Please HELP: Funds needed for my rhino research

White rhino from behind

White rhino grazing, Pilanesberg © Gayle Pedersen

Written by Gayle Pedersen – Doctoral researcher, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Recent research on rhinos has focused on anti-poaching, dehorning and horn treatments as deterrents – all important issues. I am focusing on how to to improve long-term management of these shrinking populations. In a nutshell, I aim to analyse behavioural, demographic and genetic patterns – to compile a ‘Genetic Metapopulation Management Plan‘. And I have to raise US$2,500 by end October, 2017.

My crowdfunding campaign

Please view my crowd-funding campaign here. I have to submit my thesis at the end of October and I am frantically trying to secure funds for a November-to-January bursary so that I can focus on finishing up the peer-reviewed publications while I wait for thesis corrections and before hopefully joining the world of full-time gainful employment.

Because of the nature of this research and its immediate applicability to rhino management, my main priority is to get the publications out as soon as possible after thesis submission, as well as the possibility of some popular articles and presentations to stakeholders.

A white rhino resting

White rhino chilling under a tree in Kruger © Gayle Pedersen

It’s important to note that the Experiment crowdfund platform is an all-or-nothing campaign, so if I don’t reach my goal by the deadline set then no one gets billed and I don’t receive a cent. So the pressure is really on, with a little over two weeks on the clock. You can donate via PayPal, cash and cheque payment options.

Every backer will be thanked in my thesis and I intend to start my own blog when my thesis is submitted in order to continue updating interested supporters on my progress and where the road leads me after my PhD. At the moment I have a lab note function on the Experiment website which enables me to keep my backers updated (they receive emails of my posts once they have contributed to the project) and is very handy. Every R10 gets me one step closer to my goal. If people were able to skip one coffee a week and throw that money into the pot, I will reach my goal in no time.

PhD researcher in the field

Photographing and recording GPS coordinates of fresh rhino tracks for MSc fieldwork in Pafuri © Gayle Pedersen

More about the rhino research

Inadequate biological management leading to fighting mortalities or unborn calves due to overstocking was considered the second most direct threat to African rhinos after poaching. In fact, in South Africa these metapopulation mismanagement losses exceeded those of poaching prior to 2006. A metapopulation is, in its simplest form, a population of populations. It is the management of fenced large mammals as an inter-connected population by translocating individuals between reserves as a means to mimic the historic levels of gene flow that would have existed before the need to fence wildlife out of human-wildlife conflict avoidance.

This research is focused on questions, raised by rhino managers, which are critical to management protocols relating to translocations, reintroductions and reproductive fitness during a time of crisis such as this. Currently most research is focused on issues surrounding anti-poaching intelligence, dehorning, horn treatments, feasibility and ramifications of legalising the trade, but less attention is being paid to the optimum management of these species after the poaching crisis at the stage of species recovery. As critical as all these topics are, we also need to focus on the biological management and ensure that the remaining wild rhino populations are still functioning and reproducing.

The aim of this research is to consider critical rhino population management questions arising at a time of population decline, with the intention of advising proactive best practice protocols for species recovery. Some scientists have suggested that the genetic diversity of the white rhino is so low that a metapopulation approach is not really necessary and would simply serve to just move around an already limited level of diversity. But the preliminary findings of my research indicate that it is still an effective management practice to move dominant individuals between reserves in order to maximise the existing diversity and avoid inbreeding between relatives.

Two people meeting at a convention

Meeting Iain Douglas-Hamilton (Save the Elephants, Kenya) at CITES CoP17 © Gayle Pedersen

Genetic pedigree construction

An example of the genetic pedigree construction from a single large population of white rhinos. It is often possible in well monitored populations of rhinos to observe cow and calf associations and compile a maternal family tree (although calf-swapping is a reported phenomenon in white rhinos), but it is very tricky to identify the fathers even when mating encounters are observed.

DNA enables us to dig a little deeper and compile accurate pedigrees of mothers and fathers. There have been accounts in previous research of dominant bulls from observational data being translocated off a reserve, only to discover after genetic testing that the bull who remained was in fact the reproductively dominant bull. Genetic pedigrees provide great insight into population structure, inbreeding risks, and can help us answer questions on topics such as heritability of traits.

To find out more about Gayle’s PhD research and to assist her with her funding, head on over to the Experiment crowd-funding project page to donate.

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