School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Sandra McCubbin

PhD candidate in Geography

Sandra McCubbin

Studying human-lion relations with the help of a Vanier Scholarship

By Natalia Mukhina, July 2016

Sandra McCubbin, a PhD candidate in Geography, looks happy and excited. One of the 2016 recipients of a prestigious Vanier Scholarship, she is inspired by the fact that her research will be supported by such a powerful award. To carry out her research, Sandra will need to cover a distance of almost 13,000 km, making a long trip to Africa. There, in Botswana, she will spend about eight months studying human-lion relations.   

It will not be the first time Sandra has thrust herself so far for research. She completed ethnographic research for her Master’s degree in Tuvalu, which is a remote country in the middle of the Pacific, experiencing serious challenges because of climate change. “I always have been interested in studying environmental issues,” says Sandra.

McCubbin started her university journey with Biology at the University of Guelph. While progressing in her undergraduate years, Sandra came to the conclusion that in order to understand and resolve environmental issues, people need to understand deeply the social side of life. That brought her to geography. Reflecting on this move, Sandra says that the Queen's Department of Geography and Planning is an optimal place to adopt a more critical geographical perspective. “I want to explore the idea of power in critical geography,” explains Sandra, “and reflect on how power impacts our perceptions of environmental issues.”

Sandra’s newest project will involve a research focus on those whom she calls a “marginalized social group.” We have gotten used to hearing this definition in relation to human beings, but Sandra means the African lions who live in human-dominated landscapes. Botswana is a place where people and lions live in a neighbourhood, and this country is also the site of intense human-lion conflict. It is a conflict in which both sides take losses. How to prevent them, or at least reduce them? To address this issue, Sandra aspires to grasp the nature of human-lion relations in Botswana, and find out the possibilities for enhanced coexistence.

In Botswana, Sandra will undergo a set of in-depth interviews with various groups of informants who are engaged in interactions with lions. “It will be the farmers who live near lions, as well as the biologists who know the lions really well; people from the government. And, surely, the tourists who come to Botswana, attracted its wildlife.”

What Sandra finds the most challenging in her project has nothing to do with the possible dangers of doing fieldwork in a place where lions and other predators live with people. Rather, she sees the main challenge in the intellectual work. “I am encouraged by this chance to design my project from the very beginning. Right now I am really immersing myself in the literature and trying to develop the project theoretically, conceptually, and methodologically from scratch. It is really fun, but challenging,” smiles Sandra.

Could the studying of human-animal relations contribute to a better understanding of relations between human beings? “Absolutely,” agrees Sandra. “Some people could ask me why study the conflicts with animals when there are so many injustices and conflicts between humans. For me, the politics of oppression and the marginalization of some human groups are linked to that of animals. And the efforts to resist these oppressions are also linked. I am trying to unpack power relations within human-lion relations, because human-animal conflict can tell us a lot about human-human conflict. That is how I frame this issue on my own.”

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