Claire Cardinal

  • Claire Cardinal joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in September 2017. Her thesis title is 'Lemur-human coexistence: the impact of human hunting on the behaviour and demography of cathemeral lemurs in south-eastern Madagascar'.

    How did you hear about Oxford Brookes University?

    I first came to Oxford Brookes to study for a MSc in Primate Conservation. I was told about the course by a fellow zookeeper and immediately thought “I really want to do that!” I am a mature student so it was wonderful to be part of such a modern university environment. When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s we did not have computers, so research is much easier nowadays.

    What attracted you to Oxford Brookes University to conduct your research?

    I was primarily attracted to Oxford Brookes by the calibre of the Primate Conservation staff. They are all leaders in their particular fields and continue to be an inspiration to me. After completing my Masters I did not want to leave. Although I had not originally planned to do a PhD, I was keen to become involved in lemur conservation, and my project grew from discussions with my two amazing supervisors.

    What were you doing before?

    I returned to education after a 25-year career in urban planning. My first step was a diploma in Animal Management at Northumberland College. My course was based at an old country estate called Kirkley Hall, which has a wonderful little zoo attached to it. I worked there as a Zoo Presenter alongside my studies. The job included giving educational talks to visitors about the animals, and that is where I first became fascinated with lemurs. I also learned about the threats that they face in the wild and was determined to do something to support their survival. 

    How easy did you find it to settle into the research environment?

    I was delighted to be accepted as a research student, but at the beginning I felt as though I did not really belong on a PhD programme. Everybody knew so much more than I did! Working in a shared office with other researchers at various stages of their programme has been a big help in taking the step from MSc to PhD. Having the belief and support of my supervisors and other primatology staff has given me great confidence to take my research forward. I have already done a myriad of training sessions to boost my skills, and meeting fellow researchers at courses and social events helps me feel part of a wider university research community.

    Tell us about your research.

    I am investigating the impact of hunting by humans on the behaviour and demography of cathemeral (day and night-active) lemurs in south-eastern Madagascar. Lemurs are small- to medium-sized primates, all endemic to Madagascar. 96% of all lemur species are at threat of extinction, largely due to anthropogenic pressures. Although hunting by humans is recognised as one of the main threats to the survival of lemurs across Madagascar, the impact of hunting on their behavioural ecology and population structure is currently poorly understood.

    To conserve endangered species it is crucial that we understand how animals perceive and tolerate people, and the impact of human interactions upon their behaviour, populations, and ecology. By studying lemur hunting from the dual perspectives of lemurs and people sharing the same forest, I aim to understand the nature of lemur hunting in rural Madagascar and how cathemeral lemurs respond to hunting pressures. This will further scientific understanding of lemurid capability to adapt and survive in anthropogenic habitats and enable me to develop indirect predictors of hunting pressures on lemur populations that can be used in conservation management.

    Understanding the extent and importance of lemur hunting to people living close to forests is crucial for developing effective strategies to reduce hunting pressures, and is integral to my project. Recent studies suggest that wildlife hunting in northern Madagascar is primarily for rural subsistence, driven by poverty and poor health, food security and social and cultural factors, but hunting has been particularly understudied in southern Madagascar. In Madagascar there are no ungulates or other large prey species, except for the introduced wild pig, so lemurs are the largest native animals in the forest and therefore attractive to hunters. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with many people dependent on direct access to natural resources for survival.

    I do my field research in Tsitongambarika Protected Area, a beautiful humid forest in south-eastern Madagascar. Despite legal protection since 2008, Tsitongambarika’s forest and its wildlife are subject to severe human pressures due to the proximity of the growing town of Fort Dauphin (Tolagnaro) and the ongoing dependency of rural people on forest resources. My research focuses on the collared brown lemur Eulemur collaris and southern bamboo lemur Hapalemur meridionalis - the two lemur species most frequently targeted by human hunters in south-east Madagascar. Cathemeral lemurs exhibit adaptive behaviours to habitat fragmentation and disturbance, and there is evidence that they respond differently to terrestrial and aerial predators. These characteristics suggest that lemurs may show adaptive behavioural responses to human hunting.

    Using the collared brown lemur and southern bamboo lemur as a model, my project objectives are to:

    • Investigate the drivers and importance of lemur hunting to people living close to tropical forests in south-eastern Madagascar;
    • Determine how hunting by humans affects the abundance, distribution, group size and group composition of lemurs;
    • Identify the behavioural responses exhibited by lemurs towards humans and explore whether lemurs adjust their behaviour in areas of high hunting pressure;
    • Model the behavioural and/or demographic characteristics of lemurs that can be used as indirect predictors for hunting pressure;
    • Develop evidence based strategies for lemur conservation in Tsitongambarika that meet human needs as well as addressing conservation priorities.

    During my pilot study in 2017, I identified two study sites in the coastal and interior zones of the protected forest respectively. The sites are linked by trading routes, but their conservation management and local people’s primary means of subsistence and dependency on forest resources differ. Conducting the research in two sites allows me to compare lemur responses to different types of hunting pressure. At each site I work with a team of locally recruited forest guides, a cook and site guardians. The coastal site has an established research station where other Oxford Brookes researchers have worked since 2015. No scientific research has been carried out at the interior site before now, so I have recruited and trained a new field team and together we have established a temporary field site for the duration of my project. Both field stations have fairly basic living conditions – we sleep in tents, with small buildings for cooking and sitting, bucket showers and latrine toilets. Rice and beans are the staple for most meals.

    Ethnoprimatology provides an integrated approach to studying the interface between non-human primates and people. I use mixed research methods that combine quantitative ecological surveys with qualitative ethnographic methods.

    To collect data on lemur responses to hunting pressures, I conduct ecological surveys to estimate lemur and snare abundance, and carry out behavioural studies of collared brown lemurs and southern bamboo lemurs to record the lemurs’ behavioural reactions to human observers, as a proxy for responses to hunters. At each field site, I have created nine 1 km line transects along existing trails used by local people to access the forest. Every day I do two transect walks in the early morning and late afternoon, when I expect the lemurs to be most active and therefore more visible. During the transect walk I record the number of lemurs I see to determine their population abundance and all lemur snares visible within 20 metres of the transect. On encountering a lemur group, I record the group size and composition, and the position and behaviours of a group members over a ten minute period. I will use these variables to model behavioural responses in relation to hunting, demographic, habitat and geographic parameters to find out if lemurs adjust their behaviours in the area of high hunting pressure. 

    To investigate the drivers of lemur hunting in Tsitongambarika, I am using a case study approach to explore local people’s relationships with lemurs and the role of lemur hunting in the wider context of their daily lives. I anticipate that the extent and importance of lemur hunting to people living in local communities depends on an interplay of economic, social and cultural factors linked primarily to access to food and other resources, traditions and social practices. Lemur hunting is illegal in Madagascar, so people may not be wholly forthcoming about participation in hunting. I am therefore using an indirect approach of exploring people’s relationships and attitudes towards animals and how the forest protection affects their lives. Working with a Malagasy translator, I collect data from participants in eight villages close to the forest, using participant observations, semi-structured interviews and focus groups. Coupled with my snare surveys, these data will help characterise the nature of hunting pressures for each study site.

    So far I have spent 7 months in Tsitongambarika, both trips during the dry season. This year I am making another two trips to study the lemurs during other seasons. It is very rewarding getting to know Malagasy people and discovering how they live. An added benefit is that I am learning to speak Malagasy, essential to communicate with my teams and people I meet day to day. I have always wanted to live abroad for extended periods – my PhD enables me to do this in a most exciting way.

      What do you enjoy about being a research student?

      The opportunity to become really obsessed with one project for three years. There are not many other chances in life to do that. Last year I was lucky to attend an international lemur conference in Madagascar where my supervisor introduced me to some of the world’s most eminent lemur conservationists. My research involves fieldwork in a remote part of Madagascar, where I am privileged to get to know local people living in rural subsistence communities. I also get to watch lemurs living wild in the forest, which is truly magical. 

      The biggest challenge that I face is being self-funded. I have to work part-time to support myself and seek grants for my fieldwork. Balancing these demands with my PhD work can sometimes feel overwhelming. Fortunately I have a great job as a shelver in Headington Campus Library. It is very therapeutic and being familiar with all the library’s resources is a bonus for my research. My colleagues think that going to live in a tent in Madagascar for months on end is crazy, but they are all supportive of my project. 

      What do you think about the research training offered at Oxford Brookes?

      I have participated in a wide variety of training opportunities that Oxford Brookes offers, including statistics courses, skills and competency training, and HSS Faculty seminars about anthropological methods and primate conservation. Whilst I still have a lot to learn, these events are helping me develop the knowledge and practical skills that I need to do my project. They also stimulate me with ways to be more proactive about raising my professional profile and promoting my research.  

      What are your future plans?

      I am aiming to complete my thesis in December 2020. It is difficult to think of life after the PhD, but I would like to continue working for lemur conservation in Madagascar, initially to implement recommendations arising from my research. The lemur species that I study are under huge pressure from human activities in the forest. At the same time people living in the nearby communities traditionally depend on the forest for many of the resources they need. Where I do my field research, there is so much work needed to protect lemurs’ and people’s needs, and I would like to be part of that.