Photograph by Petter Granli
Birthplace: Frankfurt, Germany
Current City: Sandefjord, Norway
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I grew up in Africa and spent my school holidays on safari, sleeping in a tent in the national parks. From an early age I loved spending time with and observing the behavior of animals. In 1966, at the age of 11, I attended a fascinating lecture by Jane Goodall at the National Museums of Kenya. Introduced by Louis Leakey, Jane described her early research on chimpanzees. After the lecture I told my mother that I wanted to study animal behavior when I grew up.
How did you get started in your field of work?
In 1975, after my first year at college, my father accepted a job as head of African operations for the African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya. I took a year off from college and returned to the country of my childhood. There I met Cynthia Moss, who gave me the opportunity to join her study of the Amboseli elephants. It was a dream come true! Early on I discovered that African elephants come into musth—a period of heightened sexual and aggressive behavior in male elephants. I published my first paper on the topic at the age 25 in the journal Nature. It was to be the first of many discoveries about these fascinating and intelligent animals, and it whetted my appetite to learn more. I was fortunate at that young age to have professors who nurtured my curiosity-Betty Horner at Smith College and Robert Hinde at Cambridge University. Professor Hinde had been supervisor to Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and numerous other East African behavioral ecologists before me.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to elephants?
I have a strong inner drive and an exuberant personality, characteristics that run in my family. I am passionate about elephants, indeed all animals, and the wild places they are found-perhaps because these elements were such a meaningful part of my upbringing. The world is changing so fast now as human populations expand and demand for resources grows. The things I love are being squeezed out at an alarming rate and the consequences for individual animals, their families, and the habitats they depend on, is devastating. I am inspired to try to bring about respect for nature by sharing my passion and my experiences with others.
What's a normal day like for you?
My life alternates between fieldwork in Africa and office work in Norway; my days in the two locations are polar opposites. In the past, I spent my time in the field studying elephant behavior, collecting data, and writing papers. Today, I run a small NGO, ElephantVoices, with my husband and colleague, Petter Granli. We're involved with elephant issues around the world. The mission of ElephantVoices is to inspire wonder in the intelligence, complexity and voices of elephants, and to secure a kinder future for them through research and the sharing of knowledge. This, in essence, is what I do whether I am in the field, holding lectures, speaking to the media, or sitting in the office on my computer‚-my work just takes different forms depending where I am. I believe that people will only protect what they love, and they will only love what they understand. In Norway, we work on a fiber-optic high-speed Internet connection communicating with colleagues all over the world, pressing for greater protection and better welfare for elephants and sharing knowledge via ElephantVoices' website and Facebook pages. In the field we train and educate people about elephants through Elephant Partners (a project supported by National Geographic's Conservation Trust), among other avenues.
Do you have a hero?
I have many heroes. My heroes have a few things in common: They stand up for what they believe in, without fear of what others might think or say and they are passionate voices for justice, for the environment, and for those who cannot speak for themselves.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience in the field is being in the presence of elephants and feeling completely at ease because I understand their behavior so well. I love to share my passion for elephants. I particularly enjoy explaining elephant behavior and sharing my knowledge with others. It is hard to choose one favorite experience, as there have been so many. Establishing a relationship with Vladimir, a wild elephant who permitted me to touch him, and being remembered by him after 12 years, touched me deeply.
The most challenging aspect of my work is defending elephants from abuse by people. I am often asked to act as an expert witness in cruelty cases during which I may be required to read or view material where people have been brutal toward, or exploitative of, elephants. Knowing elephants as I do, it is painful to me that people can be so cruel. In the wild, tens of thousands of elephants suffer each year. As human populations expand there is less and less space available for elephants. Elephants are killed and injured by people when they are killed as "trophies," for their ivory or in conflict over space. There are days when I feel helpless against the many challenges that elephants face to survive.
What are your other passions?
I have a great passion for nature and I am happiest when I am walking in wild places with my husband and colleague, Petter Granli, my daughter, Selengei, and our border collie, Malita. I also love to paint. When I am in the presence of elephants and when I am painting I feel completely "in the moment."
What do you do in your free time?
In my free time, I paint (mostly elephants), I take photographs, I explore, I practice yoga, I walk, I cycle. And I spend time with my family and friends in all corners of the world.
If you could have people do one thing to help save elephants, what would it be?
For me, saving elephants is not just about saving a species from extinction, but about protecting the lives and well-being of individuals. If I could, I would ask everyone to consider ways that we can each reduce the impact that our lifestyles are having on others. We need to work hand in hand to find ways to ensure the protection of the other species, other individuals, who also have an inherent right to a place on our planet. I would ask people to join us by signing the Elephant Charter.
Joyce's Blog Posts
Follow @NatGeoExplorers on Twitter
Inside National Geographic Magazine
After the trauma of attack and loss comes healing—and a richer understanding of the emotions and intelligence of elephants.
In Their Words
The things I love are being squeezed out at an alarming rate and the consequences for individual animals, their families, and the habitats they depend on, is devastating.
Ten thousand pounds of confiscated ivory were publically burned in Gabon in an effort to snuff out poaching.
National Geographic grantee and ethologist Joyce Poole uses citizen science and Web technology to modernize elephant conservation.
Meet Our Animal Conservationist Explorers
Dollar's decade of fieldwork has quantified the fossa's shrinking numbers.
Our Explorers in Action
Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.