SCIF Research Spotlight – Camille Warbington (Uganda Sitatunga Project)

An in-depth question and answer session with Ph.D. candidate Camille Warbington about her PhD project on sitatunga in Uganda in conjunction with Dr. Mark Boyce, University of Alberta discussing the objectives of the project, what it means to hunters and the importance of SCIF’s support..

Q: Camille, we really appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to share your story with us. Safari Club International Foundation was proud to support your Ph.D. research at the University of Alberta. But how does someone from a school in western Canada wind up doing research on the other side of the world in Uganda?  

A: It was almost accidental how I ended up working on sitatunga in Uganda. At an academic conference, my future PhD supervisor, Dr. Mark Boyce, had posted a short advertisement on the conference bulletin board. The handwritten post said that he had a PhD research opportunity on modelling pronghorn antelope populations in North Dakota. I had experience working with population modeling from my Master’s degree research, so I sent Dr. Boyce an email to learn more about the project. After exchanging an email or two, and sending him my resume, he broke the news to me that he now thought that the pronghorn data would be better suited for a post-doctoral appointment instead of a PhD project. Disappointment was setting in when he said something to the effect of: “I have an idea for a PhD project on sitatunga, which would require fieldwork in Uganda. I have no idea if you would be interested in something like that, so let me know.” I replied immediately that I would be very interested in the sitatunga project instead! As it turned out, Dr. Boyce had been to Uganda on a hunting trip – for sitatunga. During the safari, he struck up a conversation with the professional hunters regarding the sparse scientific data on the species. He realized that he was in a position to address the deficiency, and eventually that idea lead to my PhD project.

I tell myself I should come up with a better story, one where I knew exactly what I wanted to do and how, but the true story is an accurate reflection of how studies in wildlife ecology get started, especially for understudied species.

Q: Had you spent any time in Africa or in Uganda specifically prior to starting your research project? Or ever been to Uganda, more specifically? What was the coolest part about doing international field work? Do you have any plans to go back in the future, either professionally or personally?

A: I had never been on the African continent before my flight touched down in Entebbe in 2015 to start my first field season. It was such a positive experience that I knew I would keep going back.

I am hard pressed to pick just one thing that was the coolest. As a wildlife biologist, the animals are a major draw for me, and the animal community on Uganda is remarkable for its diversity. I was seeing new-to-me species of birds on a regular basis, including rare and unique birds like the Shoebill. While I was lucky enough to never encounter a hippopotamus while we were in the canoe, hippos were a regular visitor to camp at night. I did not appreciate how huge hippos were until I awoke near midnight to one grazing next to my tent, then calling out to its herd-mates. Hippos can be very loud! That was such a cool experience.

Since that first trip, I visited Tanzania, and I was lucky enough to be chosen to assist in teaching University classes in South Africa and Mozambique. There are so many places that I want to visit that I know more trips to Africa are inevitable.  

Now that I have a more complete picture of wildlife conservation in Africa, I hope that my work can lead me to contributing to capacity building, wildlife management, and sustainable livelihoods on the continent. There is so much good work being done, but also more to do, and if I can help in any regard, then that would be a dream come true.

Q: You picked a pretty unique, and relatively little known species to focus on for your Ph.D. project. How did you wind up choosing to focus on Sitatunga antelope and how familiar were you with the species prior to starting your research?

A: Prior to starting my PhD, I knew that sitatunga existed – but that was about the full extent of my knowledge. But I am not alone in that regard. When I started at the University of Alberta, I did a literature search and actually read every article published in academic journals that mentioned sitatunga. For many North American ungulate species, it is simply not possible to read every article published about them. Rather than this story illustrate my determination to understand my study species, it is more indicative of how little information was available about sitatunga. It is a great feeling to know that I added to the body of knowledge about this species, while also improving research techniques that can impact other understudied species.

Q: I assume there were many challenges in implementing your project ranging from the logistics of field work in a foreign country, to travel uncertainties to cultural differences. What were some of the most difficult challenges to your work in Uganda? How were you able to overcome those challenges and get your project accomplished?

A: I was lucky in a lot of ways when I was setting up my first field season. I did not have any trouble in obtaining the necessary research permits or approval, and I had a lot of flexibility when it came to defining research questions. Dr. Boyce and my doctoral committee were more than happy to let me try a little bit of everything during my first field season, and that way I could rule out impossible or impractical techniques before I wrote my “official” research proposal.

Luckily, Dr. Boyce has a well-established and modern wildlife research lab, so I could “borrow” equipment from other projects in order to make up some budget shortfalls. The most pressing challenge when I started my project was just that we had no idea what would work and what wouldn’t in the context of a papyrus swamp. Most wildlife field research techniques were developed for dry(ish) land habitats in temperate climates, and all the equipment available to me was used in this capacity. So how would a trail camera used for a study of bears in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta perform in an equatorial wetland at the height of the rainy season?  To our knowledge, no one had tried camera traps in the papyrus marsh before; it was possible that someone had tried it, only for it to be a colossal failure and provide no usable data.  Since I didn’t know if trail cameras world work, I also decided to try collecting DNA samples. The same problem came up when I consulted with some geneticists about the best way to collect and preserve samples in a tropical wetland – there was just a lot more conflicting information! This meant that I hedged my bets even more by also planning studies on weather, feeding sites, and even human presence along the river channel. I figured that at least one of these techniques was practical, although I was extremely busy that first field season.

I was incredibly fortunate to have my research site provided by Uganda Wildlife Safaris, and to have their staff help out with logistics. I would not have had a successful first field season without their support. The staff and professional hunters were so helpful that I knew if there was a way to make this research work, then we would find it. Within a few weeks of me being there, we had gone through a few iterations of camera trap mounting plans. If you are familiar with trail cameras, then you know that even though they are marketed as “water-resistant” or “waterproof”, that living things can still wriggle their way inside. So sometimes we would recover a camera and it would be full of ants, including dozens (if not hundreds) of pictures of ants crawling across the lens. Other cameras would fall in the water, or the poles would tilt and only take pictures of the sky or the ground. It took a while, but we figured out how to make camera traps work in the papyrus swamp. We also figured out that we couldn’t walk transects in the swamp for DNA samples, but we could collect hide samples from harvested sitatunga and preserve them without using expensive chemicals. We were successful in data collection for so many aspects of the project that I was in the position to choose which studies to continue in the following years, which was the opposite of what I expected. As I said during my thesis defense: even though a PhD is an individual accomplishment, I know I would not have been successful without the support, direct and indirect, of so many people, including the staff at the Mayanja River camp, who definitely worked just as hard as I did during the fieldwork!

Q: It generally seems like folks who pursue career paths related to wildlife conservation are shaped by experiences they had in nature as a kid, did you grow up with ample access to the great outdoors? What were some of the forces that drove you towards pursuing your PhD in wildlife?  

A: Both of my parents had a strong interest in nature and the outdoors. My father has a PhD in fisheries science, and my mother has a degree in forestry. Instilling an appreciation for the outdoors in their children seemed to be a big goal of theirs. Growing up, we were always taking family camping, hiking, or fishing trips. My dad worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior, so we moved around the East Coast quite a bit, so I spent a lot of those family trips in the Appalachian Mountains and foothills. I can credit those childhood experiences with shaping the direction my career has taken.

Q:  What were some of the key objectives of your project? Put differently, what are some issues related to sitatunga ecology or management that need to be addressed for the conservation of this species?

A: When I started my study, the scientific information on sitatunga was very limited, and most of it was observational. When I was formulating my research questions, I received input from Dr. Boyce, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA, the government agency responsible for managing wildlife in Uganda), and the Uganda Wildlife Safaris, LTD (UWS, a safari hunting company in Uganda that was providing my field site and logistical support while I was in-country). From those conversations, I knew that I wanted to develop a density model to estimate population size of sitatunga. Density was a pressing need, since the sitatunga population was being hunted, and traditional population estimation techniques simply didn’t work well for sitatunga. From the ground or in a canoe, the wetland vegetation is so dense that distance sampling is nearly impossible. Aerial techniques don’t work because the papyrus forms a full canopy, so you can’t see the sitatunga from above. UWA and UWS both wanted to sustainably manage a hunt, which requires reliable information on populations. My study also was an opportunity to test out some different density estimation methods. Techniques that work on sitatunga could also work on other well camouflaged animals living in dense habitats, and on other data deficient species. I was able to test three analytical methods to determine which is the best (and most effective) for well camouflaged wildlife in dense habitats.

Q: A major goal of this research was to gain a better understanding of habitat connectivity and movement corridors, can you tell us a little bit about what your research uncovered in this regard, and what are some of the major challenges in Uganda to ensuring habitat remains connected and corridors remain viable for the species moving forward?

A: Sitatunga and habitat is another area where the scientific literature and other reports just don’t have a lot of information. There are a few “knowns,” such as sitatunga have specialized adaptations to life in wetlands, such as elongated hooves. But, the literature conflicts on topics like how large are sitatunga home ranges, if sitatunga migrate or change habitat use between rainy and dry seasons, and if sitatunga are unique in the ungulate assemblage in terms of their reliance on wetlands. My study was an opportunity to fill in the knowledge gaps, at least for the East African sitatunga subspecies.

Wetland habitats are of particular ecological concern, for a number of reasons. Climate change and human populations both put huge stresses on wetlands, from changing timing and volume of water provisioning, to pollution, drainage, and filling in for farming purposes. Wetlands across the world are in decline, and since the human population of Uganda is very dense and increasing, Ugandan wetlands are at high risk of conversion into dry land habitats. My study also was an opportunity to investigate if habitat loss is already affecting the sitatunga population; if the sitatunga population is isolated and there are barriers to sitatunga movement, then the DNA tests of the sitatunga in the study area would show high relatedness between individuals.

My study shows that sitatunga in the Mayanja River are unique in the ungulate assemblage in their use of remote wetlands. From the analysis of population density, we detected that there are two distinct groups within this sitatunga population: one group is characterized by a very high movement parameter, meaning that these individuals have large home ranges in comparison to the second group. In other words, we found that sitatunga need remote and continuous wetlands for healthy populations. The next step was to see if the current state of the wetlands was sufficient for sitatunga dispersal to avoid inbreeding. The DNA analysis shows that the wetlands are currently highly connected, meaning that for now, the sitatunga population is not affected by high inbreeding or barriers to dispersal. This is great news – we just need to ensure that the habitat remains at least at the current level of connectivity to help sitatunga populations thrive.

Q: Safari Club Members, for the most part, are hunters – and often they’re quite interested in the impact that research like this has on hunting opportunities. How is sustainable use through hunting important for sitatunga conservation and management? Will your research affect how this species or its habitats is managed?

A: Hunting is conservation in so many ways. In Uganda, the trophy fees from hunting go back in to conservation, including compensation to landowners and community conservation groups. I have no doubt that without proceeds from hunting that the landowners would be converting lands to agriculture production on a much larger scale. Through my research, there will hopefully be more interest in conserving wetland connectivity to facilitate sitatunga population growth, which will in turn have positive effects on other wetland dependent species like waterbirds. The improved population estimation techniques I used can benefit not only sitatunga, but other game species across the country.

One of the driving forces behind this research was to improve harvest rules behind the sitatunga hunt in Uganda. I worked closely with UWA and UWS to ensure that my research focus would be useful in setting management plans for sitatunga and the wetlands. I have discussed with UWA the possibility of recreating my population density estimation techniques in other sitatunga hunting areas in Uganda, so I believe that my research was well received. It is my fervent hope that once lockdowns are eased that we will see my research findings incorporated into management plans.

Q: Have you ever hunted or been along for a sitatunga hunt? And what is it like to hunt a sitatunga in the tall papyrus swamps?

A: While I have not personally hunted sitatunga, I was present in camp for a handful of sitatunga hunts. The major method for spotting a sitatunga is to go out during the hours around sunrise and sunset, and sit in an elevated platform / hide where you overlook some openings in the papyrus. And you wait for something to emerge from the tall papyrus into the open areas. Sitatunga tend to “reappear” in places where they were previously spotted, so good intel on where and when sitatunga bulls were sighted in the days and weeks leading up to a hunt can be the key difference between a short and a long hunt. Needless to say, my “sitatunga diary” was a popular subject in camp, since I was using camera traps, visiting machans daily, and was keeping a record of sightings. However, I was only visiting one place at a time, and I would stick it out in the same place even when no sitatunga were out and about. When there were hunts coming up in the calendar the professional hunters would usually send out scouts to a lot of different places to get a feel for where to focus their efforts.

Some of the PHs told me about hunting sitatunga with bows, and that sounds really challenging! Using a bow means the hunter has to get out in the papyrus swamp for the stalk. I can tell you from first-hand experience that walking through papyrus challenges balance, strength, and stamina – doing so while stalking seems nearly impossible.

Q: It seems that the hunting industry in Uganda is growing. What is your impression of the industry and its future in Uganda? Are they involved in any anti-poaching or community benefit programs?

A: Absolutely. The hunting industry in Uganda has the advantage of examining what worked for other countries and adapting it to suit their unique situation. The Uganda government definitely sees the potential of safari hunting in conservation programs, and that includes the individual land owners and communities surrounding hunting concessions. Anti-poaching efforts are also in place, which is a cooperative effort between the government and safari hunting operations. I think that the hunting industry has a bright future in Uganda.

Q: SCIF has a long history with Dr. Mark Boyce’s lab at the University of Alberta and has supported a number of other projects on elk, grizzly bears and wild sheep. Are there any other peripheral projects you were involved in during your time in school that are particularly interesting? Were you involved in research focused on any other species of wildlife either in Canada or abroad?

A: During my time with the lab, there were research projects on black and grizzly bears, cougars, stone sheep (a thinhorn sheep species), ducks, barren ground caribou, elk, wolverines, and a community of ungulates (including woods and plains bison) in one of Canada’s national parks. My study animal was very unusual compared to what the other students were working on! But once you get past the different species involved, we were all working on the same types of questions: Is the habitat, population, or community changing? What is causing the change? How are the animals adapting to this change?  We had regular lab meetings, so I could keep up with what the others were doing, but unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to go on any field work. I think the most interesting project (other than mine) that occurred in the lab involved cougar diet analysis using stable isotopes, just because that technique was so different compared to what other students were doing.

Q: When you’re not at work, what are you doing? Tell us a little bit about the opportunities you have to get outside and explore all of the wild places Alberta has to offer.

A: Well, I usually spent my summers in Africa and my winters in Alberta – and winter time in Edmonton meant catching up on analyses, classes, and writing! Alberta is home to some of Canada’s most famous parks – Banff and Jasper come to mind – and I have spent some time exploring there. But, one of Alberta’s lesser known areas (at least to people not from Alberta) is the Canadian Badlands area surrounding Drumheller. This is an area full of scenic wonders, and one of the world’s largest deposits of dinosaur bones. Drumheller’s landscapes of hoodoos and canyons became one of my favourite escapes, and it’s usually not nearly as crowded as the Rocky Mountains can be. I am looking forward this winter to my first snowboarding lesson, which I hope will be only moderately embarrassing.

Q: You’re obviously quite familiar with Safari Club International and the Safari Club International, and had the opportunity to attend our African Wildlife Consultative Forum, so tell us how SCIF was important in your development as a professional wildlife biologist and now Ph.D. ecologist. Can talk a little bit about the importance of organizations like ours and the AWCF when it comes to promoting wildlife conservation on a global level? Are there any other similar organizations that you’re a member of or have been involved with?

A: I credit attendance at the AWCF as a crucial aspect of my professional development. Other than my academic life, I have experience working for both state and federal governments, so I thought that I had a good idea of what “wildlife management in action” looked like. The truth is that my experience in North America is not what conservation looks like globally. Through the AWCF, and also through my sitatunga field research in Uganda, I have a much higher appreciation of the complexity of wildlife issues in Africa. Since wildlife do not recognize international borders, the AWCF plays a critical role in facilitating transboundary wildlife management strategy, by bringing together a wide variety of stakeholders from multiple countries – government wildlife managers, community conservation groups, professional hunting groups, and even wildlife biologists and policy experts. With all of these perspectives, the AWCF is an ideal forum to collaborate on emerging issues and evaluate progress. The AWCF brings together a wide breadth of perspectives, but all focusing on wildlife management. That combination of width and specificity of perspectives really makes AWCF unique in the conservation space, and a highly effective forum.

Q: Now that your doctoral studies are complete, what is next for you, professionally? Will we see you in Africa or at other scientific meetings or conferences?

A:  The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with everyone’s plans this year, so I am not 100% sure what comes next for me. For now, I am working as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, which is a great opportunity – I am getting project administration experience while working on publishing the results of my sitatunga research. I am happy to say that I was invited to attend this year’s AWCF, and I am looking forward to that. I have a feeling that virtual conventions will be the new normal for a while, so hopefully I can attend more of those fora and increase my research dissemination. I am also sharing research results and more information online via my website and social media. I do want to get back into a research role, and luckily it seems like research funding has started to pick back up over the past few months. I am actively looking for a research opportunity where I can lend my expertise to positively affect wildlife conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Ideally, I would work on a research project in Africa, where I can also work in capacity development and community based conservation initiatives.

Q: Thanks again for taking the time to speak with us Camile, are there any topics we haven’t covered yet that you’d like to discuss? Or any interesting things on the horizon in terms of your career and research?

A: Thank you for allowing me this opportunity. There is nothing I enjoy more than talking about my research!