wrap up for you? How close are you to. I know it’s always I know a couple other days and it’s i a process. I know. So how close are you to wrapping up your studies? 

Abby Guthmann: Well, I’m in my third year, so probably another two and a half years to go. 

Greg Traverso: Takes a while, be great to be able to check back in with you. How you are doing? Things have evolved and it’s so exciting. Really appreciate your time. And I’ve learned so much. I just can’t tell you. Thank you enough. 

Abby Guthmann: Yeah, this has been really fun. I could go on forever and I did a little so it’d be great to talk again. Can I do one last call as well? Tanzania, Kenya, their economies are largely fueled by eco-tourism. Very, very much so. And they’ve been really hurting this past year because of the pandemic. And so actually, by going as an eco-tour to see some of these sites, you are directly helping conservation and research for those areas. 

So definitely. Do your part and it’s a cool experience. Go for it. 

Bob Spoerl: Thank you, Abby. And just a final word for anybody listening. You can go to Metamo.travel, which’s Greg’s website and feel free to take a look around. 

Greg does a lot of really interesting engaging trips to East Africa where you can where you can go to some of the places we’re talking about and experience really a kind of eco tourism and a and something that is is rooted in the human experience and the habitat richness of East Africa. 

So, again, thank you so much, Abbie. We appreciate it. And we’ll we’ll we’ll check in with you down the road. Thank you again. 

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