Featured Researcher: Jena Hickey

Jena is a PhD student in the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. She is back from a 6-month tour studying bonobos (a.k.a. pygmy chimpanzees) in the Maringa-Lopori-Wamba, a 70,000-km2 landscape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These globally endangered great apes – one of human’s closest living relatives – are under increasing threat due to habitat loss, habitat degradation, and hunting. Such conditions, exacerbated by war, stem from increased numbers of impoverished Africans living deep in the rainforest who subsist on a combination of 3 activities: bushmeat hunting, slash-and- burn agriculture, and timber harvest. Jena’s dissertation quantifies the relative impact of each of these 3 activities on bonobos and examines the human dynamics contributing to the unsustainable drain of wildlife from Congo Basin rainforests.

Jena first began working in DRC as part of the U.S. Forest Service’s International Program, when she traveled through the remote forests of the Congo Basin meeting with local villages to discuss sustainable use of natural resources and community-based natural resource management (CBNRM). CBNRM is a process that recognizes the importance and value of local communities toward managing and conserving their natural resources. Rather than “drawing a line around it” and calling it a preserve to be protected from people, CBNRM strives to conserve resources for and by the people. Such conservation planning integrates local, regional, and international knowledge and values. It can include setting aside areas as reserves (if the communities agree) while also planning specific locations for human population growth and resource use. Jena’s experience in Congo as part of this Congo Basin Forest Partnership inspired her to pursue a PhD relating these topics.

First, she combines spatial analysis of satellite imagery, predictive habitat modeling, and ground-based field research to quantify the relative and synergistic impacts of bushmeat hunting, slash-and burn agriculture, and timber harvest on bonobo occurrence and abundance. Her field work entails leading a team of ten or more Congolese up rivers via dugout canoe, through swampy forests with heavy packs, and along narrow dirtbike trails for hundreds of kilometers. Known to locals as “roads,” these trails actually resemble extreme obstacle courses! The team searches for big leafy nests high in the forest canopy where bonobos sleep each night. These nests serve as an index for bonobo occurrence and abundance. Jena also records all human signs (machete cuts, traps, log-cut trees, etc.) and primate calls. She is interested in being quantitatively robust, so she uses sight-resight and distance methods to estimate detection probability. After all, in a dense leafy forest, it is likely that many big leafy nests will go undetected. She then uses the information she gathers to characterize forest fragmentation and create models of predicted bonobo habitat and estimated bonobo abundances as tools for conservation planning.

Jena also conducts interviews with several types of local stakeholders including, but not limited to notability (respected village elders), hunters, farmers, timber company representatives, and marginalized groups. She uses a combination of large village meetings and individual discussions to gain insight into the ways natural resources are used in and around bonobo habitat. By incorporating the social and historical context into this ecological study, Jena hopes to help the Congo Basin move toward a more sustainable use of forest resources for the benefit of local communities and global conservation.

Ultimately, her goal is to work with conservation planners by providing a spatially-explicit simulation model that helps distinguish among different land-use alternatives. She envisions a predictive model that will allow land managers to easily and preemptively view the likely consequences of different land-use arrangements on bonobos. Such a tool will help support well-reasoned land-management decisions as communities and land managers attempt to arrange timber harvests, crops, and connective corridors to maximize the likelihood that bonobos persist into the future. Jena looks forward to participating in a collaborative effort to create a national bonobo conservation strategy for DRC, scheduled to launch in September 2010 at the International Primatological Society’s 23rd Congress in Kyoto, Japan.