Mary Burak is a Ph.D. candidate from Yale University and National Geographic Explorer working in collaboration with Lion Landscapes to study large carnivore connectivity across Laikipia and Samburu counties. Her professional interests span wildlife, landscape, and molecular ecology, with a particular passion for uniting scientific research with conservation. Mary’s current project is focused on understanding how human activities and land use can affect wildlife abundance and connectivity. Human-wildlife interactions in non-protected areas are of particular interest to her since land use management is often a trade-off between biodiversity conservation and land development.
Mary Burak collecting data in Laikipia
For her doctoral research, Mary is building upon Lion Landscapes’ carnivore monitoring work. She is using a variety of field and genetic techniques to take a “landscape genetics” approach to measure the effects of human land use and activity on carnivore populations in the ecosystem.
Landscape genetics is a growing scientific field that gets its name from landscape ecology and populations genetics. This uses spatial information in the landscape as well as in carnivore genetics in order to understand what is helping or hindering species connectivity. More specifically, by measuring how related every lion is from one another, and knowing where they are all located in the ecosystem, we can then measure exactly how things like roads, livestock grazing areas, or water availability is helping or hurting carnivore connectivity.
Lion within the Laikipia Landscape overlooked by Mt.Kenya
Landscape genetics uses a mixture of spatial statistics and genetic analysis that will produce heat maps showing areas where carnivores are most likely connected and mating. This is an incredibly useful piece of information which complements Lion Landscapes’ collar data. While collaring provides comprehensive movement behaviour data, landscape genetics data will inform us about mating and reproduction which is vital to ensure that carnivore populations will continue into the future.
Although we understand certain elements of the carnivore populations, there are still many unanswered questions that genetic data can help us answer. Exactly how many lions exist in the Laikipia ecosystem? How healthy and connected are the large carnivore populations? What impact is human land use having on carnivore populations today, and how will these effects impact carnivore populations into the future? Mary will be able to use the project results to describe carnivore populations as they are today – with measurements about population size, genetic population viability, and how far individuals have traveled to mate and contribute to genetic diversity – and will also build predictive models that can better inform land management decisions and better support human-wildlife coexistence into the future. If we know how carnivores are reacting to certain types of human activity, we can be better prepared for spatially planning human activities in the future.
one of the El Karama guides helping Mary at a scat collection site
Successful human-carnivore coexistence is about trade-offs, some of these trade-offs involve strategically planning where human activities should be spatially located – with activities that hinder carnivore connectivity in locations that minimize negative effects on future population survival.
To obtain genetic data, Mary is collecting carnivore scat fresh from the field. Scat provides both spatial and genetic data. Unlike blood sampling, scat is a non-invasive collection method that provides the same information. In the field, Mary is working with local groups of rangers and guides to collect project data. These groups play an important role in keeping track of where carnivore populations are on a daily basis and so where to find carnivore scat. Without this participation from so many properties and individuals on the Laikipia landscape, this study would be impossible. Over the next year, she will be collecting spatial and genetic data that will be incorporated into laboratory work.
Mary collecting scat
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