Saving the Serengeti

UBC Reports | Vol.
51 | No. 3 |
Mar. 3, 2005

Anthony Sinclair’s 40-year study of animal populations
in African parks has helped define biodiversity science

By Hilary Thomson

It all started with dung beetles.

As a child in Africa, UBC zoologist Anthony Sinclair admired
and collected the humble insect, marking the start of a career
that has spanned four decades, three continents and earned
Sinclair membership in the Royal Society of London, an academy
of the world’s most eminent researchers.

A world expert in ecosystem dynamics, biodiversity and conservation
biology, Sinclair has conducted experiments in areas ranging
from Australia and New Zealand to the Yukon, but most of his
work has focused on the Serengeti region of Tanzania, in eastern
Africa. His latest work, recently published in Science, concerns
population dynamics of Serengeti lions.

Born and raised in Zambia, Sinclair’s earliest memories
revolve around time spent as an intrepid investigator of bugs,
birds and mammals. He soon learned to mix caution with curiosity,
however, after meeting a leopard during a night-time foray
at age eight.

Educated in Tanzania and fluent in Swahili, Sinclair was
sent to secondary school in England — at that time a three-day
plane journey away. He originally studied to be an engineer
but by his own admission was an indifferent student.

All that changed when he decided to follow his heart and
become a biologist.

“It was just like pushing a button,” says the
61-year-old. “I roared ahead.”

An apt description, indeed. After earning a PhD at Oxford
University, Sinclair has conducted 40 years of landmark research
that has helped define biodiversity science and made him one
of the world’s most-cited investigators in the field
of environment and ecology.

But to hear Sinclair tell it, his career has mostly turned
on luck.

History handed him his first lucky break in 1890 when Italians
brought a cattle disease called rinderpest to Africa during
the colonization of Ethiopia. African cattle had no immunity
to the disease and ultimately 95 per cent of the continent’s
population was wiped out. Authorities tried to combat the
spread of the disease by killing infected animals. They couldn’t
kill animals in the protected 30,000 sq. kms. of Serengeti
Park, however, and thus was born Sinclair’s living lab.

He started research in Serengeti in 1965, while still an
undergraduate. The rinderpest outbreak and its effect on Africa’s
ecosystem created a large-scale natural experiment for him
to test his theories of fluctuations in animal populations.
He has used the area to create an ecological baseline by measuring
natural changes in biodiversity within the park and comparing
this data to human-induced changes seen outside the area.

He spent a decade focused on African buffalo and wildebeest,
monitoring their resurgence after rinderpest was wiped out.
The wildebeest population increased six-fold in about a 15-year
period and Sinclair recalls standing on hilltops seeing nothing
but the black hides of wildebeest for 30 miles in any direction.

“The changes in wildebeest population in Serengeti
changed everything — vegetation, food supply for predators
and for humans,” says Sinclair. “This natural
experiment proved that everything is linked and that all living
things are connected in an ecosystem, a concept that is well
understood now but was just emerging when I started my work.”

At that time, researchers were busy unraveling many mysteries
in the region, but their work was unconnected. Sinclair suggested
they consolidate their knowledge and has edited three books
— Serengeti, published in 1979, Serengeti II in 1995 and
Serengeti III, soon to be submitted to his publisher.

Sinclair spent 10 years in the Serengeti. In addition to
his wildebeest studies, he also looked at how the region’s
grassland changed to woodland because of ecosystem dynamics.
Bushfires usually controlled growth of trees but wildebeest
grazing had virtually eliminated fuel for the fires.

Tree-munching elephants had also regulated tree growth, although
extensive ivory poaching meant young trees could flourish.

When the political situation in Tanzania endangered his
research — his team and materials were attacked by bandits,
forcing a re-launch of the project — and became uncomfortable
for his family, Sinclair moved in 1973 with his wife and two
young daughters to Darwin, Australia, to conduct studies on
Australian buffalo.

But fortune foisted another career development on the young
researcher when, on Christmas Day, 1974, a fierce cyclone
hit Darwin. It destroyed 95 per cent of the city and devastated
Sinclair’s research project. While helping evacuate
residents, he spent a night huddled in a tent where, by candlelight,
he scribbled his application for a job at UBC.

While at UBC, Sinclair has continued his work in the Serengeti,
studied the Yukon’s snowshoe hare and the Vancouver
Island marmot, one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

He also served as director of UBC’s Biodiversity Research
Centre from 1996 to 2002 and helped shape the vision for a
new interdisciplinary research centre, now under the leadership
of Prof. Dolph Schluter. With major funding from the Canada
Foundation for Innovation and a recent $8 million donation
from Vancouver mining entrepreneur Ross Beaty, the centre
that started as a dream in 1992 is expected to open in 2007.

After focusing on the large mammals of the Serengeti for
decades, Sinclair is now turning his attention to the region’s
smaller mammals, birds, butterflies and plants.

“We don’t yet know all the habitats in Serengeti,”
he says. “I want to describe the biodiversity in these
different habitats and look at some of the geographical areas
of the ecosystem that are still largely undescribed.”

And what about plans for 2009, when it’s time to retire?

“I want to write a book that will put the whole Serengeti
story together,” says Sinclair. “And I plan to
move back to Tanzania for a few months each year — I’ve
got a spot picked out by Lake Victoria where I plan to build
a house and spend my time just watching nature.”

For more information on the Biodiversity Research Centre,