Interview with Kaggie Orrick, AC4 Fellow, 2014 Cohort

Katherine (Kaggie) Orrick comes from the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B) at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She is currently pursuing a M.S. with an emphasis on conservation biology. After graduating in May, she hopes to apply the methods and skills involved in her work described below to other large mammals and to determine the true use of space for all megafauna in small, African game reserves. To learn more about such work, come to the Sustaining Peace Conservation and Peacebuilding Workshop which will be co-led by Kaggie and Cynthia Malone.


Kaggie Orrick with elephant dung, at Karongwe Private Reserve in South Africa. Summer 2014.

How did you get interested in the field of conservation?

I’ve always been interested in the environment and loved the outdoors. As a kid I used to create little ecosystems in my pocket; I’d gather dirt and crickets and stuff – I was a weird kid! In high school I got to participate in outdoor education activities, including school trips with conservation work, backpacking and hiking.

Still, I remember times when I had no idea what to do with this interest, but I followed it. I studied conservation biology at Colby College for undergrad, and after graduating I didn’t know what to do with my life. Then, I heard about a 6-month internship with an organization called GVI (Global Vision International), and I signed up immediately. After completing the internship, a position opened up on the staff team and, amazingly, I got it!

So, before coming to Columbia, I lived and worked on a game reserve in South Africa doing large carnivore research for three years. That pushed me into everything that I am doing now. I had focused on Africa in college, going to Namibia for a study abroad my junior year and working with Save the Rhino Trust. I had loved being in Africa and doing different fieldwork, like tracking black rhino in the Namib Desert! So, working with GVI was perfect – it was the door that opened up so many other opportunities.

But, after working at GVI for three years, I realized we were conducting a lot of research and had collected a lot of data for different universities across the globe, but as staff we weren’t actually analyzing it. I wanted to come back to school and be able to analyze the data I had collected and do some of my own research. The resources and the tools here at Columbia have been incredibly useful!

What motivated you to apply for the AC4 Fellowship?

AC4 helped me go back this past summer to conduct my research on that same reserve, the Karongwe Reserve in South Africa. I had twelve years worth of data (because that’s how long that company has been on this reserve) but I wanted to also incorporate different methods or types of information as well. My research is looking at the impact of roads on elephants and how that helps them decide what habitats they want to use and which areas they move around in.

Basically, I am asking if the highway that borders the reserve is so loud that the elephants are not utilizing the full range of their habitat. If it is the case that they are avoiding  areas close to the road, then the “true” amount of space they have is much smaller than what we are saying they have. In turn, this could mean we should have less elephants on the reserve or it might mean we need to start making plans to mitigate those noise impacts.

So, I realized that even though I had twelve years of data on the elephants’ movement I had none on the actual roads and how people were impacting the elephants themselves.  So, with support from AC4, I went back there this past summer, and I was taking noise recordings of the roads, which allowed me to know the number of cars driving by and to start developing strategies for mitigating that noise impact.

How do you assess the impact of roads? Tell me more about the way you capture this and how you chose this method.

Deciding the method just involves a lot of reading scientific papers, and tweaks as it goes to fit your specific system!

My research involves two different things. First, the spatial movements of the elephants tracking them by day and time; this will be analyzed with GIS and spatial mapping methods. Second is the actual audio, which I am developing with a professor in the engineering department. The first looks at whether the elephants are avoiding those boundaries of the road. Then, the second involves going through the noise recordings, which at times, means counting how many cars go by each day and at different times.

So, one pattern we can notice, for example, is a certain time on Sundays when there are lots of cars on the road and also the elephants are avoiding this area of the reserve. This time happens to be when it’s time for church! Maybe the elephants have realized it’s a busier time and are reacting to that.

kaggie recording

Audio contraption Kaggie built for her recording device. (It’s much more sophisticated than it looks!) Photo by: Kaggie Orrick.

I got the audio from basic recording devices which I put out at 19 different places around the reserve. The different location placements vary geographically; such as, slope aspects are different, some are in the treeline or on a higher hill rise, and also some are near a dirt road versus a paved road. Most importantly, I want to compare differences between the dirt road and the paved road surround the reserve. While the dirt road has less cars driving on it, and at slower speeds, there is also a lot more dust associated with it. So even if elephants are not as bothered by the noise from the dirt roads, maybe they are disturbed by the amount of dust kicked up by vehicles.

Having different methods are necessary for teasing apart these different dynamics from the noise.

What challenges did you face in conducting your research? Did any unexpected things happen?

As with everyone’s research, challenges come up all the time! I think the most difficult issues for me were putting out my equipment early in the morning. I had to put my recording devices out on the reserve before cars were going by, and … well, imagine going out at 4 in the morning on a reserve and then hearing something in the grass. That would happen! I would be out in field placing my stand and hear a leopard! Absolutely petrifying. Was it going to attack me or my stand?! How can I go back to the car? I could hear the leopard move and I would get worried about my stand but then I was like “I better not die!” I loved it, but it was a real logistic road bump!

Also, there were other logistic challenges about where to put the stands and having cars break down. It was very difficult, but my previous experience of working and living on this reserve really helped. I wasn’t in so much of a panic with many of the logistic challenges of working in South Africa but struggled to know what was feasible in the field and what was scientifically sound.

There are many different ways to analyze but deciding which is the best is hard, and very fun! Spatial analysis for the animals movements and remote sensing images have helped me tease apart different aspects of my research and continuing my studies here at Columbia and the courses I have been fortunate enough to take has been extremely helpful.

Another huge road bump I came across in my fieldwork was with the data I had originally. I did not realize until I got to the field that all previously collected had been projected in the wrong datum! They were each basically saying animals were in one location when they were actually 250 m in another direction. I had to go through like 6,000 data points for this and correct them.

This amount made my initial approach (of looking at elephants, rhinos, cheetahs and lions) unfeasible in the time frame I had to produce my thesis. But, it gives me something I will continue into next summer! I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to go back to the reserve, especially because otherwise I would have never known my data were incorrect – stunning and scary to think about!

You stated that you want to “quantify the true role human development, in terms of road construction, has on elephants and find solutions for this human-wildlife conflict.” Tell me about this. Did you achieve it?

I am still working through this but am finding my way. I am finding that there is a buffer zone in which elephants are being impacted by roads. It has been really amazing because already the data analysis shows elephants are avoiding the tar road even though some of the habitat along the fenceline is perfect for them. They are not hanging out there even when there are no cars. I look forward to continuing to work with the data I have for the elephants, and, in the future, I will compare this to other species on the reserve as well.

For now I only have the elephants, which is one of the big five in Africa that is being impacted by roads and is a flagship of African animals. If we have strategies that can mitigate this, it is a huge selling point to managers, game wardens and land owners. Such strategies could include: plant trees along the fenceline or move roads to further away.

And this can inform practices going forward. For example, if elephants are avoiding roads for 500 m, then, when roads are being developed in South Africa and within other countries with new infrastructure, they can build the roads further away from the reserve.

kaggie drive

Kaggie driving with the back end of an elephant! Photo by: Kaggie Orrick.

In short, it is important to see how much space these elephants are actually using.

How has this deeper understanding from your fieldwork impacted your research?

I love the methods and what I’m focused on with road ecology and animals spatial movements. I love Africa and that would be ideal but I graduate in May and am very excited to see where these new methods will take me! I am applying for a bunch of different positions and excited for what is ahead in addition to working on publications for this summer, which will each impact Karongwe. A lot of what’s next I think involves getting information to the people working on the reserve and telling GVI staff and others what we’ve found out so that we can help people to make the changes. It is something I’ve been always concerned with and feel so fortunate to be writing up my thesis on something that has been five years in the making.

What advice or general pointers do you have for graduate students hoping to do original research?

Find something you are passionate about! I know it sounds cliché but it really does make all the difference. I have seen people or heard from people who did graduate programs and they’ve chosen a thesis based on what they’ve heard from others or something others told them they should do, and they get burned out.

If you find something you are genuinely interested in that you would research or look into whether you had the funds or were getting a degree for it or not, then everything kind of falls in place. Your enthusiasm or love for it comes out! Don’t choose something because you think it might be interesting to other people or because other people told you to do it, because that’s not going to fly, ultimately. That will make it all the harder and you’re going to get bored with it because it’s not fueled by your passion and your interests.

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