Aug. 9, 2007
By David Forster
Since his first trip to Ghana six years ago, Phil Allman had been searching for a way to return and do research in a region where very little is known about sea turtles. A Fulbright seemed like the answer, especially given Ohio University students' strong record of landing them. After spending 10 months in Ghana, he is now working to ensure his research and conservation efforts are carried on. This story appeared in the spring 2007 issue of Ohio Today.
A story handed down through generations tells of how giant sea turtles helped a West African tribe survive a war by coming to the rescue at a pivotal moment. Now the turtles need the tribe to return the favor.
The seven species of sea turtles worldwide are in trouble. Six are considered endangered; the other is threatened. The chief threats to their survival are man-made: fishing, hunting, pollution and habitat loss.
Little was known about sea turtles until an American researcher took an interest in the 1950s and devoted his life's work to advocating for their protection. In the decades since, researchers have fanned out to locations around the globe where sea turtles feed or breed. The west coast of northcentral Africa, however, remains what one expert called a black hole in sea turtle research.
Phil Allman is changing that. Allman, who earned his doctorate in biological sciences at Ohio University last year, won a Fulbright grant to spend 10 months in Ghana studying sea turtles along a stretch of beach in Ada Foah, about an hour-and-a-half drive east of the capital city of Accra. He is among the first researchers to study sea turtle populations in this region, and his work is considered an important first step in developing a conservation plan.
Allman chose Ghana over the more popular locations for turtle research specifically because it has been overlooked.
"I felt like getting into West Africa and getting some of this information would make more of an impact than if I chose another part of the world," he says. "I felt like I could come in and, in a short amount of time, really make a difference."
Yet Allman knows the long-term survival of sea turtles here and elsewhere on the planet depends not on the work of outsiders like him, but on whether research and conservation efforts are embraced locally. He has been working on that, too.
"If Phil can get the people educated and informed early on, he has a strong conservation role he can play," says Dave Owens, a professor and sea turtle researcher at the College of Charleston (S.C.) and past president of the International Sea Turtle Society.
This is Allman's second trip to Ghana; he first heard about sea turtles' prevalence there while on a vacation in 2001. Yet his interest in these creatures began years earlier with an undergraduate internship spent tagging loggerheads on Bald Head Island, off the coast of North Carolina. He later worked for a state agency monitoring sea turtles in southwest Florida and tagged leatherbacks in Costa Rica during an internship with a leading sea turtle research center.
All of this fieldwork made Allman a strong candidate for a Fulbright, a highly competitive grant that finances U.S. students' research, study or teaching in other countries.
The Fulbright selection committee also may have been impressed by Allman's passion for wildlife conservation. It certainly stood out to his Ph.D. adviser.
"Of all the graduate students I've had, he has the most sincere conviction with regard to the importance of conservation, not just for turtles but in a very broad sense," says Willem Roosenburg, an associate professor of biological sciences.
Roosenburg recalls that while Allman was a doctoral student in Athens, he heard that salamanders in nearby Zaleski State Forest were being run over on the highway while crossing between the uplands where they live and the wetlands where they breed. Allman rounded up a group of students to stand roadside and document the numbers of salamanders trying to cross. He then contacted the Ohio Department of Transportation and lobbied for construction of a tunnel under the road to give the salamanders safe passage.
"He's not just an armchair conservation biologist. He goes and finds out the solution and works as hard as he can to accomplish that goal," Roosenburg says. "Phil's going to make a huge contribution wherever he goes or whatever he does."
Since that first trip to Ghana six years ago, Allman had been thinking about a way to return and conduct research in a region where so little is known about the sea turtle population. A Fulbright seemed like the ticket, especially given Ohio University's track record.
Allman's proposal was an "exquisite intersection" of his already strong background in sea turtle research and the obvious need for study in Ghana, says Beth Clodfelter, who helps shepherd Ohio University students' Fulbright applications through the process. Plus, he had the support of key officials in Ghana, which was critical because host countries have the final say on Fulbright applications. "It was something that people in Ghana wanted to see happen," she says.
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