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Graduate Student Earns Prestigious Fellowship to Study Leopards in Africa

By: Cienna Madrid   Published 7:09 am / May 5, 2017

Tara Easter pointing at the ground

Tara Easter points out a leopard paw print in the dirt.

Boise State graduate biology student Tara Easter has been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship to continue her work studying the preservation of leopard populations in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.

NSF awards only 2,000 of the grants nationally per year; Easter was the only Boise State student to be selected for the grant, which provides three years of financial support, including a $34,000 yearly stipend and a $12,000 cost of education allowance to Boise State.

“I’m very proud of Tara’s accomplishment – it’s a high honor,” said Neil Carter, an assistant professor with Boise State’s Human-Environment Systems Research Center and Easter’s mentor. Carter said that Easter’s work would not have been possible without seed funding from Boise State’s Office of Vice President for Research, which funded her first trip to Gorongosa in July 2016.

There, Easter set up field cameras that detected the first leopard in the area in over 20 years.

“We were elated to confirm the presence of leopards – this is a species not yet detected inside the park’s borders since recovery efforts began following Mozambique’s civil war,” which ended in 1992, Easter said. This discovery sparked her current research assessing what human and natural factors constrict or encourage leopard movement in the area – such as buildings, roads and different types of habitat.

“Ultimately, I aim to assess the functionality of lands in the greater Gorongosa landscape and identify crucial leopard corridors,” Easter said.

Tara and local Mozambicans looking at a cameraTo accomplish this, Easter soon will return to Gorongosa to work alongside the park’s Department of Conservation to deploy more motion-detecting field cameras and acoustic recording devices in the park and neighboring areas where leopards have been documented. Then, by analyzing distinct leopard coat markings and following groups of common prey – like African antelope species the duiker and bushbuck – Easter will study their space use and movement using capture-recapture models.

“Along with habitat types and distances from anthropogenic features such as settlements and roads, I will incorporate sound levels into my occupancy models to analyze the relationship between traffic and other [human-caused] noise, and animal movement near the main road and railway that borders the park’s buffer system,” she added.

Easter’s research will take her to Gorongosa from May-August.