Photograph by Nathan L Williamson
Photograph by Nathan L Williamson
Current City: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Like most kids, I wanted to be a lot of things: pilot, marine biologist, astronomer, etc. But it was the years I spent in Africa during high school and afterwards that really got me interested in wildlife.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I started with a strong background in the field of Geographic Information Science (GIS) and Remote Sensing Imagery analysis. It was on a trip to Kenya in 2003 that I met Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton and started volunteering for his organization, Save the Elephants. That started me on the path I'm on today.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to elephants?
It's because I'm intensely interested in what I do and it doesn't seem like work most of the time. It's also the idea that the research and work will help elephants. I think the conservation aspect of the work is tremendously important.
What's a normal day like for you?
My time is split at the moment between university life and time in the field. Fieldwork is exciting and I really enjoy being among elephants. But the work can also be hard and the expeditions I did to Mali, where daytime temperatures reached as high as 50 degrees Celsius, were the most difficult. The other side of the coin is the time spent analyzing research data and, although it's long hours spent behind a computer, it's also very rewarding to come up with meaningful research results and conservation outputs.
Do you have a hero?
I would say that Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton has been an inspiration. Although Iain is truly passionate about elephants on a personal level, he has approached conservation with a scientific and analytic rationale and it is through the collection and analysis of data that he has been able to make such an impact in elephant conservation. He also doesn't give up and is now fighting the same battles against elephant ivory poaching that he was 30 years ago, and that is something I really respect.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
One of the most memorable experiences I've had in the field was the time we were filming aerial shots for the Great Migrations film in Mali in 2008. Although we knew from our tracking data that the elephant migration path crossed through a valley between massive sandstone cliffs called La Porte des Elephants [the elephant door], we had never actually seen the elephants moving through it because they would often travel at night and would move through the valley at high speed. Our dream was to capture the migration on film but we only had the helicopter available for a total of five days of filming and had no idea when the elephants would actually decide to migrate. As it turned out, one of nine elephants we were tracking with a GPS collar, named Salif, started to align himself with the north end of the migration corridor on the night before the final day of filming. I suggested we try in the morning to see if we could at least get a shot of the bull moving through the valley, even if he was alone (bulls are often solitary or move in small groups of other bulls). The next morning we took off before dawn toward La Porte des Elephants to look for Salif in the valley. To our amazement, we found not only Salif, but an entire herd of 100-plus elephants moving through the valley on their migration south. Coupled with that was an incredibly beautiful sunrise illuminating the sandstone cliffs and we got it all in high-def with the Cineflex camera from the helicopter. It became the amazing scene shown in the Great Migrations film and I'm still shocked by the luck we had!
What are your other passions?
At the moment my focus is really on elephant movement ecology and my Ph.D. research and I have very few hours in the day for anything else! I guess my true passion in life though is to learn new things. Whether it's a language, some math, a new piece of software, or a skill like flying or fixing a car, I think it's important to always be learning about the world around us.
What do you do in your free time?
I finished my pilot's license just over a year ago and I'd like to get in as many hours of flying as possible in the hope that I can fly as part of future fieldwork. I also love the water and both swim and scuba dive whenever I can.
If you could have people do one thing to help save elephants, what would it be?
Spend time with elephants and learn about them, whether it's in person or through nature programs. It never gets boring and the more you learn, the more you will see what amazing animals they are and what a tragedy for the planet it would be if elephants were killed off for their ivory.
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