This summer, The Elephant Sanctuary was thrilled to have Kristy Eaker, Senior Manager of Elephant Care, and Summer Zalar, Elephant Welfare Program Coordinator, join our International Partners at Utopia Scientific, in Namibia, Africa to assist with their ongoing study of elephants in the Mushara area of Etosha National Park. They had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Caitlin O’Connell, one of the world’s preeminent scientists on African elephant communication and social dynamics.
While there, the research team was tasked with identifying individual elephants and family groups, filming and documenting elephant herd behavior at a nearby watering hole, collecting the height and body length of individual elephants, and collecting fecal samples for DNA and hormonal analysis — just to name a few. The group worked from early morning to late night, rotating schedules to ensure someone could observe and record during peak activity times.
“One of the beneficial parts of this experience was observing the behavior and social dynamics of bull elephants,” said Kristy. “It was incredibly helpful to watch them in their natural environment, seeing them intermingle with the female herds, how they interacted with other males, and the different behaviors you would see when in musth.”
Dr. Caitlin O’Connell is currently on the faculty at the Eaton Peabody Lab at Harvard Medical School, studying elephant low-frequency hearing while also overseeing the non-profit Utopia Scientific, promoting the importance of science and conservation. She is an award-winning author and photographer and has been studying elephants in the wild for the last thirty years, having written dozens of scientific papers and numerous feature magazine articles, and two memoirs about her experiences.
When asked what it was like to work with Dr. O’Connell, it is clear she lives up to her reputation. “She is so knowledgeable and intelligent. I was blown away as she could identify these wild elephants in seconds of seeing them, even when they were far in the distance. What’s so inspiring about her is how encouraging she is for other women and female scientists to gain opportunities in the field. All her students were young women doing some incredible studies with wild elephants. She has written so many different styles of books, from fiction and comics to scientific journals, just to appeal to different audiences with the goal of making people see how much we need to love and save elephants,” said Kristy Eaker. “It was a privilege to get to interview her for World Elephant Day. What a blast that was to get to ask her questions about her career!”
To learn more about Caitlin O'Connell and her work, visit www.caitlineoconnell.com.