This article, by reporter Nicole Colson, ran in the March 26 edition of the Keene Sentinel.
Antioch University student John Ogorzalek was looking for an internship to complete his master’s in conservation biology. He asked environmental studies professor Beth Kaplin for some ideas.
“‘There’s Burundi,’ she told me,” Ogorzalek said. “I asked, ‘Where?'”
The more Kaplin told him about the East African country that borders Rwanda to the south, the more he became intrigued.
Ogorzalek spent last July there working with an environmental organization focused on preserving the local ecology. One of his goals is to develop a collaboration between the organization and an association Kaplin formed at Antioch 10 years ago—the Center for Tropical Ecology and Conservation.
Kaplin, who studied the role of primates in tropical ecology in Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda, created the center in response to a lack of people at the university to collaborate with her on issues related to tropical ecology and conservation.
The center’s purpose is to connect study opportunities in the tropics with Antioch graduate students, many of whom go on to professional careers in tropical ecology and conservation work. Student members run the center, which involves hosting fundraisers for its scholarship fund, an annual symposium, and workshops on various tropical ecology-related topics.
In addition to Ogorzalek’s work in Burundi, students are conducting thesis and dissertation work in several countries including Belize, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Honduras, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Rwanda, and Uganda.
Kaplin explained why she wanted an organization focused on tropical ecology and not local ecology: “Tropical forests are a major contributor to sequestering carbon,” she said. “Also, the diversity (of tropical forests) is high. Once we lose species—for example, medicinal plants—to deforestation, they’re gone.”
Ogorzalek became a member of the center to establish networking opportunities with others doing work in the tropics.
Kaplin connected him with people in Burundi, and he developed his internship based on some of the country’s ecological needs. He spent much of his time visiting ongoing environmental projects with members of the non-governmental organization Action Ceinture Verte pour l’Environment (Greenbelt Action for the Environment).
One of the organization’s projects was designed to preserve land surrounding Lake Tanganyika, crucial coastal wetland habitat for hippopotamuses.
The soil around the lake is eroding because of deforestation. “Homes are being built in the buffer zone on the water’s edge,” he said. “People are violating zoning requirements.”
Another of the organization’s ideas is to study and identify chemical or metal contaminants in a wastewater stream funneling into the lake near that hippopotamus habitat. Orgozalek collected data he will present as part of his master’s thesis, and will suggest that it be the beginning of a coordinated effort between the Burundi-based organization and Antioch.
The rest of the time Orgozalek was in Burundi, he was with students at the University of Burundi on field trips visiting various forests around the country. Another component of his information-gathering was to help launch a student/intern exchange program between the university there and Antioch.
Antioch conservation biology master’s student Erica Hermsen also spent her internship in Africa last summer. She was in Salama, Kenya, studying the area’s cheetah population.
The Seattle resident came to Antioch because of the Center for Tropical Ecology Conservation.
“It was the fact that there is an organization on campus that would advise me during my internship that drew me,” she said.
She said she was also drawn to Kaplin’s philosophy of students being independent in planning their internships.
“I like the idea that I’d be guided but I’d have ownership of my creative processes,” she said. Hermsen’s work during the five weeks she spent in Kenya focused on researching the best way to bait and capture cheetahs so they can be tracked by radio collar. Other trapping methods have not been successful, and the Kenyan government doesn’t know the range of the cheetahs, she said.
Cheetahs, which have the largest home range of any mammal, are a threatened species in Africa as their habitat becomes more developed. “They are eating people’s livestock and then getting shot and killed,” Hermsen said. Less habitat, she explained, also leads to lower genetic diversity due to inbreeding.
Understanding the cheetah’s range, she said, means the government can create a more efficient conservation plan to protect the land on which the animal lives.
Hermsen will return to Salama in June to spend three months setting up stations of cheetah bait.
Marielle Livesey, also a conservation biology master’s student at Antioch, spent two months on the beaches of Akumal, Mexico, last summer studying climate change’s effects on sea turtle nesting.
The sex of sea turtle hatchlings is temperature-dependent, with warmer temperatures increasing the number of female sea turtles at the expense of males, she said. Eggs incubated above a temperature of 86 degrees develop into females and those below develop into males.
As the atmospheric temperature increases due to climate change, so will that of the sand surrounding the eggs. The more the beach temperatures rise, the more females will be produced, leading to possible.
At several nesting areas, Livesey collected data she plans to submit to an environmental organization in Akumal. The organization hopes to use the information to build a hatchery for nesting sea turtles in anticipation of further beach temperature rises.
Livesey planned her trip to Mexico on her own, but as a member of the center, she has helped connect other students with internships in tropical countries.
The center has provided support to Hermsen in her work, but its greater value comes from something far broader.
“It benefits the environment by promoting and supporting conservation-based student research in the tropics,” Hermsen said, “and it provides a platform for tropical education and awareness in the greater Keene community.”