Trip of a lifetime: Catawba College environment students share studies abroad
Published 12:10 am Sunday, September 3, 2023
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SALISBURY — A group of five Catawba College students, accompanied by two environment and sustainability professors, recently embarked on a journey to Rwanda to participate in an international conference and engage in experiences that combined education, conservation and adventure.
The five students, Mitchell Bobrek, Larkin Garden, Brian Kaelo of Kenya, Nomsa Kamanga of Zambia, and Matthew Peeler, presented their research on addressing human-wildlife conflict at the International Congress on Conservation Biology (ICCB) in Kigali, Rwanda.
The ICCB is an international conservation conference that takes place every other year. This year brought together 1,500 biologists, conservationists and policymakers from around the world and provided a platform for these scholars to share their findings. The students’ research evaluated the effectiveness of adding flashing LED lights, a.k.a. ‘Lion Lights,’ to livestock corrals to deter carnivores from attacking livestock in a small community in southwestern Kenya.
“Seeing these passionate individuals who have dedicated significant portions of their lives to their projects was truly incredible and has me considering a more significant role of research in my academic journey,” Peeler said.
The trip was a homecoming for Kaelo, an environmental sustainability major and geographic information systems minor. Although he is not from Rwanda, his upbringing in nearby Kenya similarly tracks the lifestyles of the Rwandans he was there to assist.
“I come from Kenya, where I worked with a land conservation group,” Kaelo said. “There are conflicts when lions come to enclosures to attack livestock at night.”
Kaelo said that conservationists came up with the idea of using flashing LED lights as a deterrent for the lions that would prey upon vulnerable livestock but added that such a practice’s efficacy had yet to be studied comprehensively.
He and his classmates set out to do just that, aggregating data from numerous cattle farmers in the region to illuminate how well the method worked.
“We found that the lights are effective,” Kaelo said. “Conflicts went down when the lights went on.”
For the young man who has spent his life experiencing firsthand the natural predation incurred on cattle farmers’ livestock, returning to his region to present his findings was a satisfying endeavor.
Kaelo has come a long way since his early conservation efforts. Working with the Kenya Wildlife Trust, he has already done things many Americans could only imagine.
“One of the things we do is lion collaring so that if they enter an area, we can alert people,” Kaelo said. “We will alert the rangers that there is a predator here.”
Kaelo said that villagers or farmers are likely to retaliate if a lion attacks livestock. As he sees it, the ideal solution is preserving the lives of the lion, the sheep and the human.
“We are not just about predators; we are helping communities,” Kaelo said.
The students were not the only ones who presented at the conference.
Catawba faculty members Dr. Andrew Jacobson and Dr. Joe Poston also presented their research at the conference.
“I am involved in the N.C. Bird Atlas, an effort to map the distribution of birds in N.C.,” Poston said. “It’s a citizen science project, but there are a lot of people involved in it. I was presenting some of the digital tools that we have developed.”
Poston hopes that local adoption of those techniques can be helpful for environmental conservationists in the region.
Getting ready for a trip halfway around the round involved cultural preparation, medical preparation and preparation for the conference.
“Culturally, I tend to read books and look for newspaper articles about a given place I am going,” Poston said. “I read some travel guides and searched the web. Medically, there were some vaccinations to be taken. Malaria is a problem there.”
Following the conference, the group seized the opportunity to immerse themselves in the unique beauty of Rwanda’s natural treasures. Their trip took them to Volcanoes National Park, where they had the rare privilege of coming face-to-face with majestic mountain gorillas.
The encounter heightened their understanding of the importance of wildlife conservation and local engagement in protecting biodiversity, leaving a mark on their personal growth and appreciation for the world’s ecosystems.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m so grateful to Catawba and my professors for making this dream come true,” Kaelo said after seeing the mountain gorillas.
Bobrek added, “As we were about to leave, the silverback gorilla, weighing in at over 500 pounds, walked downhill right towards me. I immediately did what the guides had instructed, kneeling down and avoiding eye contact. I held my breath, and thankfully, he turned away before bowling me over. The encounter was just a few seconds, but they are seconds that I’ll never forget.”
Continuing their expedition, the Catawba group journeyed to Akagera National Park on a self-guided safari in search of more of Africa’s wildlife, including some of the subjects of their own research presented days earlier. The park has 10 freshwater lakes, rolling wooded hills and open plains. Akagera is a ‘big 5’ park, home to elephants, rhinos, cape buffalo, lions, and leopards.
“My highlight was going on the evening boat cruise,” Kamanga said. “It was calming, peaceful, and we saw more birds than I could imagine.”
After the safari, the group visited the drone company Zipline, which is reshaping the medical-supply delivery landscape. Zipline is a for-profit company facilitating the delivery of supplies, such as blood and medicines, to remote and underserved areas in Rwanda and several other countries.
Witnessing the potential of cutting-edge technology to address pressing global challenges was an eye-opening experience for students and professors alike.
Dr. Luke Dollar, chair of the Environment & Sustainability department, expressed his pride in the group’s endeavors.
“At Catawba College, we believe in empowering our students to become global citizens who contribute positively to our interconnected world,” Dollar said. “This journey to Rwanda epitomizes our commitment to experiential learning and fostering a deep appreciation for cultivating the next generation of needle-movers and game-changers in pursuit of a healthier planet.”
Garden added, “Visiting Rwanda has stressed the importance of the conservation of humans and making sure that every human feels heard.
“This isn’t something often talked about in conservation work. But, before we can ever protect any organism, we must first ensure that the people having to coexist with these organisms are being listened to and empowered. You can’t conserve mountain gorillas if you are ignoring the needs of the farmers living right next to their forest.”