Protecting the welfare of both animals and humans by analyzing and building relationships

The species ranges of most large carnivores in Africa have shrunk considerably in recent decades, due mainly to habitat conversion associated with growing human populations. Carnivore numbers are also declining rapidly due to their active persecution by local ranchers and pastoralists on whose livestock the carnivores sometimes prey. Dr. Kay Holekamp of Michigan State University aims to decrease or eliminate carnivore persecution by reducing livestock depredation, documenting the resource needs of large carnivores residing in the Masai Mara National Reserve, and teaching pastoralist children about the importance of the persistence of large carnivores for the long-term welfare of their own communities.

Conservation of large mammalian carnivores is a top national priority in Kenya; most tourists come to Kenya specifically to see these animals in their natural habitat, and tourism is Kenya's second most important source of foreign exchange after agriculture. Large carnivores thus effectively represent a critical source of revenue and employment in Kenya. The long-term welfare of all Kenyans is closely tied to the successful conservation of Kenya's large carnivores. Furthermore, when large carnivores are removed from ecosystems, cascades of worrisome events start to occur, indicating that nature is out of balance. This is precisely where Dr. Holekamp's research makes its greatest contribution; her research team is uniquely positioned to learn more about the demography, movements, and conflict with humans of the carnivore species in most urgent need of protection in eastern Africa so that we as a society can conserve these extraordinary animals for future generations.

Dr. Holekamp's areas of impact include:

  • Conservation Efforts: The long-term goal of Dr. Holekamp's research is to conserve and protect Africa's carnivores. The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in eastern Africa is one of the only places left on earth where a complex guild of mammalian predators remains intact. The guild contains lions, hyenas, cheetah, leopards, wild dogs, and many smaller species; these are some of the most magnificent and interesting creatures on earth. Because large carnivores provide so many critical ecosystem services, their removal often has devastating effects on entire ecosystems. Therefore, Dr. Holekamp and her team have been conducting daily ecological monitoring from 4-wheel-drive research vehicles in the Mara since early 1988. Their most immediate goals are to determine why carnivore numbers are declining, and to halt this decline by collecting continual data about the habits and demography of the carnivore species currently in decline. They also hope to deploy camera traps in local pastoralist villages to identify which individual predators are killing livestock so that these individuals can be translocated elsewhere. At present, instead of targeting the culprit carnivore in cases of livestock depredation, local pastoralists conduct mass poisonings that kill a wide array of animals, but large carnivores are particularly hard-hit. Therefore, Dr. Holekamp and her team work closely with leaders of the Masai communities surrounding the Reserve to help them improve their husbandry techniques to reduce depredation by wild carnivores.

  • Analyzing Mammalian Behavior: As part of the conservation effort, Dr. Holekamp and her research team routinely monitor movements of individual carnivores by immobilizing and fitting them with radio collars and tracking them via GPS technology. The team would monitor the animals' growth, take blood for performing serological analysis to observe their disease exposure, and collect fecal matter from which the team can assay concentrations of stress hormones as well as learn about their diet and parasite loads. Dr. Holekamp and her team also study membership in social groups for each species, and track changes in group size, as well as sources of mortality, while recording all births, deaths, immigration and emigration.

  • The Spotted Hyena: Dr. Holekamp and her students have been working with wild spotted hyenas in Kenya for many years. The hyenas are particularly fascinating because they appear to violate so many different "rules" of mammalian biology. For example, their females look and act more like males than 'normal' mammalian females, and they do not succumb to the same diseases that kill other mammals living in the same habitat with them. Dr. Holekamp believes that, by studying these animals as apparent exceptions, we can discover what the "rules" really are, and also gain insight into the evolution of social behavior and social cognition in mammals.

Dr. Kay Holekamp worked as a keeper at the St. Louis Zoo when she was a high school senior, and that experience taught her that she wanted a career involving the study of animal behavior. Although she originally thought she'd be happy working as a zoo curator, when she conducted the fieldwork for her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Dr. Holekamp discovered how much more rich and varied the lives are of wild than captive animals. Dr. Holekamp's favorite pastime is watching animals behave in their natural habitats, and trying to figure out why they are doing what they are doing.

After conducting her Ph.D. and postdoctoral work on various rodents in California, Dr. Holekamp had an opportunity to start a study of wild spotted hyenas in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya in the 1980s. She went to Kenya in early 1988, thinking she would conduct a dissertation-length project there with the hyenas, then move on to work on another mammal, perhaps a dolphin or a wild primate. However, the hyenas turned out to be so fascinating that Dr. Holekamp and her students continue to study them to this day. During her 27 years of watching hyenas in the wild, Dr. Holekamp has seen many worrisome changes in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, even inside the national parks where she works. Dr. Holekamp and her team have documented significant declines in numbers of herbivores and lions in the Mara since 1988, and that has caused Dr. Holekamp to turn her attention to the conservation of Kenya's large carnivores. She and her team initiated research focusing on lions, cheetahs, and other carnivores in 2002. It has become clear to her that, without learning more about their behavior, their resource needs, their demography and their interactions with humans and livestock, the future looks very bleak indeed for these magnificent animals.

Dr. Holekamp is an avid outdoors person; when she is not with the animals and her team in the wild, you can find her scuba diving or traveling across the world. She has traveled to more than 40 countries around the globe including Morocco, Nepal, Tonga, and the countries along the Amazon. She has performed extensive work in the Amazon and east Africa in particular, and the areas of her impact continue to expand.

Website: and research blog:

Elected member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2015

Elected American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow, 2013

Recipient Smith College Medal, 2013

Named University Distinguished Professor, Michigan State University, 2009

College of Natural Science Distinguished Faculty Award, Michigan State University, 2007

University Distinguished Faculty Award, Michigan State University, 2006