Claire Cardinal

  • Cheryl BirdseyeClaire 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. 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.

    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 lemurs respond to hunting pressures. My results will further scientific knowledge of lemurids’ 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. Madagascar is among the poorest countries in the world and rural people have a high dependence on forest resources. Understanding the 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. 

    I conduct my field research at two sites in Tsitongambarika Protected Area, a humid forest in south-eastern Madagascar. My research focuses on the red-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. Using these species 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.

    Ethnoprimatology provides an integrated approach to studying the interface between non-human primates and people. I use a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods to conduct anthropological and ecological data collection and analyses.

    So far I have spent 10 months in Tsitongambarika. It is extremely 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 the teams of local people that I work with and the people I meet day to day.

      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 summer 2021. It is difficult to think of life after the PhD, but I would like to continue working for lemur conservation in Madagascar, initially to help 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.