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Aimee Oxley joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in January 2014. Her thesis title is ‘Great ape conservation in the matrix: investigating the socio-ecological responses of chimpanzees living in a forest-farm mosaic, Uganda’.
I heard about Oxford Brookes from finding academics in the field I was working in after reading their journal articles. I heard great things about the Primate Conservation Group at Oxford Brookes University through friends and colleagues whilst working at the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project. The first time I came to Brookes was when I started my PhD. The most important thing for me was having the best team for my studies.
I spent a long time researching potential supervisors for my PhD. I had a specific research question that I had designed over the years since my MSc. My research was based on my interest in understanding how tropical forest fragmentation affected forest-dependent species, particularly primates. I found my ‘dream team’ - three fantastic academics working on human-chimpanzee interactions and chimpanzee responses to living in human-dominated environments - and they were all at Oxford Brookes! I contacted them and applied for the departmental scholarship whilst I was living in Borneo. I was successful and returned to the UK to begin my studies as a PhD student.
I was working in Borneo with the Orangutan Peatland Project (now Borneo Nature Foundation) as their Assistant Primate and Biodiversity Scientist. In this position I was collecting data on wild orangutans and gibbons, organising the long-term databases, training field assistants and interns, and designing and conducting a study on sun bear habitat use. It was incredibly hard work in remote and difficult conditions, but I absolutely loved it. Prior to this, I worked as a field assistant in the Amazon, studying a mixed group of capuchin and squirrel monkeys; and in Paraguay, where I helped on a variety of research projects, including a small mammal study, camera trapping and herpetological surveys.
I found it quite difficult to settle at first, mainly because it took time to find some stability. As Oxford’s housing is so expensive, I moved around a lot in my first year, couch-surfing, finding short-term lets and house-sitting. There were some academic and social events for research students which were nice to meet students from other subjects, but ultimately it was people from the primate lab and the DSS/Law research room who became my good friends and support network. The MSc course in Primate Conservation holds weekly seminars followed by a trip to the pub, and that was (and still is) instrumental for networking with peers and visiting academics. Also, Oxford Brookes was host to a big primate conference in 2014 (PSGB Spring Meeting), and it was incredible having all these renowned academics congregating here.
My research investigates how chimpanzees living in an extremely fragmented forest fragment respond to living in this human-modified environment. The problem is that as tropical forests become increasingly lost and fragmented, their non-human inhabitants must either adapt or perish. Many species are known to survive in human-influenced habitats, but to what extent their survival is secure and how different species adapt to various anthropogenic activities is not yet understood. Faced with high human population growth rate, the forests in and around Budongo Forest Reserve in Western Uganda are under pressure for agricultural land as well as demands for fuelwood and timber for construction. Whilst Budongo Forest Reserve is protected, the forests connecting it to the nearest large forest block are set in a human-dominated landscape mosaic of sugarcane plantations, crop gardens and roads, and many are privately owned and being cleared.
I aim to understand whether and how chimpanzees flexibly adjust their behaviour according to the anthropogenic influences in their habitat. The study focused on two chimpanzee communities in and around the Budongo Forest Reserve, neither of which had been the subject of any previous long-term studies. The two sites vary in terms of their degree of anthropogenic exposure and level of protection: Waibira is inside the reserve and with low exposure to human activities, whereas Kasongoire is outside the reserve and exposed to crops, roads and human settlements.
I assess the differences in forest composition and in order to understand how wild resource availability as well as cultivated food influence chimpanzee party composition, feeding strategies and activity budgets. I investigate how chimpanzees in Kasongoire perceive risk by assessing their responses to leaving the forest and found that Kasongoire chimpanzee flexibly modify their grouping patterns when entering the risky habitat outside the forest boundary. Also, it seems that chimpanzees show a level of risk perception when foraging on mangos within villagers’ crop gardens.
Essentially, by better understanding the behavioural flexibility and responses of chimpanzees in a human-modified habitat, my research aims to understand how humans and chimpanzees can co-exist in areas where there is a high degree of overlapping demands on the forest. With these results, I hope to inform land management and conservation strategies in Kasongoire.
The Santander scholarship was important for me to make progress on my PhD more on schedule. Working part-time whilst doing a full-time research degree is extremely difficult as there are simply not enough hours in the day. Many students struggle with this and life becomes a real grind – as if doing a PhD wasn’t hard enough on its own! This scholarship meant that when my term-time job finished in the summer I was able to focus solely on my studies for a few months, and that means I’m more on target to hand in.
The best thing about being a research student (and I can say this now I am nearly finished!) is having done this amazing piece of research. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot and have got some really interesting results. I will walk away with a huge number of skills I have consolidated over the past few years: from budgeting, data organisation and analysis and writing efficiently to speaking confidently at conferences, taking care of my research team in the field and managing a busy workload. The most exciting thing is that I can’t wait to share my results with the academic community as well as the local people in the village I work in in Uganda.
As for the challenges, one of the hardest aspects of the research student journey is managing yourself if and when you’re in a rut. Doing a research degree is a lonely road! It’s also a brilliant challenge, but if you are not in a good place then it can be very difficult. A study in Belgium found that around 50% of research students suffer from mental health issues, mainly depression and anxiety. It’s hard to get through 3-5 years without any gruelling life events! Dealing with serious problems at the same time as having relentless pressure from your PhD is incredibly difficult. If you don’t make your deadlines then you can feel an enormous sense of disappointment in yourself which is hard to work through, especially when you don’t see your thesis shaping up in the way you had imagined. Your supervisors can be a fantastic support, but only you can help yourself to move forward.
As for strategies to overcome the challenges, I have found quite a few! For prospective students, I’d say if you need to work part-time, consider doing your PhD part-time too. For the write up, when you come back from the field and have this mammoth task of filling all of those blank pages, you somehow need to limit how overwhelming it is. Breaking everything down into bite-sized tasks and chipping away at whatever you feel you can work on at the time you can get things done productively. After some time has passed you realise that you’ve actually written quite a lot, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. It’s important to just hand in a draft: it’s easier to revise something you’ve already written, even if it wasn’t your best quality. Equally, when you’re stuck on something, leaving it and coming back later with fresh eyes can work wonders – it’s so painful treading water being stuck! Asking for help when you need it is also an important lesson I’ve learnt, from my supervisors, but equally from friends and peers. Sometimes reaching out to anyone who can spare the time for a coffee and a quick brainstorm can just give that clarity to move forward. Most of the time you already know the answer to the problem, but having someone as a sounding board can be really helpful. For any personal issues, the counselling service at Brookes is really good. You can have up to six sessions per academic year – I’d say to anyone: if you think you may benefit from it, don’t be afraid to use it!
On my very first few days at Brookes I attended the 3-day STATSLINK course which was extremely good quality and some of the courses on personal development run by Jo Moyle are great. Brookes also offers some half-day introductory courses which can be good if you need to learn the basics on a new program (like ArcGIS and SPSS). However, I think Brookes can dramatically improve their research training by offering longer courses that go into more depth into a wider range of topics, including different statistics programs, academic writing and personal and professional development. Cross-faculty communication would improve the availability and accessibility of training events that we otherwise miss and could benefit from. Similarly, I believe it is important to provide equal opportunities to all students, so it would be good to have a system in place for all students to have access to teaching assistant roles. These things would help research students come away with more skills and would offer them with more long-term support. I think many of these points on training are currently in the process of being improved, but it’s a shame that they weren’t more solidly in place when I started.
In the 4 years since I first went out to Kasongoire I have developed an incredible research team as well as good relationships with the people in the community. There are not many sites where people are studying chimpanzees in such highly disturbed forest fragments, so I am in quite a unique position to be managing this small, but important, project. Since I left the field to write up, I have continued to employ two assistants part-time to monitor the forest and chimpanzees, and their brilliant hard work has led to veterinary interventions that have saved the lives of some of the chimpanzees after they were caught in human-laid traps. The chimpanzees in Kasongoire and the forest are really under serious threat and I feel like my purpose in life is to dedicate my time to understanding and improving human-chimpanzee co-existence there, from the perspective of humans and animals alike. I have so many research questions that have come up during and since my fieldwork and am keen to take a more inter-disciplinary approach. Further research will investigate the health implications of consuming crops, a more long-term study on the chimpanzees’ home-range use, and will focus on local peoples’ cultural attachment to and use of the forest.
Shortly after completion I will return to Kasongoire, to continue research and work with local people to discuss mitigation strategies based on findings from my PhD. First I need to spend time writing grant proposals in order to to fund the work; both further research as well as conservation initiatives. I plan to build a small house as well as have an exciting side project of an experimental organic garden of crops that aren’t palatable to chimpanzees. Over the coming years I’ll work hard to write up my results for publication and attend conferences so that the academic world can hear about the fascinating chimpanzees of Kasongoire! Ideally I’d love to find a post-doctoral fellowship that can support me in doing all of this.
Lastly, on a personal note, I’d like to complete a yoga teacher training course to deepen my practise and perhaps to start teaching on the side.