School of Life Sciences

Deaf zoologist and PhD graduate, Dr Nancy Barker, collars a lioness as part of her PhD research into the movement ecology of lions and spotted hyenas within southern African protected areas and wildlife management regions.

Deaf Zoologist Earns PhD in First for Conservation Sciences and UKZN

‘This is a one-of-a-kind case of UKZN Inspiring Greatness!’

These words by Professor Albert Modi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, reflect the Institution’s pride in conferring a PhD in Biology on its first Deaf doctoral graduate, Dr Nancy Barker.

A Canadian by birth who has made southern Africa her home for the past 11 years, Barker was awarded a PhD for her research on the concurrent spatiotemporal ecology of African lions and spotted hyenas and the potential for inter- and intraspecific interactions in semi-arid and wetland ecosystems.  She was supervised by Professors Rob Slotow and Wayne Getz.

‘I wanted to work with Professor Getz for his home range and movement analyses of wildlife, and with Professor Slotow for his expert knowledge in carnivore ecology,’ said Barker.  ‘Since Professor Getz was an adjunct faculty of UKZN, it made perfect sense for me to do my PhD at UKZN under two of the people that I most wanted to work with.’

‘Nancy worked effectively in the field in Etosha, Chobe and Okavango, collaring and following lions and spotted hyenas to study the spatiotemporal relationships between them,’ said Slotow.

‘Lions and hyenas exploit different behavioural strategies with fine-scale segregation in space and time, enabling them to co-exist. This assists conservation of the two apex predators in a way that ensures the ecological integrity of the systems in which they occur.’

‘My research analysed the movement patterns of lions and spotted hyenas in various ecosystems ranging from semi-arid savannas in Namibia to riverine and floodplains in the Okavango Delta of Botswana,’ explained Barker.  ‘Firstly, we wanted to understand the differences and similarities between the two species in how they move through and use different habitats across the landscape, so that we can better understand how these two species’ movement and space use patterns influence and impact each another.

‘This is important as lions and spotted hyenas are Africa’s largest predators that compete for the same resources.  Because apex predators regulate the animals that live within wild areas, this is relevant for the conservation of functioning and healthy ecosystems as we shift into a world of decreasing habitats for wildlife.

‘In addition to these challenges, increasing climatic variability brings added stresses through changes in the environment that may prompt these species to seek resources elsewhere, potentially increasing the chances of human wildlife conflict as they move into human-dominated landscapes.’

Barker said she had an affinity with animals from a very young age, especially carnivores.  ‘I find that I am able to understand the hidden language they speak through their bodies by how they position themselves or indicate their intentions with a flick of the ear or a twitch in their muscles,’ she explained.  ‘This affords me insight into their behaviour, and is an advantage in studying carnivores’ behaviour in the wild.

‘A big part of working with carnivores is understanding what factors influence their decisions on where to go and what to do.  Since everything in nature is connected and intertwined, it has always fascinated me to understand the dynamics between different carnivore species, especially when they are competing for the same resources,’ she said.

For her master’s degree with the University of Pretoria Barker examined the competition ecology between spotted hyenas and endangered brown hyenas in the Madikwe Game Reserve.  ‘I saw with great interest that lions had a significant impact on the interactions between the two species of hyenas I was studying,’ she said.  ‘It became clear to me that the potential of interactions with lions had far more of an impact on hyenas than was previously understood, and I wanted to be able to quantify the type of impact that their interactions had on each other.  What better way to do this than a PhD!’

Barker said her work had significant applications for wildlife conservation, as we move into a world of fragmented habitats and increasing land-use constraints on wildlife.  ‘My research highlights methods and tools for analysing dynamic interactions among coexisting species within a shared area, which can be used to inform the designated areas where wildlife can exist, and where best to connect different patches of habitats using wildlife corridors,’ she said.  ‘Designing such spaces in accordance with the space use patterns demonstrated by interacting species can preserve and sustain the natural movement ecology of coexisting wildlife species that interact with one another.’

Barker, who flew in to attend her graduation at UKZN, labelled it ‘the highest honour I will ever receive in my life.

‘It is an extremely special day not just for me but for Deaf people everywhere,’ she added.  ‘For UKZN, it is significant to be the first university to confer a doctoral degree on a Deaf zoologist in conservation sciences.  UKZN is the pioneer for such an unprecedented occasion. I am extremely proud to be able to achieve this moment as a UKZN graduate.’

Barker thanked all the teachers, family members, friends and mentors who played a role in her life journey.  She paid special tribute to her parents, who are both Deaf.  ‘My parents come from a time where sign language was looked down on and as a result, received very limited education training and support,’ she said.  ‘However, they provided me with full access to communication from the time I was born, and this was pivotal in providing me with the tools necessary to succeed in my education – to the point that I am obtaining a doctorate today!’

She plans to continue with wildlife research working with carnivores.  ‘I believe that research and education go hand in hand, and I would like to ensure that important research findings are not only disseminated to the scientific community, but also made accessible to everyone including Deaf communities worldwide by making this content available in sign language.’

The University arranged sign language interpretation services on the day so that Barker could understand and fully participate in her Graduation ceremony.

‘This is a special and significant occasion for Nancy and for our University,’ said Dean and Head of the School of Life Sciences, Professor Ade Olaniran.   ‘We proudly share in the excitement of her graduation.’

‘I am proud of my accomplishments,’ said Barker.  ‘It was a long and hard road.  However, I did not achieve this alone – many Deaf people sacrificed their dreams and desires before me and fought for my right to language and education. That helped to pave the way for me to be the first Deaf zoologist to be awarded a PhD in conservation sciences.

‘Although getting my doctorate has been a long-held goal, I see this not as the end, but merely the beginning of a new journey.

‘I would have preferred not to have been the first one, but now that it has been done, I hope that the path has been set, and that many more will follow.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Rajesh Jantilal and Supplied


Dr Nancy Barker was interviewed on Newsroom Africa