Southwood Prize 2021: early career researcher winner announced

We’re excited to announce Chinmay Sonawane as the winner of this year’s Southwood Prize, celebrating the best paper by an early career researcher in the 2021 (58th) volume of Journal of Applied Ecology.

Chinmay’s winning paper is Public health and economic benefits of spotted hyenas Crocuta crocuta in a peri-urban system.

About the research

Research on interactions between people and wildlife has traditionally concentrated on the negative impacts on human life. To flip this narrative, our research explored a case study of how animals provide tangible benefits to humanity. Aligning conservation and human development goals in such a manner can mediate coexistence between local communities and wildlife.

In their winning paper, Sonawane and colleagues studied why spotted hyena presence has been tolerated in urban areas of East Africa for at least the last 500 years of recorded history. These hyenas often reside on the outskirts of cities and villages during the day, and scavenge through the organic waste discarded by people inside the city during the night.

By observing hyena feeding and recording the hyena population size in Mekelle, Ethiopia, we estimated that these hyenas annually consume 207 tonnes of livestock carcass waste. Furthermore, by integrating this field data into disease transmission models, we found that hyena scavenging in Mekelle prevented 145 anthrax and bovine TB infections in humans and livestock, and saves over USD 50,000 in treatment and livestock loss costs each year.

Video credits: Chinmay Sonwane

Due to these substantial sanitation and disease control services, local people tolerate the presence of hyenas in their communities. We also argue that these public health and economic benefits of hyenas contribute to achieving three of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: ensuring good health and wellbeing, providing clean water and sanitation, and promoting terrestrial biodiversity.

Valuations of the beneficial contributions from wildlife promote innovative “nature-based solutions” to societal challenges, and bridge conservation and development goals in rural and low-income areas. Studies doing so are rare, and in an increasingly urbanising world, human-wildlife conflict is only expected to increase. Thus, understanding how the ecological functions of wildlife provide tangible benefits to humanity can mediate coexistence between local communities and potentially problematic species.

About the winner

Chinmay Sonawane - JPE winner

Chinmay is currently a first-year PhD student and a Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University. the ecology and evolution of animal behaviour: how do ecological interactions shape behavioural adaptations, and how do these behavioural adaptations consequently affect ecosystems, including human communities?

This paper tackles the second question on how the scavenging behaviour of spotted hyenas benefits humanity and based on Chinmay’s undergraduate thesis, which was guided by Prof. Neil Carter (University of Michigan) and Prof. David Haig (Harvard University).

The winning article, Public health and economic benefits of spotted hyenas Crocuta crocuta in a peri-urban system along with the other shortlisted papers are free to read for a limited time in this virtual issue.

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