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Blog: Notes from the Field - Simon Morgan in Africa

Elephants in Africa

The Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve initiative “Out-of-the-Box-Into-the-Cloud” is underway!  We are developing off-grid field-research instrumentation that will enable collaborations with field stations in other countries, as a way to engage with global sustainability initiatives—like stemming biodiversity loss—and  bring new opportunities to our students, faculty, and JRBP community through promoting cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary environmental research and education.

A big part of this involves building new partnerships—and that is what JRBP Research Associate Simon Morgan has set off to do this summer. Along the way he’s sharing his experiences with the JRBP community in short blogs that we’ll post here. In late July Simon will be joined by the JRBP directors and several students from the Hadly Lab to prototype some new equipment and education programs in Botswana, so stay tuned for continuing Notes from the Field.

Following are the first two reports from Simon.


Simon Morgan, JRBP Research Associate

June 5, 2018—Simon says: I left just as sunny California was heating up and over the next few months will be traveling through 6 different countries in Southern Africa to implement and extend some of the work taking place at Stanford and Jasper Ridge. As a start I went straight to the bush and ended up in the Kruger National Park, one of the largest parks in Africa, to conference with some of the leading lion conservationists on the continent.

I am joined by Uma Ramakrishnan from the National Centre for Biological Sciences in India, who sits on the executive committee of Stanford’s Program for Conservation Genomics (PCG). Uma was here to tell the African Lion Working Group members about her success using genomic tools in the conservation of Tiger and how we could do the same for the African Lion and other species. One of my roles at Stanford is as the Associate Director of Conservation for PCG, and there I have initiated a Lion Genomics Project with Ellie Armstrong who is the Stanford PhD student working on the project. Following Uma’s talk I presented the steps we are taking to develop the project and to ask for buy-in from the African Lion Working Group as a whole. Uma’s presentation was very well received and generated a lot of interest and the follow-on is that the group is very willing to get behind the proposed Lion Genome Project! Members will be supporting it going forward by providing relevant samples from across the range of the African Lion.

From here I will be traveling to meet with the Head of Research and Monitoring for African Parks (www.african-parks.org), an NGO running 13 National Parks in 9 different countries across Africa, to discuss how Stanford could be involved with elements of research across these amazing parks, and see how the  ‘pop-up’ research and monitoring stations being developed at Jasper Ridge could perhaps be deployed.

June 17, 2018—Simon says:  I am writing from the banks of the mighty Zambezi river, just 2 km from where it plunges over the Victoria Falls. I journeyed here from the capital of South Africa, Johannesburg, otherwise known as ‘Egoli’ - the city of gold. Gold was to be found there in the form of a very successful and positive meeting with the new Head of Research and Monitoring for African Parks, Angela Gaylard. We discussed everything from lions in Malawi to Gorillas in the Congo through to remote sensing of their parks. It would seem that there are a number of synergies that could be created between Stanford and African Parks, including the deployment of ‘pop-up’ labs being developed at Jasper Ridge into their parks and the subsequent use of the genomic tools we are developing at the Program for Conservation Genomics (PCG). We also discussed how flying the Carnegie Institute's Airborne Observatory would be a great aid in establishing baseline data and informative maps of their parks, as well as how image recognition software being developed by engineering students, in collaboration with research teams at Jasper Ridge, could be used to identify individual gorillas from photographs. It was with all this in mind that I went on to another HQ in Egoli, that of TRAFFIC, who are tasked with monitoring the illegal wildlife trade throughout the world. We workshopped how the genomic tools from PCG will aid in there ability to monitor the trade and how we could tweak aspects of what we are doing to ensure that the tools we create are able to stand up a court of law from a forensics perspective - real CSI stuff!

While here in the Victoria Falls I will be discussing the application of genomic tools with the Vic Falls Wildlife Trust who have a well established lab in the area. They are doing some incredible work on rehabilitating wildlife which has been impacted by poisoning events, doing pathology lab work to track diseases in wildlife, mitigating human wildlife conflict between people and elephant or lion and assisting the government and neighboring countries with advanced wildlife lab work for forensics and wildlife trade monitoring.

From the mighty falls I will travel south again into Hwange National Park and meet with PCG project partners Painted Dog Conservation. After successfully working with them to sequence the genome for the African Painted Dog we are working to further develop genomic panels to aid in the conservation efforts. Hopefully we get to see a pack in the wild!