Long term study over forty years of the Serenegeti, creating a detailed picture of one of the world's oldest relatively intact ecosystems.
"We know that it is no longer sufficient to save individual species; it is instead necessary to preserve intact assemblages of species and their habitats as functioning ecosystems."
Tony Sinclair's life history is, as he says himself, "somewhat more unusual than the average." He spent his early childhood in the African bush in Tanzania, around the coastal city of Dar es Salaam. He showed an early interest in his surroundings, playing with the local African kids and learning the Swahili language. He collected dung beetles to keep as pets, and his young African friends showed him where he could find chameleons, the lizard-like reptiles that can change colour to match their surroundings.
When he was ten years old, his parents sent him off to boarding school in England. He soon realized that although he liked England, he preferred Africa, and wanted to go back and work with animals. He decided to work towards a degree in zoology, and entered Oxford University in 1963.
Within three days at Oxford, he had convinced Professor Arthur Cain, an evolutionist with an interest in Africa, to include him on an expedition to the Serengeti. The trip was to take place in a year or two. In the meantime, Sinclair organized an expedition of his own, and in the summer of 1964 he and three others went to Turkey to study bird migration routes.
At the end of his second year in Oxford, he was finally able to get back to Africa where he spent four months in the Serengeti studying bird migration. He returned to England, and after graduating and getting married, he moved back to the Serengeti on a NATO Scholarship, and was handed the task of discovering why the African buffalo population was rapidly increasing. He stayed there for seven of the next eight years, returning to Oxford only to write his PhD thesis.
Living and working in the Serengeti became difficult for researchers in the early 1970s when the politics in East Africa suddenly changed. Researchers were no longer welcome or safe. Concerned for the security of his wife and young children, Sinclair accepted an offer to move to the city of Darwin on the north coast of Australia. His job there was to work on the conservation of native Australian wildlife, whose population was under pressure from introduced predators such as the red fox and feral cat.
Sinclair was in Darwin for less than a year before it was destroyed in a cyclone, and his job along with it. At about the same time though, he was offered a job as an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, which he accepted. He moved to Canada in 1975, where he has lived ever since.
He was soon able to resume his work in Africa, and since the late 1970s he has spent a few months every year in the Serengeti organizing and conducting research. He is interested in the large scale view of entire ecosystems; how they function, what keeps them from falling apart, and what causes them to fall apart.
He has played an integral role in Serengeti research over the past forty years. In early December of 1991, with funding from various agencies including Canada's Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), he organized and conducted a workshop in Seronera, the research station located in the center of the park. The participants in the workshop, all scientists interested in different aspects of the Serengeti ecosystem, built a computerized model of the reserve. Using software developed at UBC, they included not only parameters such as rainfall levels and numbers of predators, but also the effects of human activity on the system, such as poaching, tourism, and health care levels of the local people. The resulting model was a first attempt to make predictions of the future of the Serengeti ecosystem, based on a large-scale, science-based overview of the entire park.
The process brought together a group of researchers who had for the most part been working independently of each other, and had never before collaborated with each other. They were able to start seeing their work in a new way, and to see how the whole system fit together. The model allowed them to see where more detailed work needed to be done and for many of them, it opened up new avenues of research.
Dr. Sinclair has produced three books on the Serengeti, has just finished a forth (Fall, 2006) and plans to have a fifth. Each one is a collection of papers written by various scientists, and each covers a different time period in the life of the reserve and his time there.
His work is not limited to the Serengeti. He has also worked with Charles Krebs in the Yukon doing a 20 year study of the population dynamics of the snowshoe hare, and has conducted a large amount of work in Australia and New Zealand designing conservation experiments.
Nearing the age of retirement, Sinclair has bought some land on the shore of Lake Victoria near the western boundary of the Serengeti National Park, and will be building a house there. He will be sharing it with Simon Mduma, who is the head of all Tanzanian research in the Serengeti. When he retires, Sinclair plans to live there much of the year and act as a technical advisor, with free access to the Serengeti to conduct his research, and to just be in the land he loves.
Author: Jeff Schering
Sinclair, A.R.E. and M. Norton-Griffiths (eds.). Serengeti: Dynamics of an Ecosystem. Chicago University Press, 389 pages. (1979). 2nd ed. (1995).Sinclair, A.R.E. and P. Arcese (eds.). Serengeti II: Dynamics, Management and Conservation of an Ecosystem. Chicago University Press. (1995).
Sinclair, A.R.E., Craig Packer, Simon A.R. Mduma and John M. Fryxell. (eds). Serengeti III: Human impacts on ecosystem dynamics. Chicago University Press. 2006.
Packer, C. Into Africa. Chicago University Press. (1994).
Interview with Tony Sinclair on Radio Canada International (RCI) on Feb 4, 2005. Interview starts at time 3:30.