Q&A With Environmental Humanities Student Kaggie Orrick

November 15, 2023

Kaggie Orrick is a sixth-year PhD student in the School of the Environment. Her dissertation studies the relationships between human and wildlife land use in the Makgadikgadi region of Botswana.


What is your research about, and what brought you to it?

My PhD research looks at the social-ecological landscape of the Makgadikgadi region in Botswana, and I’m focused on an area of land that sits in between two national parks. Historically, it’s been a really important area for wildebeest migrations, but one  that has been cut off by veterinary fences, which were first built in the late fifties but continue until this day. Currently, humans, wildlife, cattle, and livestock all live on this landscape together. And so I’m trying to understand how people, wildlife, and cattle each use the landscape, and how they interact and influence one another. You can read more about the work that I’m doing in my recent publication, https://rdcu.be/doz8D.


I really wanted to understand the nuances across a landscape of how both people and wildlife were moving. I’m using camera traps to understand how wildlife use landscape, and I have GPS trackers on cows. But to understand how people are using landscape, I’ve been conducting interviews and doing participatory mapping.


I’ve always loved animals, and my trajectory began with thinking just about animals. After graduating college, I worked on a small game reserve in South Africa conducting large carnivore feeding ecology focused on lions, cheetahs, and leopards. But as I progressed in this field, I realized how people were a really important component of conservation efforts, and that the fortress conservation approach—where wildlife is siloed off from people—is not necessarily representative of what the real world looks like. That is when I began working for an organization called Round River Conservation Studies in Botswana. I was a project manager for their community-based wildlife monitoring program, which really was created with, for, and by local villages in the Okavango Delta. After spending three years in Botswana, I decided I wanted to pursue a PhD so that I could better represent people in conservation efforts and spatial planning. I am still partnered with Round River and working in Botswana for my dissertation.


This isn’t your first research project. What was your Master’s work on?

Part of my job in South Africa involved tracking collared individual animals on the reserve and other animals of interest, including elephants. We’d follow them and report on what they were eating and their location. I started noticing that some wildlife were selecting certain areas of the reserve based on their proximity to the fences. There was a tar road just to the west of the reserve. I started wondering if the cars on the road were impacting the way in which animals used the landscape.


I went to Columbia University for my Masters in the Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology Department and was able to use the six years’ worth of data that existed on the reserve. Interestingly, I found that there was a seasonal avoidance of the roads by the breeding herd of elephants, but not the lone bulls. I also demonstrated the importance of using multiple spatial scales to interpret results to improve identifying wildlife movement drivers. You can read more about this work here: https://doi.org/10.1111/aje.12500


How did you get into the environmental humanities?

As I mentioned earlier, I started working for Round River Conservation Studies after my Master’s and spent time at a program in Botswana. And that was very much focused on collaborating with local community members. That experience got me more interested in understanding how people are part of environments that we so often associate with just wildlife.  When I came to do my PhD here at Yale, I knew that I wanted to incorporate people’s attitudes, livelihoods, and perceptions of wildlife into conservation spatial planning.


The environmental humanities program fit so wonderfully into what I was trying to do. It was really fun to find like-minded people and see how other people are combining all of these ideas. One of the projects I completed with my co-worker was through the support of the Environmental Humanities grant program–  an ArcStory Map of our research. You can find that here: https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/9354e6e7979849aa9ed1dc30ef26cf33


How has the environmental humanities shaped your research?

The classes themselves were really thought-provoking. I’ve really enjoyed having opportunities to read and discuss articles with people who approach ideas about the environment differently than I might. It’s been extremely helpful in stretching my mind and making sure that I’m thoughtful and intentional about what I am doing.


There’s importance to studies and research that try to combine all of these different disciplines together, because that’s ultimately what any landscape is—it’s all of these various components interacting with each other. It’s dangerous to be siloed or focus on just one aspect of a landscape, or one discipline, if you’re trying to make any sort of substantial change. The Environmental Humanities program allowed me to explore these cross-disciplinary ideas in depth, and for that I am really grateful.


Any plans after graduation?

My goal has always been to continue working in the NGO or government space. I’m very much interested in working for conservation organizations and being able to bring back the skills that I’ve acquired to the practical application of conservation.


Favorite animals?

This is tough, because it’s usually whatever I have seen last! But I love spotted hyenas. I love elephants, and I love aardwolves. Those are my top three.