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.
Ruyle is an associate research scientist with the Bush School of Government and Public Service and assistant director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs. She has devoted her career to tackling problems of conservation and human-wildlife coexistence in areas of the world experiencing extreme conflicts. Her research focuses on big questions like, “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—often with Aggie students in tow. 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.
In 2016, Ruyle brought together Texas A&M faculty members Dr. Amanda Stronza from Texas A&M AgriLife and Rodney Boehm from the College of Engineering, along with a multidisciplinary student team, to complete a human-wildlife conflict project in Botswana, where elephants were causing damage to local farmers’ property and crops. “You don’t have to see elephants in Botswana to know they’re everywhere—the dried dung on the ground is evidence enough,” Ruyle said.
That spells trouble for local farmers, who must protect their crops from these hungry foragers. Ruyle’s team worked with Botswanan university students and farmers on how to improve their wildlife deterrent methods. One local solution? “Chili bombs.”
The recipe is simple: half crushed chilies and half elephant dung mixed with water. The contents are then dried, and a small dent is made in the top of the bomb. 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.
It’s exactly the kind of solution Ruyle seeks to find when confronting issues of conservation: It improves the lot 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. “It takes a village to create meaningful solutions that inspire long-lasting changes in these communities,” she said.
Another example of Ruyle’s work lies in the launch of EC3, an entrepreneurship hub in the Congo that’s designed to give locals more economic opportunities. The goal of EC3 is to understand how Entrepreneurship is different in a region of Conflict, with limited Connectivity and Conservation concerns.
“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 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.’”
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. 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.
In every case she’s worked on, Ruyle challenges her colleagues and students to think about problems in new ways. She’s taking Aggies out of their bubbles and giving them a global mindset. “I love working with students and opening up their worlds,” she said. “It’s great to see their brains at work when problem-solving.”