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The Freedom to Roam

Nelson Institute Graduate Student Wins UW-Madison Cool Science Image Contest While Exploring Carnivore Conservation in Rwanda

Winter 2019 | By Bekah McBride

The Freedom to Roam


For University of Wisconsin-Madison students at the Nelson Institute, educational experiences take many forms. From the classrooms on campus to the canopies of the jungle, students are encouraged to investigate the planet’s biggest ecological challenges, wherever those might be.  In fact, Environmental Studies Ph.D. candidate Drew Bantlin’s experiences have taken him to the vast savannah of Akagera National Park in Kayonza, Rwanda. There he studies everything from the ranging patterns of black rhinos to giraffe and leopard population dynamics. Most of his time, however, is spent documenting the ecological effect of the park’s lion reintroduction program.

A graduate of the UW-Madison Department of Integrative Biology, the UW-Madison Environment and Resources Master’s program and a current member of the Nelson Institute’s Carnivore Coexistence Lab and Environment and Resources Ph.D. program, Bantlin has been studying animals and ecological systems for most of his academic career. But, it wasn’t until 2014, when he was accepted into the Carnivore Coexistence Lab, led by Professor Adrian Treves, that Bantlin began his work on carnivores in East Africa.

Drew Bantlin
Drew Bantlin

“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been fascinated by animals, especially African wildlife. I remember asking my parents to go on a safari for our summer breaks,” Bantlin said. “Coming into graduate school, and as an undergraduate I had worked in Rwanda with some professors who were primatologists and I was interested in that area, especially the development of intelligence and social behavior in primates. But then, after taking some of Professor Adrian Treves’ courses, I became very interested in his work. So, when looking for advisors for graduate school I decided to try to pursue a position in his Carnivore Coexistence Lab.”

The Nelson Institute’s Carnivore Coexistence Lab seeks to create knowledge about human-carnivore coexistence through interdisciplinary research around the world. The lab consists of a number of students researching everything from the conservation of pumas in Chile to the effectiveness of lethal and non-lethal methods in preventing conflicts with large carnivores in North America. For lab leader Professor Treves, one major goal is to support students as they seek to learn and promote the best available science to preserve nature and regulate the human uses of it.

Bantlin’s commitment to the conservation of Africa’s carnivores fit well with the goals of the lab and his acceptance couldn’t have come at a better time. Just as Bantlin was beginning his graduate degree, leaders at Akagera National Park contacted him with the news that they were planning to reintroduce seven lions to the area. Since lions had been absent from the park for nearly two decades, Bantlin saw this as an excellent opportunity to see, in real-time, how an apex predator potentially effects its ecosystem, so he brought the idea to Treves. 

“Professor Treves works very closely with his students and advises on the designs and the methods of the studies, but the biggest point of credit to him is how supportive he’s been,” Bantlin said. “He’s very happy with his students bringing projects to him. So, when I was longing to come back to Africa, I pitched him the idea of a project aligned with this lion reintroduction. That’s where he stepped in and helped me brainstorm study designs and consider how we could best use this unique opportunity.”

For Treves, this project was an exciting opportunity to see a student conduct an experiment with a before and after approach. In this case, Bantlin measured baseline prey behavior before the reintroduction of the lions and then measured the same prey behavior after lion reintroduction.  Bantlin said that in the wild, this is the best way to expose any effects on prey behavior, aggregation patterns, or habitat use that the newly-reintroduced lion population might be having.

“In terms of research, the most rigorous inference is drawn from experiments with a single control,” Treves added. “But, it’s difficult to set up a control out in the wild. So in this case, Drew is doing an excellent job of bridging a rigorous experiment technique with an important ecological question.”

With a study method in place and the support of Treves and Akagera National Park, Bantlin left for Rwanda in 2015. When he arrived, the lions had not yet been reintroduced, so he was able to gather data on the ecosystem prior to the release. About a month later, the seven lions were released and Bantlin began to study the ecological changes, documenting much of his work using videos and photos. In fact, one of those videos went on to win Bantlin a top spot in the UW-Madison 2018 Cool Science Image Contest, which offers UW-Madison students, staff or faculty the opportunity to show off compelling science images.

“That video was from 2017 when Akagera brought in two new males to strengthen the genetic diversity of the park and mix up the social dynamic,” explained Bantlin. “Because Akagera released those two new males within the territory of the present lions, we were really interested to see what would happen. So we did very intensive tracking to see how they were doing. It was during that tracking that we came across a carcass and decided to set it out in the open and put a camera next to it in the hopes that a lion would come for it, and they did.”

Just one of Bantlin’s many videos, such documentation and data analysis is helping researchers to better understand these predators and their role in the ecosystem. It is also generating interest from other researchers and students, helping to exchange ideas between UW, Akagera, and Rwanda as a whole. In fact, for Treves and Bantlin, this project is the epitome of the Wisconsin Idea.

“We are interested in science, communication and exposing undergraduate students to places beyond Madison,” said Treves. “There are a lot of misconceptions about Rwanda, but it’s a beautiful place with a lot to offer so we are putting effort into outreach and educating our students about the opportunities there and how we can all collaborate on important research. This is all a part of the Wisconsin Idea.”

In fact, this year, Treves and several students will join Bantlin as he continues to study the ecological changes occurring at the park. Bantlin will also be working to complete his Ph.D. which will expand on his Master’s thesis titled, “Movements of Reintroduced Lions in Akagera National Park, Rwanda in Relation to Prey Abundance.”

In his study, Bantlin is taking the first steps towards evaluating the trophic cascade hypothesis, the idea that predators affect the abundance or behavior of their prey, which, in a cascading fashion, influences the abundance and behavior of subsequent prey, and potentially primary producers further down the food chain.

“The overarching theme or question is whether or not we can find evidence of a trophic cascade in Akagera,” Bantlin said. “This is stemming from the classic example of Yellowstone where the wolves were absent from the ecosystem for many years, allowing the herbivores to overpopulate. Ultimately, there was so much herbivory pressure that the plant levels were decimated, which then had a negative trickle-down effect on the landscape and ecosystem processes. Once the wolves returned, the ecosystem strengthened following a reduction in the herbivory pressure, with habitats rebounding and ecosystem processes returning. So, the general hypothesis is that we will find evidence of that in Akagera following the reintroduction of lions.”

As Bantlin completes his field work, he remains committed to exploring and expanding educational experiences beyond the Madison campus. In fact, Bantlin says Treves and financial supporters from Panthera, National Geographic, and the Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS) program at UW-Madison, have encouraged him to remain dedicated to expanding the public’s knowledge of the Rwandan ecosystem and important conservation topics.

 “This program has given me the freedom to explore opportunities in the area of the world that I have always enjoyed working in,” Bantlin said. “The continual support from my advisor, funders, and the Nelson Institute have allowed me to pursue the research topics that I am most interested in and contribute to understanding important ecological and conservation topics.”

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