Ever since she was a child growing up near the water, Duquesne University graduate student Charlotte Hacker has been fascinated by how people co-exist with the fragile natural environments around them.
Thanks in part to her fascination, Hacker was recently awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study an at-risk population of snow leopards in their natural habit of Qinghai province, a mountainous and sparsely populated region in China.
A third-year doctoral student, Hacker will study the eating habits of snow leopards in the region. One particular issue in the province is that snow leopards have been eating herders' livestock when they can't find food. Livestock loss causes large financial burdens for herders, promotes negative attitudes toward carnivores and prompts retaliatory killings. Snow leopards typically eat larger wild ungulates, such as blue sheep.
"We will research why snow leopards are eating livestock, if it's happening seasonally and discover what else they are eating to work toward finding appropriate solutions for human-wildlife conflict mitigation," said Hacker, who became interested in snow leopards while working with Duquesne Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Dr. Jan Janecka, who has studied the animals for more than a decade.
To understand snow leopards' diets, Hacker will work with the local community to collect scat, or feces droppings, and then use scat DNA to determine what the animals are eating. She said involving the local community in her work is essential to conservation efforts.
"It's important to have local conservation stewards who understand the environment and culture of the region," she said, noting that she will conduct some conservation training while in the province. "For example, the predominant religion in Qinghai province is Tibetan Buddhism, which reveres snow leopards. Understanding how religion influences the culture also impacts conservation strategies."
A native of Dover, Delaware, Hacker has studied elephant behavior in Africa and worked at the San Diego and Toledo zoos. But she finds snow leopards particularly fascinating due to their adaptive nature.
"They are striking animals in their dexterity and movement," she said. "Living in high altitudes and cold weather, snow leopards adapt well in their environment and are especially good at camouflaging themselves. You could be looking directly at one and not know it."
Hacker credits Duquesne's faculty and fellow graduate students in the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences for supporting her efforts.
"The faculty is very diverse which helps me to think about science differently and consider other approaches to my research," she said. "It's like a small family. They gave me the confidence to apply for grants in my first year as a doctoral student, and with that grant I made my first trip to China."
As a Fulbright Scholar, Hacker will begin her fourth trip to China in June and is looking forward to it.
"It's very challenging work in a challenging environment," she said. "It helps me figure out my own strengths and weaknesses as a scientist and a global citizen."