Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Joining the Team

By Hunter Doughty


My name is Hunter. And I am an enthusiastic new member of the Think Elephants International research team!

I have a background in conservation biology, and have gained experience traveling, researching, and volunteering all throughout the world. Two opportunities that have had the most impact on me as a scientist are the positions I held in Namibia and Madagascar.

About six years ago I had just finished my freshman year of undergrad at a local community college and was gleefully spending my summer volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in Namibia. I had always been an animal lover: a caretaker for all living things in our California home, a self-proclaimed vegetarian at age 13, and an annoying outspoken supporter of nature. Yet, I had never experienced anything like I would in Africa. So I was off, spending my days in the Namibia scrubland, where I lived and worked in a surreal world filled with exotic and displaced wildlife. I played with a two-year-old leopard, raised a lamb, slept with purring cheetahs under the African stars, and bonded to one particularly special baboon. However, I also saw the hardships that these animals had gone through, like beatings, trappings, and malnourishment. I was troubled by their stories and frustrated by things I didn’t agree with, even welfare practices at their current safe haven. By the time I began my sophomore year of college I had converted this frustration into a driven set of goals about the changes I wanted to make. That summer abroad had infused into me an almost desperate need to follow my dreams. I was hooked. I was in love with Africa, passionate to help the animals I saw there, and so ready to take a real step in that direction that I would have walked across the US if it had meant going away to a university to get a degree in biology.

Three years later I completed my bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Virginia.  Through the support of my mentor and advisor at UVA, I was elatedly going to be staying on for a Master’s. For the field portion of my new degree I headed off to Madagascar to work as a research assistant for a doctoral student studying the effects of forest fragmentation on Malagasy carnivores. During my stint in the Makira-Mosoala landscape I was once again faced with experiences that would greatly shape the type of scientist and person I would strive to be. I was exposed to a growing list of issues Madagascar is facing such as overpopulation, depletion of resources, deforestation, and most notably to me, unsustainable hunting of bushmeat. Bushmeat is a term used to define wild animals hunted specifically for consumption, and it often refers to animals consumed in developing nations. The scientists, veterinarians, and Malagasy team I worked alongside while in-country all agreed that these big issues, including bushmeat, could only be solved through increased education. And in order to educate both local and global communities we needed a clearer – and more accurate – description of what was actually happening.

Spurred by these ideas I returned to Virginia intent on focusing my Master’s degree on gaining that ‘clearer picture’ for at least some part of the bushmeat problem. So, I conducted a meta-analysis of the hunting of carnivores in forested African regions. In other words, I combed through hundreds of previously conducted studies to pull data that could show trends in hunting pressure. Which carnivores were being hunted? How were they being hunted? And most importantly, for what reasons were they being hunted? These questions formed the basis of my fervent search. Once complete I was able to demonstrate that hunting of carnivores in forested Africa is actually far more pervasive than previously realized. What’s more, old stipulations about why we thought carnivores were being hunted are in fact no longer accurate to current conditions. For example, the residing belief has been that small carnivores like mongooses are rarely eaten because they are considered taboo by most African tribes, however, this is not in fact true. Due to a lack of preferred meat species such as the antelope, tribes all throughout Africa have turned to ‘taboo’ species for their source of protein.

Fast-forward to this year: and my life as a scientist is taking its next major step. My goals to make a difference in the natural world have encouraged me to gain more experience in this field, and have given me the moxy to jump in as an elephant researcher here in Thailand. Excitingly, my first two weeks have been a blur of elephant facts, research protocols, and Thai culture. And despite the whirlwind, I am eager to learn everything this job has to offer and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the good this organization does.

As a new member of the team, I am happy to say that Think Elephants International embodies all of the qualities I have come to admire: honest and innovative research, direct applications to conservation, and a belief that the knowledge we gain is only as useful as the education with which we disseminate it to the public.

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