MSES student awarded Graduate Student Senate travel grant

M.C. Tilton |
Whitman stands next to one of the signs marking the Maromizaha forest boundary. The sign depicts a lemur of the species Indri indri, the largest remaining lemur species. Multiple groups of Indri live in the Maromizaha forest.
Whitman stands next to one of the signs marking the Maromizaha forest boundary. The sign depicts a lemur of the species Indri indri, the largest remaining lemur species. Multiple groups of Indri live in the Maromizaha forest. Karie Whitman

Karie Whitman knew her professional development in Madagascar last summer was too fruitful to not return.  However, she also knew she would need to find significant financial support for future research. Thanks to a Graduate Student Senate travel grant, she is one step closer to that goal.

Whitman was recently awarded $500 to reimburse her international airfare from her first trip to Madagascar, which she visited following her first year as a student of the Voinovich School’s Master of Science in Environmental Studies program. Whitman spent a month there learning about and helping with sustainable rice agriculture and alternative livelihood practices like fish farming and beekeeping. She stayed with a local host family next to the field site chosen for her in the village of Anevoka – a village that would change her perspectives forever.

The organization that organizes the alternative livelihood opportunities is called GERP (Groupe d'Étude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar) and members of the villages surrounding the forest choose to participate in these opportunities.

“While I was there, I shadowed a Peace Corps member and members of GERP to find out how they work with community members to achieve sustainability goals,” Whitman said. “It was a very eye-opening experience.”

Madagascar is considered a biodiversity hotspot, and the forest Whitman stayed near includes 13 species of lemurs alone. Rice agriculture is common around the forest, and GERP and the Peace Corps are promoting a sustainable method of agriculture that increases productivity while decreasing deforestation.

Whitman was able to interact with owners of these small rice fields, and when they found out she had a GPS, they asked if she could help them find out how large their fields were. 

“It was my first international experience, and it was difficult because in the USA we consume so much more than in Anevoka,” Whitman said. “The family I stayed with had only two rooms and they gave one of them to me. It taught me a lot about living with less, which is what we have to learn to do to live sustainably.”

Whitman’s everyday experiences were some of her most memorable. For shower water, her host family filled their biggest pot and boiled it, which showed her she didn’t need the massive amounts of water used in American showers. Most meals consisted of rice with a meat or vegetable.

When outsiders visit the forest, locals can offer guide services and home stays in exchange for money. In the case of Whitman’s host family, the extra income was used to send their oldest daughter to middle school.

The American dollar is worth 3,000 Malagasy ariary. Each night’s stay cost 5,000 ariary, while daily food cost about 8,000 ariary. Hiring a local guide for a day cost 10,000 ariary.

“My life is different now because I have friends on the other side of the world,” Whitman said. “I became very close with my host family and learned some Malagasy language and culture from them.”

When Whitman fell ill with traveler’s sickness, she had to take a taxi bus to the nearest city to be treated.  A missionary pediatrician gave her a shot and medicine for 8,000 ariary.  Whitman then discovered how expensive medical treatment would be for locals, especially those with more serious issues.

“My Malagasy hosts were extremely kind toward guests in general, but I didn’t want to impose,” Whitman said. “Sometimes it was hard to figure out how to participate without causing my hosts more work.”

Whitman received her bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan, and is a native of Hartland, Michigan. She hopes to work for a non-governmental organization abroad after graduating from the Voinovich School.

Whitman intends to continue applying for grants and is eager to return to Madagascar next summer to begin her own research there. She hopes to investigate the benefits of ecotourism in the Anevoka region and the impact of more community-based conservation projects.

“My instruction at Ohio University was very valuable in preparing me for the trip,” Whitman said. “I have definitely taken everything I learned abroad into my second year with me.”

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The "Maromizaha" sign near GERP's base office and the Peace Corps member's house in Anevoka.
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