Eve on Kenya research trip

Eve’s amazing research opportunity with the leopards of Kenya

Eve Hills, Ecology and Conservation MRes student, tells us about the opportunities and experiences she had studying here and why she recommends Ecology at Brighton.

I came into higher education late in life after deciding that I wanted to develop my passion for animals into a career in wildlife conservation. I enrolled on a foundation degree course in Animal Science, and this provided me with the opportunity to further my knowledge and develop new skills. As part of the course I got to design and carry out my first research project (studying cheetah movement on a Namibian wildlife sanctuary). I enjoyed the course so much, that after graduating I went on to top up my degree with a BSc (Hons) in Ecology at the University of Brighton.

The BSc provided another opportunity to conduct a research project – and this time my focus was the leopards of Kenya’s, Masai Mara National Reserve. I very much enjoyed the research side of my studies and the opportunities that were opening up for me were really exciting.

The MRes appealed to me particularly because it was relatively light on taught modules and heavy on the research. I wanted the opportunity to experience the kind of research I might get do in industry.

My research focused on the African leopard… after starting to study leopards during my BSc I wanted to continue – particularly as little is known about the Mara’s leopard population. In 2016, I made contact with a biologist who had been studying the Mara’s cheetah population for several years. After flying out to meet her and spending a couple of weeks assisting on her project, she encouraged me to start building a database of leopards in the Mara. It was working on the database which led to both my BSc and MRes project ideas.

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The report I finally submitted for my MRes was quite different from the one I detailed in my initial research proposal! …but apparently this is to be expected in the field of science! For my project, I used camera trapping to determine which factors influenced the presence of leopards in a subsample of the Masai Mara National Reserve.

After planning my study I spent 3 months in the Masai Mara conducting the survey. I had a total of 35 camera trap locations across the study area. The locations were selected based on previous leopard sightings, or signs of leopard’s presence (tracks, etc.) The cameras were set out for approx. 60 days and were checked, batteries and SD cards changed, weekly, weather, vehicle, and wildlife (best-let sleeping lions lie!), permitting!!

Using the data I gathered, I aimed to determine whether, habitat type, prey species or other predators, influenced the presence of leopards. I found the presence of hyeana to be the only factor to significantly determine the presence of leopards and this is particularly interesting as hyeana are known to steal leopards prey and kill (& eat) their cubs given the opportunity. Therefore, large numbers of hyeana could be a limiting factor on the number of leopards.

The research project is the primary module on the MRes and it gives you the opportunity to develop your own research question – under the guidance of your supervisor – and conduct a piece of (largely) independent research. Alternatively, there are plenty of options for choosing a research project designed by one of the university supervisors – all experts in their respective fields.

As an MRes student, you are encouraged to network. During the course, I developed a number of contacts with professionals in my field, who were happy to exchange and share information. They also proved to be an invaluable source of advice and support during my studies and I know I’m able to contact them again in the future.

The highlight of my studies was having the opportunity to undertake research in a subject I’m truly passionate about. Studying leopards in the Mara was definitely the opportunity of a lifetime! It certainly had its challenges but I have a great sense of personal achievement having completed it.

Initially, I chose the University of Brighton because not only was it running the course I wanted to join, it was also relatively close to home. However, once I’d attended an open day and learned about the research being done by some of the lecturers in the PABS department (for example, Dr Bryony Tolhurst, a highly respected mammal biologists), I was really excited about studying under their guidance and supervision and had no doubt that this was the right university and course for me.

The course has helped me think about what to do next. I would like the opportunity to continue my research by undertaking a PhD program at the University of Brighton. If I’m successful then I hope to find work as a wildlife researcher.

The level of support you get as a student at Brighton University is extremely high. The school office team is amazing as are the student support and guidance counsellors. I also made some amazing friends. I would say that you need to be fairly self-motivated as you are required to do a lot of work independently, other than that, go for it!!

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