Meet Sarah Huebner

Research Manager, Snapshot Safari | Researcher, University of Minnesota Lion Center | PhD Student, Dept. of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior

Where do you work?

My field work is conducted primarily in Kruger National Park, South Africa and numerous private game reserves bordering the Kruger to the west. I also use images from various Snapshot Safari sites to study how lions and elephants avoid each other in time and space and how each species influences the movements of ungulates and the growth of woody vegetation.

What do you study?

My dissertation research focuses on the impacts of the quintessential ecosystem engineers, African elephants, on the ‘landscape of fear’ and several trophic (food web) levels, i.e. predators, prey, and producers. Elephants are one of the few species released from predation by lions because of their sheer size, except when they are vulnerable as young calves. Conversely, adult elephants are able to kill lion cubs during conflicts, so it is believed that lions and elephants avoid each other in space and time to protect their respective young. Both predators and megaherbivores exert strong cascading effects on other animals and vegetation, so their relative population dynamics influence landscapes and conservation outcomes within protected areas in Africa.

What are you working on right now?

I am assessing the effects of elephant behavior on lions, ungulate species, and woody vegetation in South Africa using a combination of remote sensing techniques and historic datasets to evaluate changes over the last several decades. I also manage the international camera trapping network, Snapshot Safari, wherein we have deployed camera trap grids in many national parks and nature reserves throughout eastern and southern Africa to evaluate the health and status of wildlife populations. The primary objective of Snapshot Safari is long-term ecological monitoring coupled with cross-site comparisons to judge the efficacy of particular management techniques, such as burning intervals, stocking of prey species, and restorations of large-bodied species like lions and elephants.

Why do you do this work?

Due to poaching and habitat loss, we face serious extinction threats to both lions and elephants in the near future, as well as Africa’s other megafauna like leopards, rhinoceros, and giraffe. Lion and elephant populations are plummeting, albeit with small successes in expanding certain populations via restoration and conservation efforts. Restoration of megaherbivores has yielded information about the immense cascading effects they exert, but we are still trying to disentangle those impacts with confounding effects of ecological complexity, water availability, intensive human management, and climate change. Megaherbivores in all other biomes on Earth are extinct, so African ecosystems represent the only remaining chance to assess the role of megaherbivores in maintaining ecological stability, functionality, and diversity.

Explore Sarah’s work on elephants’ influence on the landscape of fear.

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