Feature Stories

Faculty Fieldwork

It Takes a Village

It Takes a Village

Dr. Leslie Ruyle is an ecologist and the assistant director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, housed in the Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Dr. Leslie Ruyle has traveled to more than 70 countries in her career, and yet her wanderlust motivates her to see even more of the globe. Since most of her travels have been in Africa and Latin America, Ruyle likes to joke about standing out from the crowd. “I’m a 6-foot-tall blonde woman, so naturally everyone assumes I’m a foreigner!” she laughed.

Luckily, that perception hasn’t held her back from making a huge impact on local populations in some of the world’s most conflict-afflicted areas. As an ecologist and assistant director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, housed in the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Ruyle studies the dynamics of conservation and development in areas facing environmental dilemmas, civil war or political unrest. Her work focuses on big questions: “How can conservation provide benefits to both humans and wildlife? How can development promote conservation and better lives for people? And how can we support entrepreneurship and economic development in regions of conflict and conservation concern?”

Ruyle’s pursuit of answers to these questions has taken her to the far reaches of the earth. She’s traveled with faculty to Nepal to study the impact of conflict on natural disaster resilience. She’s taken Aggies on high-impact trips to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to focus on issues of malnutrition in women and children and to conduct evaluations of educational programs for displaced youth. She’s worked with partners on human-wildlife conflict projects in Botswana, where elephants cause damage to local farmers’ property and crops. And she’s currently heading up an entrepreneurship hub in the Democratic Republic of the Congo designed at giving locals more economic opportunities.

Bringing Students into the Mix

Ruyle first came to Texas A&M University as a program coordinator for the interdisciplinary Applied Biodiversity Science Program in 2010. She eventually became the assistant director of the Center on Conflict and Development housed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which improves the effectiveness of programs and policies for conflict-affected and fragile countries through research and education.

In August 2017, she assumed her current position at the Scowcroft Institute, which fosters and disseminates policy-oriented research on international affairs by supporting faculty and student research, hosting international speakers and scholarly conferences, and providing grants to outside researchers. She also teaches courses at the Bush School and in the Department of Ecosystem Sciences and Management, particularly as relates to the role of women in international development, environmental conflict and natural resource policy.

As much as possible, she likes to bring her real-world projects to the classroom. She’s solicited the College of Engineering’s Aggies Invent program to have teams of students work on projects ranging from improving shea nut butter processes in Ghana to a project that uses drones to dart gorillas with tranquilizers to provide veterinary care. She also likes to pose policy-oriented questions to Bush School students. “I love working with students and opening up their worlds,” she said. “It’s great to see their brains at work when problem-solving.”  

Under Ruyle's leadership and in collaboration with Texas A&M's Ecoexist program, Aggie students work with Botswanan locals on human-elephant conflict mitigation strategies.

In 2016, she took an interdisciplinary team of students to Botswana to work with Texas A&M faculty members on human-elephant conflict mitigation strategies. The group helped improve current elephant deterrents such as chili-bombs, dried mixtures of spicy chilis and elephant dung. The bombs are placed around crop fields, lit with hot coals and left to burn for hours. The mixture gives off a spicy, pungent smell that offends elephants’ sensitive trunks and drives them away from crops. Beehive fencing is another commonly used method to keep elephants away from crops.

Aggie students have also played a role in an entrepreneurship program called EC3 that Ruyle launched last summer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The goal of EC3 is to understand how Entrepreneurship is different in a region of Conflict, limited Connectivity and Conservation concern. The test community for the program is on the border of Virunga National Park, an area where there are few paved roads and running water, electricity and internet connection is limited.

“The goal is to support entrepreneurs working under these conditions and understand the best way to create a collaborative and resilient system that supports their economic development and protects the environment around them,” Ruyle said. The first hub is known as Wakisha, which means ‘ignite’ in Swahili. It is based at the Christian Bilingual University of Congo. “It’s basically a business incubator,” Ruyle added. “We find people to invest in Wakisha, which in turn invests in the locals’ entrepreneurial ventures. The locals pitch their ideas to investors via a Shark Tank format that we call ‘Leopard’s Lair.’”

Leading by Example: Dr. Leslie Ruyle

Aggie students contributed to the program by developing an app to help local businesspeople with their finances and bookkeeping. Ruyle’s group has also built a co-working space where Wakisha participants can use computers, electricity and the internet. The program’s portfolio of supported entrepreneurs has a 50:50 gender balance, with 10 percent of businesses focused on social and community cohesion, such as film, music, fashion and sports. Other companies are focused on solar power, coffee, passion fruit juice, meat and egg production, restaurants and cleaning services.

Devising Practical Solutions

A final example of Ruyle’s conservation efforts lies in the interest of keeping human-hippo relations civil. As she noted, you don’t have to see hippos in northern Ghana to know they’re around—their grunting noises from the rivers is evidence enough. That spells trouble for local farmers, who must protect their crops from these hungry night-time foragers. The solution lies in creating a larger buffer zone in between rivers and local farms by planting more shea nut trees.

Shea nut trees grow well in the wild, so increasing the forest area around the river where hippos spend their days provides them more land to graze on and deters them from wandering onto farmers’ fields. This solution also creates value in the riverine forest area through shea nut butter production, an industry that supports many women in Ghana. The women harvest the fleshy green fruit that these trees produce, which contain the nut that shea butter comes from. Shea butter is a valuable resource that’s used in many moisturizers and beauty products worldwide.

It’s exactly the kind of solution Ruyle seeks to find when confronting issues of conservation: It improves the welfare of people, animals and the environment. When completing an international project, Ruyle is always concerned with ensuring that development comes from the bottom up. She believes it is imperative that local community members have a voice in the way things are done, instead of a top-down approach, which has oft been the paradigm in previous efforts. In other words, she notes, “It takes a village to create meaningful solutions that inspire long-lasting changes in these communities.”

To learn how you can support Bush School faculty researchers, contact Michael Bottiglieri '89 below.

Office Hours with Dr. Ruyle

What’s on your desk?
“A lot of wildlife stuff—a carved Komodo dragon, a 3-D-printed elephant, a stuffed chameleon and a papier-mâché hippo given to me by one of my students.”
What are your hobbies?
“Scuba diving, hiking, camping, reading and gardening.”
Where’s a country you would like to go?
“Every country I haven’t been to.”
What’s your favorite animal and why?
“I like so many...gorillas are fascinating because when they look at you, you want to know what they’re thinking about you.” 
If you could be remembered for one quality, what would it be?
“Ooh, good question. ‘Empowering’ feels overused, but ‘supportive’ isn’t strong enough. I strive to be a good mentor and focus on my students' strengths to help them build upon them.”