\ Interview with Professor Corinne Kendall | Columbia University Scientists and Engineers for a Better Society

Interview with Professor Corinne Kendall

Kendall Interview

Transcript of the Interview with Professor Corinne Kendall


So how did you get interested in wildlife conservation?

So my interest in wildlife conservation mainly came from working at zoos, so I worked at the Houston when I was in high school because I really enjoyed being around wildlife and I just got interested in how we can better preserve wildlife from those experiences.


What kind of things did you do at the Houston zoo?

I started out as a keeper so I clean up after the animals and we do training, so training the animals to do different behavior I also do educational talks. So I go out and talk to the public about the different animals we have. Bring out things for people to touch and see up close.


Was there one specific event that led you to be interested in wildlife conservation?

I don’t know if there was one specific event. I always loved animals. My first word as a baby was dog. Its something I think I was born with. This interest in some ways.


What is the importance of wildlife conservation?

I think we are in a wildlife where we are rapidly losing many species across the globe. I think there is a increasing emphasis on wildlife conservation as a way to try preserve those species.  I think wildlife has a intrinsic value because nature is beautiful and beautiful there is also importance in a human stand point in terms for our health and all the things we relied on come that from the natural worldthings like water and food and clean air.


Do you think biodiversity is importance in what way? Would you consider biodiversity in relation to our human life?

Yea I mean that the buzzword in conservation is ecosystem services. There is increasingly focus on services that the natural world provides us. The natural world provides us food through pollination and pest control. It provides food through fish and wild animals that we might eat depending on where we are on in the world. Given climate change, trees and forests provide us with carbon sequestration which helps to control some of the problems we are having with global warming.


What specific area of wildlife conservation needs the most attention?

I don’t know. It’s hard to pick a specific area. I’m increasingly become interested in the interaction between people and wildlife and sort of that interface. I actually did my masters at Columbia on human wildlife conflict, looking at conflicts between farmers and hippopotamus in Tanzania.  I got really interested in that issue because people were losing crops to hippo. Part of what I studied was how people could better managed their farms to reduce those conflicts. To not have hippos come in and eating their crops. More and more we see these kind of conflicts arising and for my Phd, when I studied vultures, there was also a major component of conflict because people in Kenya and other parts of Africa put out poisons mainly to kill lions and hyenas. It’s a frustration if they lost cattle to lions and hyenas and that poisoning has caused some of the declines we have seen in vultures. So I think finding more ways to study conservation and interdisciplinary matters is probably where I put the most focus in moving forward.


Like more human involvement and interaction?

Yea, being able to take those social science components and combine them with our understanding of the natural world. I think that’s how you can make real changes in people’s lives and in terms of policy.


Do you think it’s possible for the human race to grow while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of surrounding habitats and ecosystems?

I think human population growth is probably the number one driver of all the other causes of biodiversity loss that we see and I think that continuing to have  the population growth that we have  comes at a cost not just to the environment but also to us as a species. The more of us there are the less resources there are per person and we are starting to reach a point where I don’t think people are going to be able to maintain the kind of quality of life that we would want in a just world for everyone to have if there are increasing numbers of people, so I think our current population growth is not at all sustainable.


What is your viewpoint on sustainable development?

Yea, I think sustainable development is kind of a key part in this, so if we can come up with ways to be able to develop and improve livelihood without harming the environment, to be able to do those things in ways that work long term. That’s a great way to move forward, but population growth is a part of that. Sustainable development can’t solve the whole problem if we don’t deal with population growth.


Do you have like an opinion on how to deal with population growth?

I think that becomes a very political question. I think it’s an important one. It’s not an area I focus in and I think it’s an area that really requires thinking more about the social sciences than perhaps about the natural sciences, but I do think it’s a place where we  stand to have more people working and thinking about how we can control population growth. From the studies I am familiar with, I know that generally women’s education is one of the best correlate for population growth and so I think the more we empower women to be in control of their own bodies and to be able to make their own decisions about their reproduction. That usually helps to decrease populations. That seems to be a good way in moving forward.


Going back to your Phd study, why do you primarily study vultures? Is there any particular reason?

So I got interested in vultures because of the Asian vulture crisis. In a ten year time period, Southeast Asian lost 95% of its vultures. This was actually initially when the decline happened people didn’t know why and there were studies done and they determined that it was actually this chemical called diclofenac which is an anti-inflammatory drug, which is a drug actually given to cows by Hindus who didn’t want to see their cows suffering and then they let the vultures eat the cows after they died and it turned out that this drug actually causes kidney failure in birds. So the birds declined rapidly and as a result feral dogs became the primary scavengers in much of India and other places in Southeast Asian and they have had these huge rabies outbreaks as a result. So I thought these fascinating stories of these interaction between wildlife and people and sort of a lack of science led to this problem because no one was paying attention to the vultures, these kind of ugly animals that are not a big flashy conservation topic but they’re really important in the environment. So that was how I got interested in vultures and that’s part of why I study them cause we are seeing the same kind of declines for different reasons but the same kinds of decline happening in Africa and I think there are similar implication from a disease standpoint of what might happen if we lose vultures there as well.


So is that the basis of your project in Africa?

Yea, so most of my work, my Phd work, on vultures was focused on trying to understand why the vultures were declining. And I didn’t actually work on any single species, I worked on a suite of 6 different species and looked at how those species used the environment, how much they moved around, how far they’re going outside of any given protected area, and then also how they interacted with each other. And I tried to use those elements of their ecology to understand why some of them are declining so much faster than others.


So what is one fact about the behavior of any one animal that baffles or amazes you?

So I think animals do all kinds of really amazing things. I guess one of the things I find amazing are interactions between species, and vultures certainly interact with a lot of other animals. And one of the neat things I have learned from watching vultures is just how much other species are using them. So when you sit and watch a carcass. I’ll sit next to a dead animal and sort of wait for the vultures come in and its amazing cause you see these vultures, initially there is nothing just the carcass, and then the vultures kind of come out of nowhere and have hundreds of them dropping in out of the sky and they sound like jets when they kind of zooming down onto the carcass. But what’s even more amazing is all the mammals are watching the vultures. So you wills see hyenas run in from kilometers away and they’re looking to the sky to see where the vultures are going and that’s how they’re finding the carcass. They’re sort of following the vultures in. So I think those kind of interactions where one species uses another are particularly fascinating.


So I know wildlife conservation isn’t in the mainstream media enough or like it’s not visible enough to many people. So what do you think we could do to make more visible or raise more awareness about wildlife conservation?

Yea, I think increasingly the focus is on things like climate change and I think that’s a good place for us to be focused and thinking through what the implications of that are for wildlife but also for people. It’s probably really important and something we really need to keep emphasizing in the mainstream media. Yea, I’m not sure what the best way is to kind of keep the focus on wildlife conservation though.


How do you propose that like undergraduates get involved in something like your research or wildlife conservation?

I think that in New York City, there are some really fantastic resources. I’ve worked throughout my career with a lot of non-profits, so I think looking into faculty here that are working on those are great ways to get involved in research. But there is also the museum of natural history. There is the Bronx zoo and Central Park zoo, which are other places that are great for kind of getting some experience with wildlife and meeting other people that are doing research on wildlife.


Do you specifically work with undergraduates in like research?

So I’m a new faculty member. This is my first year, so I haven’t worked with any undergraduates. But I would excited to do that if there were opportunities.