When Cathy Schloeder and husband Mike Jacobs head to Ethiopia in January it will be a homecoming of sorts. The couple spent 1990 to 1993 in Awash National Park in central Ethiopia conducting research on a variety of problems associated with park management.
They also wrote a management plan for the park.On this trip they will also do research and look at development plans for Omo National Park in southwest Ethiopia.
"One of the first things we will do is a survey of plants and animals in the park," said Schloeder. "We will work closely with USU's remote sensing/GIS laboratory to analyze satellite data to assess the vegetation in the area.
"Mike will be chiefly concerned with the effects of fire and of grazing, to determine how they affect species composition given different rainfall patterns," she said. "This can help guide management decisions in the park. I will look more at the biodiversity issues - such things as the role of climate, landforms, surface geology and how the local people use vegetative resources."
Schloeder says that five indigenous groups live around the boundaries of Omo Park and depend on its resources. Yet the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority officials do not really know what impact the locals have on the park.
"Another part of our job will be to train their biologists," she said. "We want to teach them how to do research and how to use the data they gather to manage the park."
On their last trip to the African country, Schloeder and Jacobs found themselves teaching sociology as well as wildlife and range science.
"When we got there, people were using machine guns on each other," Schloeder recalled. "When we saw this, we realized the first thing we needed to do was to get the park people talking to the local people and vice versa. We brought them together to start talking to one another and to see each other not as enemies but as people much like themselves. Then we worked with both groups to decide on the best way to manage the resources so that all would benefit. If we accomplished anything there, it was that we got people talking to each other."
Schloeder says that while there is intertribal conflict around Omo, it is not the civil war, crisis situation they encountered the last time and that will make the work easier. Still, she says, the people around Omo are heavily armed.
"We will try to include the needs of the people in any management strategy of the park resources," Schloeder said. "Including people in the decision-making process encourages them to take the initiative to successfully develop and manage their resources in a sustainable fashion. We think the Omo people will be willing to take the initiative."
Schloeder and Jacobs know about initiative. It's what got them the Ethiopian job. She grew up in Panama, where her proximity to the oceans made her consider a career in marine biology. But, while she was at the University of Montana, wildlife science captured her interest and she was able to work with bear, elk, deer and bobcats.
After graduation the couple went to Alaska's Kenai Peninsula on a five-year project to study brown bears. Then it was off to West Virginia for master's degrees and the chance to get an East Coast perspective and study different types of wildlife.
With aspirations for international work, Jacobs began corresponding with a New York Zoological Society researcher in Sudan who suggested they come to Africa to make contacts. By the time they finished their master's degrees and made the trip to Africa, the researcher was in Ethiopia. After meeting the couple he offered them a six-month project they got the New York Zoological Society and OXFAM to fund. The project turned into the three-year Awash project.
While there, Schloeder and Jacobs met Dr. Layne Coppock, who had spent more than 10 years working in East Africa. After he took a job in USU's department of rangeland resources, Coppock wrote to them and suggested they consider the university for their doctoral research. The two are at USU now because it offered the wildlife study that interested Schloeder and the range science that interested Jacobs.
In January they are going back to Ethiopia to conduct field research for their doctoral degrees and to help the people around Omo Park learn to live with one another and with the plants and animals that sustain them.