The NSF IRES grant to the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) at Duke University will provide 15 U.S. undergraduate students with a six-week, field-based opportunity over the course of three summers to acquire science and research skills working on a significant wildlife management issue in South Africa. OTS has been offering semester programs in South Africa since 2004, providing undergraduate students from the U.S. and South Africa with holistic science training through experiential learning. The students participating in this NSF-funded, hands-on, research experience are selected competitively from OTS' semester-long program on "African Ecology and Conservation," thus leveraging their 15-weeks of prior training and experience to participate in this intensive field-based program. Approximately one quarter of U.S. undergraduates participating in OTS' undergraduate programs are from groups underrepresented in the sciences; through OTS' active recruiting program, we expect a similar portion will be part of this research experience.
Intellectual Merit. The OTS undergraduate program takes place within Kruger National Park, South Africa, where students are given privileged access to conduct research in a major national park and, in working in close collaboration with the South African Parks Service (SANParks), can make meaningful contributions through their research to wildlife management issues. In point of fact, the NSF IRES grant will enable five students each summer for three years to focus specifically on research studying elephant impacts on savanna ecosystems. Kruger National Park (KNP) is home to an elephant population of about 15,000 individuals. Because of long-term changes in land use outside the park, the elephant population density, distribution, and movement has changed through time. At present, elephants are known to have both positive and negative impacts on biodiversity. A critical scientific research question with important management implications concerns how elephant feeding behavior is changing natural vegetation and associated faunal communities. The SANPark?s mandate is to protect biodiversity in all of its "facets and fluxes" and, with the uncertainty around elephant impacts, KNP management is debating whether or not to institute a new elephant policy. Central to the debate and legitimacy of the policy is the provision of scientific evidence on the effect elephant populations are having on the functioning of savanna ecosystems, both directly and indirectly. Through the IRES grant, students will conduct research on the effect of elephants on plant communities, assessing the resiliency of individual species and plant communities impacted by elephant feeding. Secondly, students will conduct biodiversity surveys (birds, bats, ants, small mammals, and dung beetles) within the park at a range of sites that vary in vegetation structure to understand how a change in vegetation structure might affect resident faunal community composition and diversity.
Broader Impacts. Students participating in the IRES program, including students from groups under-represented in the sciences in the U.S., will gain an international research experience by studying the impact of a keystone species on a protected park's ecosystem; will learn how to communicate research outputs meaningfully through participation in a final park-wide symposium; and will discover how their findings can influence complex science- and environmental-related decision-making processes. As future researchers and science leaders who undoubtedly will face the controversy of balancing human and environmental needs, exposure to such multi-dimensional scientific inquiry represents an excellent opportunity to see science in action and the role it plays in society.
This award is funded by NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering.