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Margaret Kinnaird, PhD

Executive Director, Mpala Research Centre and Conservancy, Kenya, Africa

Born and raised in Kentucky, Margaret now lives half way around the world near Nanyuki, Kenya (that's in Africa!). A true nature lover, Margaret is in charge of Mpala, a privately owned, 48,000 acre ranch and research centre devoted to preserving wildlife and researching ways for people and animals to live and work together. On a given day, she might hop in her Land Cruiser and drive around the property to visit a herd of camels or observe dik-dik (tiny and very abundant antelope that live in pairs), elephant families, rare Grevy's zebras, wild dogs, graceful ostriches, hornbills, and other animals.

Nancy asked Margaret about her work, the path she took to get there, and why she loves being a scientist.

Nancy: Your work sounds amazing. Have you always loved animals?

Margaret: Yes, since I was very small, I've loved nature and animals. I was shy and being outside amongst wild or domestic animals was always the most enjoyable and comfortable place for me. I loved learning/knowing the names of trees, birds and other animals. I was fascinated with rodents for some odd reason but ended up studying manatees, primates (mammals including humans, apes, and monkeys) and birds!

Nancy: Speaking of studying, what kind of schooling was necessary to qualify you for such an amazing job?

Margaret: After high school I went to Stetson University and the University of Florida, where I studied Zoology. From there I did graduate studies at the University of Michigan in Evolutionary Ecology. Finally, I completed a PhD program in Wildlife Ecology — the study of animals and how they interact with their environments — at the University of Florida and did post-doctoral work at Princeton.

Nancy: That probably means you did a dissertation, or a really big research project, at some point, and it probably involved animals. Tell me about it!

Margaret: You're right! For my dissertation, I went to eastern Kenya to see how hydroelectric dams built in a major river influenced the behavior of a very rare monkey, the Tana River Crested Mangabey. Mangabeys, beautiful, cream-colored monkeys with a whirl of bangs over their dark faces and a long tail that they carry over their backs like a big question mark, are found only along a 40-mile stretch of the Tana River where dense, jungle-like forests grow. I spent nearly two years following and observing 3 Mangabey groups, counting and identifying everything they ate, observing their fights, measuring their food, and mapping their movements. The first few months were very trying because the monkeys ran whenever they saw me. Every day I kept after them until they finally gave up and accepted me like just another forest animal. By the end of my study, I could sit within 2 feet of my groups, and watch them play, fight, sleep and eat. I found that because the upstream dams changed the way the river flowed—making it straighter instead of curvy—favorite Mangabey food trees, like figs, were declining. The Mangabeys shifted to other foods, but at the same time they were also confronted with less and less forest in which to live because people were cutting the forest for wood and to plant crops. This was the first time I had to confront the realities of wildlife and people living together and how important it is to find solutions that benefit both.

Nancy: That sounds a lot like the mission of Mpala!

Margaret: Yes, even though many of Kenya's national parks are really, really big, there are not enough of them to satisfy the needs of so many animals. That's why privately owned places like Mpala are so important. They provide even more space for animals than national parks do. At Mpala, people and their livestock live side-by-side with typical African wildlife. Imagine—we have cows and sheep living together with lions and leopards! Lots of different kinds of people live here—traditional cattle herders, commercial ranchers that raise a variety of livestock, and farmers—even flower farmers! There are also tourism operations that are visited each year by thousands of people from around the world who want to see the amazing wildlife.

With so many different interests, living together takes a lot of patience and tolerance on all sides. If not managed well, conflicts can develop. On Mpala, we're helping figure out the best way to manage our lands for the benefit of both wildlife and people.

Nancy: What kinds of research are you doing now?

Margaret: I am doing both conservation-related research and what I think of as "fun" or "curiosity driven" research. For the "fun" research, my intern, Laura Budd, and I have been trying to figure out if hornbills (a tropical bird) stay with the same mate for life. To do this research, we have to capture a large number of birds, put colored rings on their legs so we can tell them apart and see who travels and mates with whom. Once we know which birds are partners, we will begin sampling their DNA and that of their offspring to see if the moms and dads are who we expect them to be.

Another favorite research project is when my team of four and I conduct Mpala's counts of all wildlife on the ranch. On these days, I get up at 5:30, bundle up in heavy clothes (Mpala is at 5500 feet and can be chilly in the morning), hop in the Land Cruiser, open the roof hatches and climb on top with a second trained observer. Binoculars at the ready, we keep our eyes peeled for any movement or changing shadows as the driver moves down designated paths in search of wildlife. When we see a bird or animal, we stop the car and use our binoculars to measure the distance to the animals. Then we do a little geometry to figure out their exact location and figure out how many animals are around.

Nancy: Sounds like your binoculars are an important part of your job. Are there any other scientific tools you use regularly?

Margaret: Yes, my binoculars are like my jewelry—around my neck whenever I step out of my office and I could not live without them. Another cool tool that I have used in both the rainforests of Indonesia and the dry savannas of northern Kenya are camera traps. These are automatic cameras with infrared motion sensors (like those that open supermarket doors) packed in camouflaged boxes. As animals walk through the sensor beams, they trigger camera shutters and snap photos of themselves. The cameras stamp each picture with the time and date so we know when every animal was photographed. These photos give me data about which animals are where and how many, plus I can put the cameras out and go back to the office and do some other work while they continue to collect my data!

Nancy: What are some exciting things you did before you began working with Mpala?

Margaret: I spent 14 years in the Sulawesi rainforest in Indonesia—while I was there I climbed 150 feet up gigantic trees to study forest hornbills! I learned that hornbills are the "farmers of the forest"—they eat lots of ripe fruit and when they fly over the canopy, they drop seeds that then grow into forest trees. Hornbills nest in tree holes but unlike any other birds that use holes—like woodpeckers and bluebirds—females seal the entrance to their nests with a mix of mud and poop, leaving only a small slit where she is fed by her partner. By sealing herself in, a female hornbill ensures that her male will be so busy feeding her and his growing chicks that he will be entirely devoted to her and no other female.

I also lived in a small pup tent on a desert isle in the Galapagos Islands for nearly a year, studying mockingbirds. I found that Galapagos mockingbirds live in family groups. When the kids grow up (especially males), they stay with their parents and help raise their younger brothers and sisters. These "helpers at the nest" remain with their parents because it is hard to find room for their own nesting area. If a bird can't have its own chicks, the next best thing is to help raise brothers and sisters because they are kin and share genes.

Nancy: It sounds like you've done some really amazing things. What advice would you give to kids who might want to do what you are doing when they get older?

Margaret: Listen and learn from those wiser than yourself, remain patient, and stay true to your passion in life. I stuck with my dream, even when everyone thought I should do something more traditional like become a vet, and here I am!

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