By Lisa M. Gerry
While the Laikipia District in Kenya is considered cattle country, it is not uncommon to find a variety of native wildlife, such as rhinos, giraffes, and lions, living on farms among the cows. In fact, ranch owners prefer the arrangement because it attracts tourists.
Mason doctoral student Ryan Valdez has been traveling to the African country for a number of years to study the ecological response of group ranching there. He aims to demonstrate that if neighboring ranches build corridors between their properties, wildlife conservation would benefit.
Group ranching would ensure that a greater variety of animals would make use of each farm’s particular resources, while each particular species would have access to a more diverse habitat. The hope is that this combination will prevent the groups of ranches from becoming depleted from any one resource.
To test this hypothesis, Valdez, who is working on a PhD in environmental science and policy under the guidance of Mason professor Larry Rockwood, is studying an area where a group ranch has been implemented. To evaluate its efficacy, he takes an abundance of measurements, recording the number and variety of wildlife present in the area and how that changes seasonally.
When he began his work in Kenya, Valdez approached Mason’s Center for Global Education with a question: Could undergraduate students travel internationally and help PhD students with their fieldwork?
The study-abroad administrators liked the idea, and together they created the first study-abroad African wildlife science program at Mason. Valdez took his first group of students to Kenya in 2009; the hands-on conservation experience is now offered twice a year.
“We conduct line transect surveys where we walk across the entire landscape among the lions, buffalos, elephants—everything,” says Valdez. He adds that it is a completely different experience to look at a lion when there’s nothing between you from when you are sitting in a vehicle.
Valdez, who expects to complete his fieldwork in Kenya in 2012, first came to Mason by way of the Smithsonian National Zoo. He had been working there for 10 years when in 2008, the zoo’s director of science and Mason alumnus Steven L. Monfort helped establish the Smithsonian-Mason Global Conservation Education Program.
Valdez then became one of the first beneficiaries of a PhD fellowship that was created between Mason’s Environmental Science and Public Policy Department and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.
“Mason is the only university in the entire world to have this partnership with the Smithsonian,” he says. “For a PhD student, you couldn’t find a better merger of resources. It’s really remarkable what they’ve done with this program, and I feel very lucky to be a part of it.”