Rutherford scholarship to protect endangered species

Jessica Hiscox set to study for three years at Cambridge University.

Massey University researcher Jessica Hiscox has been awarded a three-year Rutherford Memorial PhD Scholarship to investigate the relationships between people and endangered wildlife in countries of extreme poverty.

Her PhD research will investigate three projects that are being undertaken by a company called Fauna and Flora International in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. The projects aim to reduce poverty and protect endangered wildlife. She is interested in the effects of a new poverty-reducing initiative on existing conservation projects for the endangered Asian elephant and the critically endangered siamese crocodile.

Less than 250 adult siamese crocodiles and between 400 and 600 wild elephants remain in Cambodia following decades of hunting and habitat loss.

Miss Hiscox says that human-wildlife relationships are fragile, but ultimately vital for the prosperity of both. “Improving human relationships with wildlife and decreasing conflicts are common goals for many wildlife projects, but most studies will keep the impacts of conservation and poverty reduction separate, they are linked issues; each has the potential to aid or inhibit the other.

"Some scholars have gone so far as to say that conservation approaches will ultimately fail unless they acknowledge this connection between poverty and conservation and address these impacts.”

young siamese crocodile.

Strained relations

The relationship between humans and wildlife is strained due to competition for habitat and food, as well as extreme poverty in the Cardamom mountain range, with an average wage of about $7 a month.

Miss Hiscox says the siamese crocodile is in direct competition with humans for both fish and habitat. “It is hoped that by increasing the availability of food, it will decrease the competition for food resources and for habitat. Elephants are similarly hunted as a source of protein and money from the black market, so finding alternative sources of protein and sustainable food technologies may reduce the number of elephants slaughtered.”

Miss Hiscox outlines that this is not a foregone conclusion. “There are potential risks for more conflict to occur and for positive perceptions to be changed into negative ones,” she says. “If crocodile numbers continue to increase because of the programme, but the villages also thrive, then they will both compete for wetland habitat where crocodiles could live and people could plant rice paddy fields.”

The conservation projects aim to do this by promoting positive perceptions and including local people in management decisions and providing education on the roles the crocodiles and elephants play in the ecosystems.

“Conflicts are being mitigated by re-introducing crocodiles as far away from villages as possible and isolating the elephants with fencing. But the source of the conflict is often hunger and what we want to know, is if you can reduce hunger, will the results be even better for both humans and wildlife,” Miss Hiscox says.

Questions asked by the study include: as populations of crocodiles and elephants increase, how will this change the perceptions and conflicts between the local people? What impact does food diversification of the local people have on the level of conflict with the wildlife? Does increasing economic growth change their cultural views on crocodiles? What consequences does the change in perception and conflict have on the population growth and conservation of the elephants and crocodiles?

The research will be used to guide future projects as to the consequences and benefits of an integrated approach between poverty reduction and conservation goals in regards to wildlife perception and human wildlife conflict.

Miss Hiscox will meet with Fauna and Flora International in the coming weeks and visit Cambodia early next year. As part of the scholarship, she will study at Cambridge University in England for three years.

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