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Adventuring in the name of biology

By Eileen Chen

February 24, 2005 9:00 pm

Whoever said biological research is cut and dry has not set up
pitfall traps to catch lizards in Cameroon or tagged them using
tattoos in the Bahamas.

The graduate students of the Center for Tropical Research have
studied all over the world, with all types of people and with all
different species.

Yet all the students share a common interest ““ to find the
link between evolutionary biology and conservation biology through
research.

Adam Freedman, a graduate student researching lizards under the
guidance of Tom Smith, professor of organismic biology, ecology and
evolution, and the Center for Tropical Research, of which Smith is
the director, has experienced a multitude of Cameroonian
adventures.

From snakes to uncooperative border police to a mob of drunken
tribesmen, Freedman has seen it all.

He first heard of the Center for Tropical Research in 2000, when
he ran across some of Smith’s work in Cameroon.

Now, five years later, Freedman plans to fly today to Cameroon
for the second time to further his study of lizards, under the
advisory of Smith.

“My take is that we live in a time when there is global
and rainforest change due to human impact,” Freedman said.
“So we need to understand and conserve variation while we
can.”

These variations in lizards are both genetic and plastic.
Plastic variations result from predator and food pressures, on top
of deforestation, said Erin Marnocha, a graduate student studying
lizards in the Bahamas.

Cameroon is an ecotone region ““ a region which overlaps
the rainforest and savannah. Ecotones are evolutionarily important
because species are shown to be dissimilar from species within the
rainforest, Smith said.

The country is a great place to study biodiversity because the
northern region is grasslands and the southern region is
rainforests, Freedman said.

But that does not necessarily make studying in Cameroon easy.
“Before we start research, we have to ask the village chief
for permission to work in their neighboring forests,”
Freedman said. Most of them are cooperative and accommodating with
the “man from America driving a shiny truck.”

Considered “his son in America” by the chief of
Nkouk, Freedman has wined and dined tribal chiefs and politicians
to the extent that in one day, “I had two boxes of wine in
the morning before I could go and measure the lizards.”

But there are times when permission from the chief is not enough
to warrant a safe journey into the forest and back.

On one particular trip, Freedman said he and Princewill
Tamón, his assistant, were driving back from a day’s
research when they ran into a drunken mob from a village that had
blockaded the road and threatened to torch his truck.

The two in the truck explained to the mob that they had
permission from their chief to work in the forest, but the crowd
was unimpressed, Freedman added.

Apparently, a village under the chief’s direction was in
conflict with the tribal elders and did not care that Freedman and
Tamón were cleared to use the roads.

“No amount of negotiation would change their minds,”
Freedman said.

Finally, Tamón flashed out his forestry badge as if it were
a Cameroonian government badge and started yelling angrily. He
threatened to bring the police if they were not let through.

“He put on this huge show of stomping and flashing his
badge,” Freedman said. Some of the villagers bought the act
and opened up the blockade, and the two sped off as quickly as
possible.

To this day, Freedman acknowledges his assistant saved the day.
They haven’t been back to the village to study lizards since
the incident, despite invitations from the tribal chief.

The villagers’ responses to Freedman’s arrivals are
varied, with some happy for work and others suspicious of his
motives.

“I even had a tribal chief try to sell me elephant tusks
in a request for permission to work in his village,” shared
Freedman.

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Eileen Chen
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