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March 3, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Victorian Theses

This week I spoke with Abu Conteh, an Environmental Science PhD student from Sierra Leone. His thesis is concerned with the effects of the civil war in Sierra Leone on biodiversity in the Western Area Peninsula Forest Reserve, just outside of the capital, Freetown. The area is a unique habitat, as the westernmost point of the Upper Guinea Forest, containing a large number of endemic species, meaning species that can be found nowhere else on Earth. Conteh’s will be the first study on the effects on war on biodiversity in West Africa.

The primary aim of his research is to assess how the threats to biodiversity have changed over three distinct five-year periods: pre-war (1992-1997), war (1997-2002), and post-war (2002-2007). In addition, he will look at the personnel that are there, what they’ve been doing, their level of dedication, and the resources that have been available to them.

The raw data for his thesis will be acquired in a very hands-on way, when Conteh returns to Sierra Leone, the country of his birth, for nine months to perform his research. His research will contain three different methods.

The first technique is known as the Randomized Response Technique, which has never before been applied in conservation or biology. This technique asks a respondent to flip a coin, and then respond to two different questions simultaneously. One is a sensitive question, “Did you hunt illegally?” (or “Have you ever used illegal drugs?” in its native Humanities), the other is a question with equal distribution, “Did the coin come up heads?” The respondent is handed two cards in a bag, with each corresponding to one of these questions. Out of sight of the interviewer, the respondent withdraws a single card, and answers that question only. In this way, it is unknowable to the interviewer whether the respondent is confirming they have hunted illegally, or whether they are simply reporting the result of flipping a coin. This ensures the respondent cannot be implicated in any illegal activities, guaranteeing their anonymity, and increasing the chance they will give an honest answer to a sensitive question. Mathematical analysis is then used to approximate the results by removing the expected false positives from the coin flipping. In this way Conteh hopes to find out the number of people hunting illegally, the intensity of their hunting, and what techniques they may have used, amongst other things.

The second technique is known as Threat Reduction Assessment, and has only recently been developed. It aims to assess the success of conservation efforts prior to the completion of a project. Conteh will be interviewing community people, government personnel, and conservationists. He will be assessing how biodiversity has changed over the three periods outlined above. He will be assessing not the actual success or failure of biodiversity conservation projects in these periods, but the interviewees’ perception of the intensity of various dangers to biodiversity, and ranking them in order of intensity and urgency. By interviewing three different groups, each with their own different possible biases, he expects to be able to lessen the effect of conflicts of interest in their assessments.

The third technique is a simple survey administered in a face- to-face interview.

Conteh expects the war will have negatively affected biodiversity in the area, although he refuses to say so with any degree of certainty, noting that studies in other regions have shown that war does not necessarily produce a negative impact on biodiversity. However, he feels pressure from internally displaced people in Freetown will have impacted upon the environment.

A preliminary study was completed in 2000, speculating that there may have been a negative impact, and called for an on- site study to answer the question definitively. Conteh’s study will do this.

He expects the most significant effects on biodiversity will have resulted from illegal hunting, from the clearing of land for unauthorised urban development to house refugees, and from the harvest of firewood for both survival and sale.

He expects to find a decline in devotion towards conservation during the war period, exacerbating the problems of poaching and the clearing of land. Perhaps more importantly, the conflict’s disruption of the economy made the transfer of funds from foreign countries to NGOs in Sierra Leone exceptionally difficult.

The University’s reaction to Conteh’s research proposal has not been enthusiastic. He received responses such as “the research is irrelevant … and it’s loaded. It’s all-embracing.” However, he has received praise from his former professor at the University of Sierra Leone for incorporating techniques from social sciences, and his project “is research that … will not only satisfy academic requirements, but will be able to provide advice to conservationists and the people in my study community.”

Abu Conteh holds a BSc (Hons) from in Zoology from the University of Sierra Leone, and a MEng in Environmental Science and Technology from IHE in the Netherlands. I wish him the best of luck with his research.

Are you or someone you know doing a really interesting thesis? Because if you are, I’d like to talk to you! The awesomer the topic, the better. I can be contacted at matt@salient.org.nz

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