Featured Student: Sara Heisel

Sara Heisel is a PhD candidate in the Odum School of Ecology and Integrative Conservation Program. For her PhD she is studying Grevy’s zebra. Grevy’s zebra are considered endangered as there are only 2,500 of these animals left in the world and of these remaining few, 90% are found in a small region of Kenya (small pockets of Grevy’s zebra still persist in Ethiopia). Sara is concentrating her work on the populations found in central and northern Kenya. While these populations have stabilized (they are neither growing nor decreasing) they still face severe threats from environmental changes – many from anthropogenic disturbance.

As is the case for many other endangered species, Grevy’s may also have low genetic diversity due to a past 85% decline in population size. The combination of environmental stress and low genetic diversity may act synergistically to increase extinction risk. Sara hopes to determine if this is a cause for concern in Grevy’s zebra and use this knowledge in conjunction with Kenyan-based conservation organization to improve the long-term viability of this species. To conduct the work, Sara is travelling throughout central and northern Kenya. Where Grevy’s are found, she collects fresh fecal samples, which will later be used to assess the genetic diversity and fitness and performance of individual Grevy’s zebra.

Alongside the genetics and physiology work, Sara is focusing her time on conducting interviews with individuals in the core Grevy’s zebra range. The objective is to discern how people here view endangered and rare species and if this knowledge impacts their willingness to conserve a species. While many international conservation organizations focus predominantly on the concept of conserving “rare” species, this is often a concept that is unfamiliar and perhaps not important to the people living alongside wildlife. The most critical component of successful conservation then is understanding what motivates people or allows them to conserve species. Sara believes that the future of wildlife conservation lies in understanding how to sustain species not only in protected areas, but also in lands shared with humans, thus integrating the “human” component is essential to successful conservation.

Sara began working in Kenya in 2012 and has since spent over 9 months in Kenya. She is currently based there for an 8-month field season. Because she also believes that conservation research should not add to the anthropogenic stress experienced by species, all of her work is done using non-invasively collected fecal samples. She spends her days following Grevy’s zebra to collect samples and because the work takes place wherever Grevy’s can be found (rather than at a permanent research station), the lab work is done from a mobile “unit” operating from her tent or whatever other space is available.