Why you should care
Because urbanization could be the death knell for biodiversity on the continent.
Last June and July, more than 30 endangered African penguins from a colony at Cape Town’s Boulders Beach were killed by a caracal, the heaviest of Africa’s small cats. Laurel Serieys, the 37-year-old Texan behind the Urban Caracal Project, was called in to help. Serieys duly caught and collared the offending animal before naming her Disa, after the red flowers adorning Table Mountain, South Africa’s iconic landmark. Disa was relocated to another part of the city, far from the penguins, and later gave birth to kittens on, of all places, the precipitous cliffs of Karbonkelberg. “Disa was full of surprises,” says Serieys. “When her collar fell off … we had to call in rock climbers to retrieve it.”
Disa was capture No. 27 in a project whose mission is to evaluate the effects of urbanization on the behavior, movement patterns, diet and genetic health of caracals in the Cape Peninsula — a project that should never have gotten off the ground. Serieys, whose first word was “Leo” and says she knew she’d get a Ph.D. from the age of 10, could have called it quits on at least a dozen occasions. After completing her doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, she was determined to use her skill set overseas (“In the U.S., I’m a dime a dozen”), and there was only one place her surfer husband would agree to move: Cape Town, South Africa. But it was also a city with no existing infrastructure for the study of mesocarnivores, the oft-overlooked medium-size predators that are Serieys’ passion because of how much they tell us about the health of ecosystems. “My Ph.D. supervisor said it was career suicide,” she recalls.
Cape Town … is an ideal place to test whether conservation is even possible when there are impoverished communities competing for resources.
And there was more: Soon after arriving in Cape Town in 2015, thieves stole her equipment, her lone staff member quit, and massive fires consumed 29,000 acres in her study area. Then Serieys’ marriage collapsed — her husband announcing he was no longer prepared to join her in Cape Town — and her health was rocked by severe complications from the thyroid cancer she had battled when she was 23.
Professor Justin O’Riain, from the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa, a partner in the Urban Caracal Project, confesses to being dumbstruck by what Serieys has achieved in three years: “To call her driven is an understatement,” he says. He goes on to describe her as the face of new young science. “She’s very principled in terms of scientific rigor, but she has also completely grasped social media and bringing the public on board. We dinosaurs have all learned a huge deal from her.”
All very well, but why should anyone care about an urban population of caracals, one of South Africa’s most common cats and considered by many to be pests? To listen to Gregg Oelofse, manager of the City of Cape Town’s Coastal Management Department, caracals are “an important indicator species” that can be used to identify which green corridors (parks, golf courses, greenbelts) are vital in maintaining animal populations.
What’s more, Serieys hopes to export the results of her work on bobcats in California to South Africa: In 2014, evidence she gave as an expert witness helped to change the legislation surrounding consumer availability of rat poison in the Golden State, and she has similar dreams for limiting its use in the rainbow nation. Her “ultimate goal” is to permanently change the law, though she is aware that just getting residents and businesses to stop using poisons and improve waste management would make a marked difference in the lives of caracals, otters, owls and genets.
But Serieys’ work has even broader implications. Urbanization is the principal threat to biodiversity because of habitat loss and other factors, but most studies examining its effects have been conducted in North America and Europe — despite the fact that the majority of the world’s human population is found in developing nations. Plus, cities in the developing world tend to be high-biodiversity hot spots and have fewer resources to deploy toward conserving biodiversity. Cape Town, a popular tourist destination with gorgeous beaches and mountains, is an ideal place to test whether conservation is even possible when there are impoverished communities competing for resources.
For now, though, Serieys says she’s intent on making a real difference in “human-impacted landscapes in Africa.” But several obstacles stand between Serieys and her dream of preserving biodiversity on the continent, not least her health and securing funding for her work — drumming up financial support for stand-alone scientific projects is notoriously tricky. So far, she has declined offers of tenured positions at American universities (she’s turned down several “without hesitation”), as it would limit her time in the field to just three or four months per year.
But according to O’Riain, there’s an even bigger challenge around the corner. Cape Town is essentially a first world city, and — with the exception of a few suburbs — the study area for the Urban Caracal Project “isn’t that different from California.” He predicts Serieys will encounter far greater hardships — from logistics to security and endless red tape — in other parts of Africa. Still, he’s quick to add: “If anyone can handle it, it’s Laurel.”
When I put these concerns to Serieys, she is unperturbed: “I’m passionate about mitigating the catastrophic environmental impact us humans are having on this planet. And I’ve got more chance of achieving that in Africa.”