Drew Bantlin is a PhD candidate at the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. His studies center around lion ecology, behavioral ecology, and practical management of wild spaces. In this AFRICA IN OUR LIVES, Bantlin talks about his work for and research in Akagera National Park in Rwanda.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I started my undergrad at the University of Arizona. After two years I transferred to UW, graduating with a degree in Zoology. I then started grad school at UW through the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, earning my master’s degree in Environment and Resources with a thesis examining how prey abundance influences lion presence in a given area. I am now working on my PhD through Nelson, continuing my research on the lions and the trophic cascade hypothesis.
My first experience in Africa was in 2011, in Tanzania, where I was working with an NGO supporting and educating government officials and local people about HIV/AIDS, community, and personal health. I worked through 2013, continuing the research and outreach we started in 2011. We continually came across wildlife while working in the rural communities, sparking my interest to move towards that field. Since then, I have made the transition to studying animal behavior and ecology. That lead me to Rwanda, where I have had experience working with mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, and numerous monkey species. Much of this data collection focused on how primates have developed social and anti-predatory behaviors, how these vary between species and how life-histories and ecologies might influence this. This led me to my current work at Akagera National Park.
What is the nature of the research and work that you currently do at Akagera National Park?
From the research side, I am investigating the trophic cascade hypothesis. This is the idea that reintroducing a large carnivore to an ecosystem will have a trickle-down effect on the other organisms in the ecosystem and the landscape. Seven lions were reintroduced to Akagera in 2015 following a 15-year absence. Large carnivores, like lions, affect other species through predation and potentially influence the behavior of surviving prey and other carnivores. These behavioral changes potentially give rise to far-reaching, landscape-level changes in vegetation cover and ecosystem processes. In the short-term, I am looking at how the lion population is adjusting to being translocated to a new area- how they move through the habitat and what drives their movement, how they establish territories, and how social dynamics evolve. I am also recording the behavior of prey species and other carnivores, and documenting potential changes over time as these species adjust their behavior in response to the lions. The hope is that in the long-term, we can identify behavioral changes that may potentially lead to changes at the ecosystem level.
In addition to my lion and trophic cascade research, I also work closely with the rhino program at the park. 18 black rhinos were reintroduced in 2017. The rhinos are monitored daily by a ground tracking team and through aerial monitoring to ensure the safety (from poachers) and the well-being of the rhinos. I use monitoring data to make our efforts more effective and better inform our management practices, but also to investigate home range establishment, habitat use, and feeding ecology of the rhinos. There has been relatively little research conducted at Akagera in the past, so I am working to build up data sets in areas that are data deficient. I have started databases for leopards, hyenas, giraffes, and elephants. We are trying to estimate population size for leopards and hyenas and have started investigating predator-prey relations more broadly. We are examining how large herbivores influence the landscape. I have also worked with other researchers from UW to investigate human-wildlife conflict and attitudes towards conservation in the communities surrounding the park. The goal is to build up a better understanding of the park’s ecosystem and wildlife populations outside the park so that future management decisions can be informed with more precise scientific understanding.
What was it that initially sparked your interest in looking at lions?
Lions are fascinating creatures. The dynamics of a pride, how power is won and lost, and formation and maintenance of territories is very interesting. Mating and hunting behaviors are also intriguing. The conservation status and world-wide peril that lion populations are in makes them a top priority for research and conservation as well. I think what likely piqued my interest, though, is the potential influence that lions can have on an ecosystem. As apex carnivores, they directly affect their prey and competitors in many ways. They also might mediate farther reaching cascades of changes across an ecosystem. The hypothesis of the trophic cascade as been understudied in African carnivores and Akagera’s reintroduction provided that ideal situation to examine how species and ecosystems respond to the return of a large carnivore. Coupling this with my desire to return to working in Africa, the situation seemed ideal to pursue.
What are some of your favorite things about living and working in Rwanda?
The diversity of Rwanda is amazing. Across four national parks you get savanna, tropical rainforest, and Afromontane forest biomes. I have been lucky to work in three of the four and the scenery and wildlife is stunning, with each offering its own suite of species and many endemics. Nature aside, living in the park is great. We have a phenomenal group of people who all work incredibly hard to keep the park up and running and secure. It’s been great to work with so many people who take such pride in their work, their country, and conserving nature. It’s also been very interesting to be immersed in and learning about a new culture.
What has been the most exciting moment of your career thus far?
I have been lucky enough to be able to work very hands-on with many of the species in the park. Many of the lions, rhinos, and elephants are fitted with GPS/VHF telemetry collars to assist us in tracking and monitoring them. This requires darting the animals with a tranquilizer and fitting them with the collar or transmitter. For rhinos, the process is a bit more complex as we need to insert the VHF transmitter into the horn by hollowing out a section of it. The process of large-animal capture is exciting in itself…having to lure the lions to you using recorded vocalizations, sneaking up to the elephants on foot, or darting the rhinos from a helicopter. Being so close them allows you to appreciate how large and powerful these animals really are.
Aside from the large-animal work, I captured an image of giant ground pangolin on camera trap in the park (and later confirmed it with a visual sighting). Giant pangolins have long been considered extinct in Rwanda and were not known to exist as far east in the country as Akagera.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in doing research in Africa?
My advice to students interested in doing research in Africa, or any research in general, is to take whatever opportunities come up. Often, the first opportunity might not be your dream research position. But getting any exposure and experience can be valuable. Especially when hoping to conduct research abroad, the best opportunities often don’t arise without being on the ground to find them. Take a leap and see what’s out there. Dig deep when researching the places and topics you want to study. Often very cool opportunities arise with a bit of searching.I also think it’s very important to have a good understanding of where you’re going to be working. Understanding the local culture and customs is imperative. Understanding the risks and potential situations that might arise is critical. There can never be enough preparation and research done before getting to the field. It will make research go smoother and will make immersing into a new cultural setting easier. With that said, there will always be unforeseen challenges. It’s all about being able to adapt and be flexible.
What are you reading now?
I have just started reading Frans de Waal’s “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” The book examines the complexities of animal cognition through looking at a select number of species as examples. One aspect of the book is that it examines points where people have long underestimated the cognitive abilities of animals. I am not far into the book yet, but it has been very interesting. I would highly recommend it.