Careers in Conservation Conservation Interview

Day In The Life: Elephant Researcher

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Have a soft spot for elephants, and dream of working with them in some capacity one day?

Lucky for us, we have been fortunate enough to interview Victoria Boult, a Postgraduate Research Student in the UK who is doing just that!

We asked her a few questions about her work, her background, and how we can all help elephants. Here’s what she had to say.

What is your current title, and can you give us a brief description of it?

My current title is “Postgraduate Research Student” at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading. I am 6 months into my PhD, studying the application of new technologies to the management of African elephants. The aim of the project is to use remote sensing (or satellite imagery) to map the availability of food for elephants. Food availability is very important in determining elephant demographic rates (i.e. birth and death rates, population size and density) and also their ranging behaviours. So if we can map food availability over space and time, we should be able to make predictions about the elephant population that will help advise management plans to maintain a healthy population of elephants.

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Amazing! What is a normal day (if that exists) like for you?

A normal day sees me come into the office at 9, and leave at 5. My day in the office will usually consist of reading scientific publications, collecting and manipulating data, analyzing it, and then writing up anything I find. So unfortunately, focusing on elephants doesn’t necessarily mean lots of time with them. But, it’s important to remember that desk-based work can still have a major impact on conservation!

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Could you give us a brief summary of your background and how you got into your current position?

I had always wanted to work with wildlife, but I never really imagined that would lead me through an undergraduate degree in Zoology, a Masters degree in Wildlife Management and Conservation, and then onto a PhD! But for me, this path seemed to progress naturally.

For my undergraduate thesis, I went out to South Africa with Operation Wallacea to study elephants for 6 weeks. Not only did I learn a huge amount about elephants, but I also realized I wanted to continue into a career in conservation research. The Masters then became an obvious next step, with more focus on conservation and more experience of research. I then had to interview for my PhD position, which was advertised as: “Remote sensing to model elephant behaviour”.

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Now, considering I had no idea what remote sensing was, and had never (knowingly) modeled anything in my life, I really was playing on the fact I knew a lot about elephant behaviour (I had studied them for my undergraduate thesis) and had a real desire to aid their management in any way I could, even if that meant learning remote sensing and modeling from scratch! It obviously worked, so the lesson here is:

sell your strengths

That is amazing advice, Victoria! I love it. What are your favorite parts of the job? The most difficult?

The best part of my job is learning. I never imagined, coming from an ecological background, that I would ever be able to use satellite data to predict the movement of elephants. But hey, that’s exactly what I’m doing now! I am a self-taught, remote sensing convert! And is it the satisfaction I feel on a daily basis, as I learn something new and realize that this knowledge can be put into conservation, that is the best part of my job! Also on a not-so-daily basis, I love the field time – I feel exceptionally lucky to spend time with elephants in the wild. they really are (I think) the most amazing animal on Earth.

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On the other hand, whilst so much effort is going into conserving elephants, there are always incidences where elephants are lost to humans. Whether it’s through poaching, hunting or human-elephant conflict, it is incredibly frustrating and upsetting. But, it’s important to remember that this is what we in conservation are working to remedy, so it should spur us on and not dishearten us.

If there was one piece of advice you could give someone that wants to work in the conservation field, what would it be?

In light of the increasingly concerning state of the global ecosystem, I think it is important that conservation as a field embraces new technologies and techniques that could help in the monitoring and management of wildlife. So don’t be afraid to learn new things! Whilst at first it may be difficult or uninteresting, make it work for you; learn what you need to know to apply it to your field. If you are willing to learn, you will not only have very desirable skills, you could lead the way in developing novel ways to preserving biodiversity. For me, learning how to use remote sensing for wildlife management has opened up a huge number of possibilities.

Herd of bush elephants, in Amboseli national park, south Kenya.

Is there something we can all do to help African elephants?

We are all well aware that the future of elephants in Africa is threatened by the ivory trade. We also know that this is not an easy challenge to overcome as it requires the change of international laws and beliefs. There are however, a few ways you could help. Firstly, and most importantly, spread the word! Key to changing laws and beliefs is educating people. If people better understand the implications of ivory products, they will be less likely to buy them. this will reduce demand and put poachers “out of the job”. You can also help financially by supporting projects and rangers that monitor and protect elephants, or charities which rescue and release orphans of poaching.

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Thank you, Victoria!

We’ll be keeping in touch with our new favorite UK Scientist during her travels through Africa, and will be sure to post some updates from her either here or on our Facebook page. If you would like to connect with her, she has a very informative blog that you can find here!

Oh, and she’s also an insanely talented wildlife Artist. Can you believe how beautiful these are?

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