Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2004


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On the Trail of the Leopard

On the Trail of the Leopard
Andrew Stein ´99

Fulbright scholar Andrew Stein ´99 is helping save one of Africa´s great predators

Some people like dogs. Some like cats. And some like, well, very big cats. Andrew Stein ´99, who recently left for Namibia to direct one of the largest studies on leopards ever conducted, is definitely one of the latter. But snaring a Fulbright grant and a three-year-research assignment in the competitive field of large mammal research did not come easily. Stein had to catch a lot of frogs, so to speak, before he moved up the food chain to working with predators.

The Worcester, Mass. native started his interest in wildlife as a child, capturing snakes, frogs and other small animals. At age 13, he volunteered at a regional science museum, working with animals and assisting with demonstrations for the public. By the time he was a senior in high school he knew zoology was his field; he was accepted to Connecticut College and began working with faculty such as his advisor Professor of Biology Robert Askins. As a junior, in 1998, Stein spent a semester in Kenya with the School for Field Studies program. The program, and Africa itself, transformed Stein´s vision forever and focused his interests on helping people and wildlife coexist.

"The program heavily influenced the way I thought about wildlife and working with local people,"said Stein. He knew he didn´t wish to act "as a Westerner imposing his ideas, but as a person interested in helping other people and working on issues that they felt were most important."

Back in New England, Stein continued his studies of animal behavior, working with bottlenose dolphins through an internship at the Mystic Aquarium and even observing territorial behavior in captive lions in a Massachusetts zoo. Following graduation he began a master´s program at the University of Massachusetts. After completing a research project involving endangered fish in New England waters, he once again set his sights on the big cats in Africa. With a small grant and some borrowed equipment, he began a four-month pilot study of leopards in the Soutpansberg Mountains of South Africa´s Northern Transvaal.

In the course of the project he captured, tagged and tracked two leopards on his own, submitting a report to the Department of Environment and Tourism of the Republic of South Africa. In addition to the extensive data he collected, he also learned something about himself: He really didn´t like working alone in the wilderness, a situation that arose when other researchers working in the area suddenly left just prior to Stein´s arrival. Tracking on foot in rugged terrain for nine hours a day, close encounters with poisonous snakes and violent thunderstorms at night were not the only hardships he found. "I´d only see people every few days. Let´s just say they probably thought I was the most talkative person they´d every met!" On a rare occasion he could reach his mother by cell phone."She´d ask me ´So, are you lonely out there Andy?´ That was the worst moment!" Stein recalls with a groan.

Learning from that experience, his next undertaking was as a research assistant on the Samburu-Laikpia Predator Project in central Kenya. For 10 months Stein helped capture and study endangered African wild dogs, lions, hyena and leopards, using both ground and aerial photography. He learned from seasoned researchers and worked with people from four different tribes, helping to train wildlife scouts and other projects. And most important, he made lasting connections in the field of wildlife research.

Returning for a semester to UMass, Amherst, he continued his coursework and began work toward a Ph.D. in wildlife and fisheries conservation. Then, last fall, he received a wonderful present on his birthday: the news that he had been awarded a Fulbright grant. The grant will fund the first year of a three-year project, beginning with a study of the impact of leopards on Namibian farmlands and the ecology of leopard, African lynx and cheetahs. He will be living at a research center run by the well-known Cheetah Conservation Fund, which has been conducting studies in the region for 13 years.

In one of the largest studies ever conducted on leopards, Stein hopes to capture and release up to 20 individuals to collect data. His plans include the use of baited cages, radio collars and GPS tracking, and perhaps, most important, the eventual recapture of the animal and removal of the collar. To assist him with aerial tracking, he is earning his pilot´s license.

Stein aims to answer many questions and perhaps to pose new questions in the process. Do the diurnal cheetah and the nocturnal leopard share any of the same territory or diet? Have leopards become the apex predator in the region? What is the economic impact of leopards in terms of livestock losses on ranches? How can leopards coexist with lucrative game ranches that raise antelope and other natural prey of the big cats for sport hunting and meat sales? Are there future incentives, such as income from tourism, which could protect the leopard from extermination? He´ll also be using his data to make a case for obtaining more funding.

By seeking answers to these questions, the CC grad hopes to ensure that one of Africa´s greatest predators will not become prey to the pressures of economic circumstances. And with a track record that leads from New England to Africa, Stein may be the leopard´s new best friend.

- Lisa Brownell

Connecticut College Magazine

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