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

Saving the Serengeti

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, visit www.zoology.ubc.ca/biodiversity/ or www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/media/releases/2005/mr-05-013.html

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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