School of Life Sciences

Postdoctoral Researcher Selected for National Geographic Leadership Programme

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Yvette Ehlers Smith has been selected for the National Geographic Early Career Leadership Programme designed to invest in the development of promising scientists, conservationists, storytellers and educators and equip them to lead in these fields and generate solutions for a healthy, sustainable future.

Ehlers Smith, who conducts research at the Centre for Functional Biodiversity in the School of Life Sciences, focusing on ecology and zoology, received her BSc Honours degree at Oxford Brookes University, and her Master’s degree in Biodiversity and Conservation at Exeter University – both in England.

She completed her PhD in Ecological Sciences at UKZN with the help of a National Research Foundation fellowship, assessing the effects of land-use change and forest fragmentation on the avian, mammalian and plant functional and taxonomic communities of South Africa’s Indian Ocean coastal belt.

With a focus on the impact of changing land use on biodiversity, Ehlers Smith has studied human-wildlife conflict, indigenous knowledge, unifying cultural heritage with wildlife conservation, ecological interactions in agricultural land use settings, primate behavioural ecology, forest birds, plants and mammal communities.

The keen conservationist was featured on the South African TV show 50/50 discussing the blue duiker which featured in her PhD research, and hopes through her work to inspire people to take action in preserving dwindling habitats which are home to a multitude of species.

Ehlers Smith recently had an article published in the Mail & Guardian newspaper on the coronavirus outbreak, which highlighted the importance of protecting South Africa’s megadiverse natural places, particularly through the tourism industry.

Growing up in South Africa, Ehlers Smith gained a deep appreciation for wildlife protection, especially in an era characterised by increasing urbanisation, expanding agriculture and forestry, and habitat fragmentation which are impacting on the health and survival of several plant, bird and animal species.

A former National Geographic Explorer, she was selected for the year-long leadership programme out of a competitive pool of applicants following a thorough review by National Geographic staff.

The National Geographic funded Ehlers Smith’s research on southern ground-hornbills in KwaZulu-Natal in which she investigated how human dimensions and cultural beliefs could influence a species’ persistence in an area, and how the birds navigate human dominated landscapes.

As a National Geographic Explorer, she attended the second National Geographic Explorers Festival in London, connecting with fellow explorers and learning about effective science communication and collaboration with other explorers and experts. While conducting her research with National Geographic, Ehlers Smith also launched a donation project for sanitary towels and new underwear to meet the need for sustainable, reusable sanitary towels in her research area by young women and girls.

The National Geographic Early Career Leadership Programme, which starts with a virtual gathering next month, will involve leadership training workshops, mentorship, media training, and educational outreach events.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied