I am an environmental anthropologist. My passion is in understanding how people relate to wildlife. Why do people value, love, and appreciate certain species? Why do they feel indifference, fear, or loathing of others? I care about the future of wild animals and about the people who live with them.
I study what influences human-wildlife interactions—things like cultural beliefs, social norms, livelihoods, institutions, and policies. In places where people are protecting wildlife and wild habitats, I try to understand: who are the stewards, what do they know, how do they live, what do they care about, what do they need?
These questions have inspired 30 years of field research, conservation, advocacy, writing, teaching, and photography. My experience is mostly in the Amazon regions of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. I have also worked in the Philippines, Paraguay, Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Brazil, Indonesia, and Antigua and Barbuda.
The tracks of my career have veered a bit. Though my PhD is in Anthropology, I am based in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, at Texas A&M University.
Though I am a university professor, I am practitioner, too, learning from, listening to, and collaborating with people who are leading conservation efforts on the ground. These are people who understand nature and culture as deeply entwined, and who see wild animals as ancestors and kin. Most of my conservation work is overseas, and so as an outsider, my role is to support local leaders as much as I can, in rural communities, universities, government offices, tourism companies, and conservation and development organizations. I am honored to have co-founded a non-profit organization in Botswana, Ecoexist, aimed at fostering human-elephant coexistence in the northern Okavango Delta.
I publish research with my graduate students in academic journals, but I care about communicating and sharing my work outside of science, too. I care about flipcharts in village workshops, minutes from stakeholder meetings, policy briefs for government ministers, and photographs and stories that reach larger audiences in popular news and social media. I am especially excited about sharing stories of conservation and stewardship through documentary film.
Currently, I am a principal investigator on a team of faculty and students at Texas A&M and Tarleton State University, working in collaboration with Cheetah Conservation Botswana to examine human and lion interactions in the Kalahari. Our project, Understanding and Supporting Human-Wildlife Coexistence in Ghanzi Wildlife Management Areas,” is funded by the US Department of Agriculture.
I am also initiating new research on human-macaque and predator interactions in Nepal and India, with the aim of developing a generalizable theory of coexistence.
I enjoy working with teams of people, across disciplines, professions, and countries, to collaborate in research and find solutions to environmental challenges. In 2016, I co-founded a multidisciplinary doctoral program at Texas A&M, Applied Biodiversity Science Program, bringing students and faculty together from multiple colleges and departments to collaborate on applied research related to conservation. We launched with a $3 million NSF-IGERT grant, and our emphasis is connecting social scientists with natural scientists to understand and address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss. Since 2007, 50 graduate students and 22 faculty members have been active in ABS. The program has funded 28 doctoral students, conducting conservation research in 12 countries.visit site
In Africa, my work is devoted to fostering collaboration and understanding between people in different sectors of Botswanan society—science, private sectors, government, public—to find strategies to alleviate human-elephant conflict. At the core of that is listening, interpreting, collating data (and interpreting different kinds of data), creating settings where people can come together with greater respect and understanding, and then facilitating communication. In 2013, I joined with Dr. Anna Songhurst and Dr. Graham McCulloch to establish Ecoexist, a non-profit organization. Our mission is to support the lives and livelihoods of people who share space with elephants while considering the needs of elephants and their habitats. We work in an area of 18,000 elephants competing for space and resources with 16,000 people. We take a holistic approach, looking at the conflict in all possible ways--ecological, social, political, and economic, getting at the root causes.visit site
In South America, my research has been to evaluate international conservation from the perspective of local communities. I have written about market-based and sustainable development approaches to conservation, particularly ecotourism. My research methods are participatory, ethnographic, and interdisciplinary. Since 1993, I have conducted ethnographic research on one village in the Peruvian Amazon, studying empirical and longitudinal effects of ecotourism on local livelihoods, natural resource use, and cultural identity. In 2002-2003, I directed a series of exchanges between indigenous leaders from Amazonian regions of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia to conduct participatory analyses of ecotourism. Building from that work, I earned a grant from the NSF-Cultural Anthropology “Cross-Cultural Analysis of Community Participation in Ecotourism," to work with three of my doctoral students to study social, economic, and environmental outcomes of ecotourism in four rural communities of Peru, Botswana, Brazil, and Nicaragua.Read the Report
Two articles that feature my work in ecotourism in Discover Magazine:
Eco-minded Travel Tips From an Environmental Anthropologist
Policymakers, Tourists Look Beyond Ecotourism
One of the perks of my job is teaching, learning, and collaborating with graduate students from all over the world. Everyone in my lab is focused on some aspect of conservation social science—human-wildlife interactions, ecotourism, cross-cultural exchange, traditional ecological knowledge, community-based conservation, and common pool resource management.
With gratitude and thanks:
The National Science Foundation,
Cultural Anthropology Program
The National Science Foundation—IGERT
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation
The Good Planet Foundation
U.S. Agency for International Development
World Wildlife Fund
Wildlife Conservation Society
Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
The Conflict and Development Foundation
National Security Education Program David L. Boren Fellowship
Interamerican Development Bank
The International Ecotourism Society
The World Bank
Texas A&M University
The University of Florida