Problem planning, not problem elephants
Tanya Waterworth
29th May 2021

Durban – Dr Audrey Delsink was afraid of elephants when she started out in the field of natural sciences, but now has a real passion for them, as well as managing and conserving the iconic species which are now on the endangered list.

This week, Delsink, 46, was awarded a PhD in Biology for her research focusing on the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), in particular issues of spatial ecology, population control and human interactions, and the implications for management.

“It’s been a long journey and getting my doctorate this week has been a tremendous relief and absolute satisfaction,” said Delsink on Thursday.

She said she was afraid during her first encounters with elephants when she was a young field guide, but then she was put on a task force to identify elephants and it sparked her “real love and passion for elephants”.

With a Master’s degree focused on the costs and consequences of immunocontraception implementation in elephants and having worked in 40 reserves across the country on contraception programmes, Delsink said her doctoral research focused on how human interactions drove African savannah elephant movements and behaviours over space and time and how this understanding could lead to better management and planning.

This could relate to individual elephants, a particular herd or an elephant population, what elephants are doing, how and why.

“The elephant is one of the top three species killed as an assumed ‘problem animal’. 

“All too often elephants are destroyed as the first line of defence which does not sort the root of the problem. 

“We need to focus on co-existence rather than conflict, and we need innovative, practical and cost-effective solutions. 

“If strategies fail, we think it is a ’problem elephant’, when it is normally a problem of bad planning,” she said.

As an example, Delsink said mature male bulls played a crucial role in the lives of younger male bulls, and research had shown young males could become delinquent without the guidance of a large, mature male.

The mature bulls play a major role in reproduction, as well as being a social repository of knowledge for the younger males. 

But it is often these mature bulls which are deemed to be “problem animals” when fences are broken or similar issues arise in elephant/human conflict. 

Delsink said that with the African savannah elephant on the endangered list and the forest elephant on the critically endangered list, the survival of the species was at a tipping point. 

Even removing one mature bull could have a devastating ripple effect.

“We lose 35 000 to 45 000 elephants a year to poaching. 

“Poaching of ivory is still rampant and these poor creatures are being decimated.

“There is no doubt that we are losing a significant amount to poaching and that is why, when elephants and humans come into contact, we need to mitigate lethal interventions,” she said.

Delsink said the matriarch elephant played an equally important role. 

Female elephants never leave the herd they are born into and retain a huge amount of information of where to go and what to do, such as ancient paths and finding water holes.

She said simply removing an elephant, male or female, has far reaching effects, saying, “we need to do right by them and mitigate conflict as best we can”.

Her 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 reserve specific objectives”.

Her research supervisor ,UKZN’s Professor Rob Slotow said: “Audrey investigated approaches to management of endangered African elephants, using understanding gained from studying their movements and behaviour.

“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,” said Slotow.

Delsink plans to continue research on human-wildlife co-existence and conflict mitigation.

“The change starts with each of us, but we need a global policy that sets this stage. 

“I hope to make this change through structured engagements processes with key stakeholders,” she said.

Her advice to 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 that small hops can take you far. 

“Some days will be slower than others, but just keep moving.”

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