School of Life Sciences

African Elephant Management in Research Spotlight

Having done her masters at UKZN – supervised by Professor Rob Slotow – on the costs and consequences of immunocontraception implementation in elephants, it was only natural that Dr Audrey Delsink continued with doctoral research at the same institution and with the same supervisor.

Now she has a PhD degree in Biology focusing on the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana), in particular issues of spatial ecology, population control and human interactions, and the implications for management.

‘My research focuses on how, as managers and stakeholders, our interactions drive African Savanna elephant movements and behaviours over space and time, and how this understanding can better inform policy in a way that is biologically relevant to elephant and addresses all stakeholder objectives,’ said Delsink.

The African Savanna elephant is acknowledged as an endangered species but despite its dwindling numbers (in 2016 there were estimated to be less than 450 000 Forest and Savanna elephants left in Africa), the species is under increasing human-induced pressures and consequently, facing increasing conflict.

‘The elephant is one of the top three species killed as an assumed “problem animal”,’ said Delsink. ‘All too often, elephants are lethally destroyed as the first line of defence, which does not solve the root of the problem. We need to focus on co-existence rather than conflict, and we need innovative, practical and cost-effective solutions.

‘My research proposes novel, risk-based, practical solutions that incorporates elephant spatial ecology into management planning, in a way that is adaptive but speaks to all stakeholders and the reserve-specific objectives. This will contextualise and significantly improve management applications and outcomes, critical for sound policy development, but in a way that is biologically relevant to this unique species,’ she said.

‘Audrey investigated approaches to management of endangered African elephants, using understanding gained from studying their movements and behavior,’ said Slotow. ‘She demonstrated that immunocontraception implementation has no social or behavioural consequences and showed the importance of considering the large home range of elephants when addressing localised problems. She also developed a novel, risk assessment approach for effective pre-emptive conflict mitigation. Incorporating elephant spatial ecology into management planning contextualises and improves management applications and outcomes.’

Delsink plans to continue research on human-wildlife co-existence and conflict mitigation with a focus on alleviating the biodiversity crisis being faced currently.

‘The change starts within each of us, but we need a global policy that sets this stage,’ said Delsink. ‘I hope to make this change through structured engagement processes with key stakeholders.

‘I extend my sincere gratitude to Prof Slotow for his immeasurable patience, support and guidance through the genesis and completion of this dissertation. Like my study subject, the majestic African elephant, my PhD studies of more than 10 years have been long-lived and certainly followed significant paths of tortuosity as I juggled life’s loves and losses.’

She also thanked ‘an incredible mentor and friend, the late great’ Dr Jay Kirkpatrick. ‘Having been the pioneer of immunocontraception in wild horses, fighting to save the species through science, field implementation and policy, Jay saw something in me I did not see in myself, and for that I am truly honoured.’

Delsink is currently the Wildlife Director for Humane Society International – Africa, an international, science-based animal welfare organisation.

She had this advice for students: ‘The last year has been incredibly difficult on all of us as we adjust to a new “normal” in the wake of COVID-19. For those completing their studies while juggling life’s challenges, remember: “small hops can take you far”. Some days will be slower than others, but just keep moving!’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Bernadette Riekert