Students get firsthand look at the role of forests in human livelihood and health in Africa

Students embarking on a recent study-abroad course, The Role of Forests in Human Livelihood and Health in Africa, explored landscapes and interacted with people and wildlife in South Africa and Madagascar to examine emerging issues and witness the intersection of environmental and ecosystem health, public and animal health and economic development.

“Our study abroad program is fully interdisciplinary, and the students who have gone on the trip have become more aware of the fact that ecological solutions for a sustainable future rely on interdisciplinary collaborations,” said Assistant Professor Sarah Zohdy, who led the program with Assistant Research Professor Ryan Nadel, her colleague in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

For students, who represented a diverse set of science-based majors at Auburn, the course met its objectives. Some even came away with a new way of looking at the world.

“This trip has changed my entire perspective on forests, wildlife, and human livelihood,” said Kami Grochowski, an Animal Sciences/Pre-Vet and Wildlife major. “You get the unique opportunity to learn about and interact with nature and the community around you while physically seeing how everything connects together for a greater purpose.”

Wildlife Ecology and Management major Kate Norrid recently decided to minor in public health after a previous study abroad trip. This trip had an equal impact on her.

 “Traveling to South Africa and Madagascar has opened my eyes to the immense role forests play in both human and wildlife livelihoods as well as shown me many new cultures,” Norrid said.

In South Africa, the students learned about the country’s cultures, people and ecosystems and the vital importance of trees in rural community livelihood and human health, Nadel said. That included visits to indigenous forests, savanna woodlands and commercial forestry plantations, where students met with business leaders to discuss their role in uplifting health, education and conservation in rural communities.

 In Madagascar, students got an up-close view of the often shocking, but eye-opening, results of extreme poverty and deforestation, Zohdy said.

“Being immersed in a place and culture where these things are prevalent has really shaped the perspectives of students in the past,” she said. “Witnessing obstacles like disease, drought, and poverty really emphasizes the magnitude of these issues for students.”

One standout experience in Madagascar was spending time with primatology pioneer Patricia Wright, known as the “Jane Goodall of lemurs” who was featured in the film Island of Lemus. Wright, who was Zohdy’s doctoral advisor, established one of the first research stations to implement the pillars of human health, education and conservation.

“There really was no one better for the students to have met to highlight that conservation is a social process which must include human health and livelihood needs,” Zohdy said.

Students spent time with the many lemurs living at Ranomafana National Park; while there, they sat with the last two greater bamboo lemurs. Sitting with these animals, the most endangered primates in the world, was transformative. Students recognized the intrinsic link between human and ecosystem health, realizing that to save the lemurs and other wildlife they encountered, they first must save the people who share their environment.

“Deforestation in Madagascar occurs out of necessity,” Zohdy said. “People who rely on subsistence agriculture and having resources to feed their children and remain healthy should get priority over lemur conservation.

“However, these two issues: lemur conservation and human well-being are one and the same. We hope that our students have the opportunity to see that.”

A prerequisite to undertake this study abroad program is that students must be enrolled in a 1 credit introductory course during Spring 2019: FOWS 4970 – Introduction to the Role of Forests in Human Livelihood and Health in Africa.

Students who wish to take this study abroad trip during the summer 2020, must be enrolled in a 1 credit introductory course during Spring 2020: FOWS 4970 – Introduction to the Role of Forests in Human Livelihood and Health in Africa. Registration deadline is March 31, 2020 via Auburn Abroad.

(Written by Teri Greene)

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