'Zambassadors' Reflect on Summer Research

Friday 15, 2017

Eighteen Northern Michigan University students spent a month in Zambia, Africa this summer for a faculty-led study abroad that focused on African ecology and culture. The NMU “Zambassadors” conducted field research of their own design, while accompanied by biology professor Alec Lindsay and local guides. Research topics ranged from foraging behavior of mixed-species flocks of birds to dung beetle habitat preferences to elephant trunk-use behavior. A related "Zamposium" talk will be held during the UNITED Conference from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, in the Erie Room.

Students spent the semester prior to travel preparing their research proposals while also learning about the culture, politics and history of Zambia. While abroad, they met with conservation groups such as the Zambian Carnivore Programme and Conservation South Luangwa. Students had a chance to discuss their work with professionals, help locate and record their animals of interest, witness radio-collar wildlife monitoring and learn about human-wildlife conflict management.

“NMU Zambassadors could ask lots of their scientific questions directly to the ecologists in working in the field with the animals,” said Lindsay in a blog post. “Everyone got lots of great insight into the animals themselves, but also into the sort of hard work it takes to do field research.”

Students studied diverse ecology at many locations, such as Victoria Falls, South Luangwa National Park, Kafwala Camp, Lusaka and more. They saw lions stalking prey, canoed past crocodiles and saw four of Zambia's 11 remaining white rhinos.

“They [white rhinos] are guarded 24/7 to protect them as they are threatened by poachers,” said Lindsay. “Learning about conservation issues in the classroom or through documentaries is one thing, but to be in the presence of the very creatures that have faced such a threat actualized the situation.”

NMU student Clare Fastiggi said the international field studies experience was valuable, academically and personally.

"My time in Zambia broadened my worldview of environmental systems and issues in such a way that only empirical study could grant,” she said. “Africa was not somewhere I had ever pictured having the chance to visit, but this opportunity offered a wholly unique experience to meet with conservation groups and better understand the logistics of such organizations, perform field research and experience Zambian village life, all accompanied by our professors and local guides to enrich our ecological and cultural understanding of the environment.

“When you’re in a different environment with new people you learn things about yourself through your interactions with others. I think this can be very formative experience, and can help direct one’s interests for future life, schooling and career.” 

The trip offered students various cultural experiences, such as visiting Nyanje Village. Students were greeted by villagers with handshakes and also met the chieftaness.

“We were able to attend their agricultural festival where we watched some traditional dances and saw the village’s recent harvest,” said Fastiggi. “When leaving the festival, we were accompanied by a huge group of children running up to hold our hands, with cattle carts passing, the mill shops on either side and Nyanje mountain in the distance. It was a very memorable moment."

Students also spent a few days in London before continuing on to Zambia. Some activities there included visiting the former estate of Charles Darwin and going to the Royal Geographical Society.  

Learn more about the field study by visiting Linday’s blog at http://nmuinzambia2017.blogspot.com/

Jill Vermeulen
Student Writer

Students and guides

Elephant skull discovered during walking safari