CORVALLIS, Ore. – A wildlife ecologist from Oregon was in Namibia last month, teaching a course to African students and faculty on the importance of maintaining connecting animal migration pathways when an American hunter killed a revered lion named Cecil in nearby Zimbabwe.
The irony was not lost on Susan Haig, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a professor of wildlife ecology at Oregon State University. Here she was at a tiny campus near the Okavango Delta in southern Africa, having paid her own way to teach a course on wildlife conservation to 35 African students, when a wealthy American trophy hunter fired the shot heard ‘round the world.
“The students thought it was just terrible,” Haig said. “It was an affront to their sense of nationalism that a person would come into Africa and do something like that. It was also ironic because their own government sells trophy hunting tags to foreign visitors.”
Haig said the shooting of Cecil underscores the lack of formal wildlife management programs in many African countries. Namibia has only one full-time wildlife professor in the country – and he is from Poland, she pointed out. Many of the Namibian students and faculty in her class are interested in pursuing a career in conservation and at least two may enroll this year at Oregon State if they can secure funding.
“Ideally, I would like to see a handful of Oregon State students go to the University of Namibia satellite campus at Katima and study each year, and bring a handful of Namibian students to OSU,” Haig said. “Oregon State is a national leader in conservation biology, and Katima is near one of the most important wildlife migration areas in Africa.”
The Okavango Delta is where several major rivers – including the Zambezi, Chobe, Okavango and others – meet in a huge wetland that provides critical habitat for a wide array of animals. The countries of Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Botswana recently signed an agreement to protect the migratory movements of large mammals in the region – an important first step in formalizing a conservation strategy, Haig said.
Botswana went so far as to ban many forms of hunting, she pointed out.
“Some of the governments are getting wise to the idea that there is more money to be made from tourism than from killing the animals,” she said. “There’s a pretty good job market now for tour guides, which is where a lot of students work. The next step is to get students at a younger age to think about conservation concepts.
“I would love to help start a grade-school curriculum about wildlife there,” she added. “The only time they think about lions is when they’re walking to school and worry about being attacked. One reason I wanted to teach the course in Katima is that there are so few opportunities for students there to learn about conservation – and these students are the future leaders of wildlife management.”
In her course, Haig discussed the importance of understanding wildlife corridors and migration patterns – and how that knowledge can be applied to other areas. One example, she said, is how the airline industry has studied migratory birds to reduce the frequency of plane crashes caused by collisions with birds.
She also outlined different ways to track animals, from molecular markers to listening devices to satellites. The students then had to design their own study. Haig and the students also had ample time to go into the field, where the diversity of Africa’s wildlife was on full display.
“There are more bird species in that one area of the Okavango Delta than in all of the United States and Canada combined,” Haig said. “We saw some incredible sights. One day we came upon a lioness with three cubs that had just killed a kudu, when a couple of hyenas arrived. They began calling and soon there were 23 of them. They assembled into a military-like position and systematically lunged at the lions until they ran off.
“Then the hyenas all started laughing, for lack of a better term, in that hyena-like way,” she added. “It was an incredible experience. I’ve never seen such organization and communication in animals.”
But her most memorable experiences came from traveling through small villages in Namibia, where she and incoming OSU student Kelly Huber gave away soccer balls. Haig, a veteran of trips to Africa and South America, had brought nearly a dozen deflated soccer balls on the trip and an air pump.
“The look in the eyes of the kids and parents when we brought out a soccer ball was unforgettable,” she said. “Outside of one village, we came across three little kids in the road and gave them a ball. Their eyes were just huge. It seems like such a small thing, but they acted like we had just given them a new house.”