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Too Many Questions, Too Little Time

Today I have officially completed all graduate school applications. Every letter of recommendation has been submitted and now I settle in to eagerly await decision emails. Although the beginning of a research project is over a year away, I can't stop thinking about three different topics that so fascinate me. Of course all three topics could really be subtopics under the main heading of Southern Ground Hornbill Conservation.

I've known for a while that I want to be involved in Southern Ground Hornbill conservation. I don't have any childhood memories tied to this species and I only learned about them just under three years ago. But I did spend just over a year standing in front of two of them and read every published paper I could find on their biology, ecology, and population decline. I became attached to their humorous ways and was in awe of their long eyelashes and their sleek black feathers. I heard many people call them ugly, but this species has just as much right to be protected as a "cute" species. I noticed that although this species is found across a large area of land, most research has taken place in only one country. This is also the only country that has labeled the species as endangered while all other countries list it as threatened.

I've since been determined to help keep this species in the wild and far away from a future where every member of the species exists only in captivity. There are many ways to go about doing this; the obvious way is to learn more about how to conserve a species by attending graduate school. Part of this education requires a research component where I propose a question, decide what data to collect, analyze it, and determine the significance of my findings. I would also decide what this significance means for Southern Ground Hornbill conservation. I have three ideas that would not only help us learn more about the species, but would also add evidence to suggest if current policies are helping or hindering the species.

1. Do population densities of Southern Ground Hornbills differ across Southeastern Africa? If so, why? This would require extensive field work to locate different family groups in a number of countries across the region. I could collect GPS data for future research and to compare the number of family groups living on private land to protected land. Perhaps this species thrives on protected land, away from accidentally ingesting poison left by farmers to kill livestock predators. Or perhaps they thrive on agricultural land because they have more rodents to eat. Maybe existing policies provide more protection for the species or perhaps a country lacks policies that cause an unhealthy environment. Whatever the reason, this question would provide data on the location of different family groups in a variety of countries across the region. This data would then be compared to the different policies in place in each country. Conclusions could be made about the level of protection this species needs to thrive.

2. What causes Southern Ground Hornbill eggshell thinning and how common is it throughout Southeastern Africa? This question was first brought on after reading a paper that provided data on a small sample size of eggshell fragments that contained mercury and were too thin to support the successful development of the chick. This project is tied to the last question in that GPS data must be collected on a variety of family groups in different countries in Southeastern Africa. I could also collect samples of earth and water in the areas close to the nest. Each earth, water, and eggshell sample could be tested for heavy metals and DDT. The proximity of each nest to mines, factories, or agricultural fields could be compared. History of pesticide use or the seeping of heavy metals into the environment could also be compared to the location of each nest. Data comparisons might show correlations between sample content and proximity to sources of pollutants. Environmental policies in each country might be looked at and compared to correlations. Similarly to the first question, conclusions could be made about the level of environmental protection that this species needs to thrive.

3. What is the cultural significance of the Southern Ground Hornbill to native peoples? This last questions differs quite dramatically from the last two, but is still of great interest to me. I read a paper on the prevalence of this species in folklore in different areas of Southeastern Africa. Some cultures believe this species in beneficial to the community by signaling the beginning and end of the rainy season. Other cultures believe the species protects households against evil spirits. The paper was a great introduction to the subject, but I felt as if more could be discovered. There are two main reasons why I think learning more about the cultural significance of this species is important. The first is that it gives people another reason to protect the species. Learning about the history of the species in terms of folklore or significance to communities will help others understand why it is important to save the birds. The second reason is to help engage the community in conservation efforts. Learning more about what native peoples think of the species may help decrease human induced deaths, increase support of the placement of artificial nests, and may help us understand why some protection exists in some places and not in others. This knowledge of potential public support may assist in the creation of new protected lands or the placement of a conservation field site to prepare captive-raised birds for release into the wild.

All three of these ideas will require extensive time and funding. I must learn more about which projects are realistic to undertake during a MSc or DPhil, but man, I can't wait to begin graduate school!


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