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ASU doctoral student studies Nepalese vulnerable to tiger attacks

September 9, 2018

Invasive vine creating danger risk in national park's buffer zone; social research looks at community-driven solutions

Fear of being eaten by a wild animal is our most ancient emotion.

Physiologically, evolution has equipped humans with a cocktail of chemicals that automatically shoot into our systems at the sound of a guttural roar.

But being attacked by tooth and claw in the 21st century for most people is as likely as being killed by a sword or an arrow. Unless they live in parts of Africa and Asia, where it remains a very real threat.

Between 2007 and 2016, 40 people were killed in tiger attacks in the vicinity of Chitwan National Park in Nepal, according to park officials. Almost half of them were killed by one tigress. The cat remains at large.

An Arizona State University doctoral candidate in environmental life sciences spent last summer in Nepal near the national park, studying how an invasive vine is helping tigers and other wild animals attack people.

Michele Clark is earning her PhD in environmental life sciences from the School of Life Sciences. Last summer she worked in the buffer-zone forests the Nepalese government has established surrounding Chitwan National Park.

The buffer zones, or community forests, were established so local people can gather firewood or fodder for their animals.

In 2007, the area began to be invaded by a vine similar to kudzu. One plant was recorded that year. Seven years later, it covered 75 to 100 percent of the forest surveyed. “In just a matter of years, things have changed drastically,” Clark said.

Women go to the jungle every single day for about two hours to collect wood and grasses.

“In that time you’re really risking your life because there are so many animals there that are threatening,” Clark said. “In that way it’s taking more time to collect resources because where they used to go is now covered in the vine. They have to go deeper and deeper into the jungle to find the things they need.”

The vine, called mile-a-minute leaf (scientific name is Mikania micrantha), can grow very rapidly within a week, and it can cover the forest and kill the trees. The Nepalese jungle is trees and grasses, not vines, so the vine changes the dynamics. It creates extremely dense cover in the jungle.

Clark started her research by doing social surveys instead of ecological surveys.

“When I was asking them those questions, at least in terms of this vine, they were starting to become more fearful that they couldn’t escape tigers and rhinos if they were to attack them in the forest because they would trip on the vine,” she said. “Or they couldn’t see because it forms these impenetrable mats. If you were in a really dense invasion and you didn’t have a machete or something, it would be like climbing over boulders. You’d have to step over this, crawl under that. It would double your time.”

A young woman was killed in the same forest Clark worked in. On a day Clark was working in the jungle a woman had her arm broken in a rhino charge.

“It helped me put into perspective how important and dangerous resource collection is for women in these areas,” she said. Newspapers ran graphic photos of the tiger attack’s aftermath.

“It was really gory,” she said. “They show way worse photos in Nepal than we would ever imagine seeing in the U.S. That’s what brings it home. It’s a true problem, not a made-up problem, and it’s happening all the time. Even if it happens once a year it’s too many times for people to feel safe in the buffer zone.”

The wildlife is protected, so killing the animals is not an option. The Nepalese government is trying to double the tiger population, which has been on the rebound in the country over the past decade.

Clark researched different treatments for the vine that were viable culturally and economically. Chemicals were out — they’re too expensive, and to the Nepalese, the forest is a sacred place where no one would want to bring them.

Chopping down the vine just made it spread more and faster. They found out the best way to get rid of the vine was to remove it and bury it so it wouldn’t resprout.

“I know that sounds crazy, but there’s a lot of people and a lot of hands and labor available in Nepal. It’s relatively cheap, because there’s people available to do this,” Clark said.

She did social surveys to see if people would implement it. It turned out avoiding tigers was more important than eradicating the vine.

“They ended up saying while they thought it was a good idea, they were still concerned that when you do that technique, the forest itself was a scary place to be in,” she said. “... (The conflict with wildlife) was an issue that became more pressing than invading plants.”

In some places the local people had cut away everything. To them, that looked better than places where only the vine had been eradicated, because they could see farther and more clearly.

“Really they were doing it so they could see and feel safer,” Clark said. “Our ivory-tower scientist impression of what people were doing wasn’t like that on the ground at all. It was for a totally different reason.”

Clark is working on a paper now, and analysis of the social research will be out in about a year. Her work was funded by a Fulbright Research Scholarship as well as a National Science Foundation: Coupled Natural and Human Systems grant.

“People feel helpless,” Clark said. “There’s not much they can do. They can’t stop the vine, they can’t protect themselves from wild animals, but they still need resources so much that every day they go back to the jungle. My conclusion is I don’t have an answer for how it all works, but my hope is to create a forest management plan to reduce the vine while meeting some of the goals these people have like being able to see further, not being fearful of wild animals while incorporating traditionally or culturally important plant species into the forest plan. It would be what indigenous people want to see.”

Top photo: Tigress with cubs, Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund, Nepal

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU ranked most innovative school in US for the fourth straight time

ASU has topped the most-innovative category all four years it has existed.
September 9, 2018

US News and World Report ranking evidence of university’s culture of inventive thinking

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.

For the fourth year in a row, Arizona State University has been named the most innovative school in the nation, recognizing the university’s culture of groundbreaking research and partnerships, as well as its commitment to helping students thrive in college and beyond.

U.S. News and World Report has named ASU as the most innovative university all four years the category has existed. The widely publicized annual rankings by the magazine, which compares more than 1,500 institutions on a variety of metrics, was released today.

ASU again topped the list based on a survey of peers. College presidents, provosts and admissions deans around the country nominated up to 15 schools that are making the most innovative improvements to curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities.

“More than simply tallying the innovative things we do, this ranking recognizes ASU’s innovation mindset,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “It acknowledges something important about who we are and who we will continue to be: a university that brings diverse intellects together to solve the most pressing issues of our time.”  

Video by Deanna Dent, Jamie Ell and Ken Fagan/ASU Now

After ASU, the second and third most innovative universities were Georgia State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Georgia State, which moved up to second place after being ranked fourth last year, shares a mission with ASU of creating greater access to higher education.

As part of the University Innovation Alliance — a coalition of 11 major public research universities across the country co-founded by ASU and chaired by Crow, committed to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the U.S. — Georgia State has focused on helping low-income students graduate by creating a safety net of intensive advising, data analysis and targeted financial help.

Stanford University fell from second place last year to fifth this year. Rounding out the top 10 list of most innovative schools is Georgia Institute of Technology, which came in fourth, followed by Stanford, Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, Northeastern, the University of Maryland–Baltimore County and the University of Central Florida.

The magazine said it was publishing the ranking for the fourth time “so high-ranking college officials could pick schools that the public should be watching because of the cutting-edge changes being made on their campuses.”

In other U.S. News and World Report rankings:

  • ASU ranked 11th in the country for undergraduate teaching, also a category based on peer surveys. In recent years, ASU has expanded the use of adaptive learning, a personalized method of teaching that combines online and classroom work to ensure that students master concepts before moving on.
  • The supply-chain program in the W. P. Carey School of Business was ranked second best in the nation, up from fourth last year, behind Michigan State and ahead of MIT, Pennsylvania State University­ and Ohio State University.
  • In addition, the magazine again designated ASU as an “A+ School for B Students,” a list that is not ranked. Schools on the list had to admit a meaningful proportion of applicants whose test scores and class standing put them in non-A territory but whose freshman retention rate was at least 75 percent. ASU’s freshman retention rate has hit 85 percent, higher than the nationwide average and nearly 11 percentage points higher than 15 years ago.

The “most innovative school” ranking wasn’t the result of any one specific program. Innovation has become part of ASU’s culture over the years. In 2014, the Starbucks College Achievement Plan was launched, offering full tuition reimbursement to Starbucks employees who pursue an online degree through ASU. The Global Freshman Academy debuted the next year, allowing students to take online classes for a small fee and decide after completion whether they want to pay for the credits.

Last year, ASU opened the Fulton Schools Residential Community at Tooker House, a dorm for engineering students with a maker lab and “smart campus” technologies including Amazon Echo Dot devices, making it the first voice-enabled residence hall at a university.

And in an innovative relationship, ASU joined forces with the global sports apparel firm adidas to form the Global Sport Alliance and Global Sport Institute, which will explore topics including diversity and race, sustainability and human potential through sport.

The renovation of Sun Devil Stadium has been guided by the concept that the facility will be a resource for the community every day throughout the year.

ASU has broken ground in several areas over the past year:

The university built and opened its first net zero energy building — a building that uses no more energy than it creates. It is the Student Pavilion on the Tempe campus, home to offices, meeting rooms and the headquarters of the Undergraduate Student Government and the Council of Coalitions.

In partnerships, ASU has joined with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a new master’s fellowship designed to increase diversity among museum professionals. The first-of-its-kind, three-year program combines coursework with a job at LACMA or the ASU Art Museum in addition to mentorship by curators and faculty so students can accelerate their careers.

ASU partnered with the National World War II Museum to offer an online master’s degree in World War II studies taught by scholars from both institutions. History enthusiasts can take noncredit online courses through the program as well.

ASU is the first university to offer a virtual-reality biology lab for online students, who use headsets to manipulate DNA and complete dissections.

Earlier this year, ASU won a national award for creating a program to allow more first-generation college students to study abroad by offering scholarships and other support.

Research by ASU’s faculty and students have worked to provide real-life solutions. In the spring, students in the School of Sustainability partnered with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies in a program to get spring training fans more enthusiastic about decreasing the amount of garbage at the stadium.

Last month, an ASU team of researchers made nationwide news when they published research finding that millions of consumers are contributing to plastic pollution in the ocean by discarding contact lenses down the drain.

“This recognition is a reflection of ASU's outstanding students, faculty and staff and their innovative spirit along with their commitment to advancing knowledge to have a significant, societal impact,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “ASU continues to pursue its mission of making higher education accessible at an unprecedented scale, all while maintaining the very highest levels of excellence.” 

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now