Connie’s love of elephants is evident in everything she does. Her love for Botswana comes in at a close second, but then again, the two go hand-in-hand; Botswana is Elephant Country.
We are so inspired by Connie’s pursuit of her academic research in elephant behaviour and the dedication she shows when it comes to overcoming trials and tribulations to get the work done.
She’ll be the first to tell you about the endless early mornings and long hours of observation and data collection, which is behind every scientist’s incredible findings. But she will also be the first to tell you why this lifestyle is the best she could ever have chosen.
A true outdoor enthusiast with an eye for the spectacular natural scenes she comes across, Connie’s wildlife photography is work to be admired.
While her life’s work might be about elephants, her captivating photos convey all of Africa’s beauty, as well as the beauty of Oman, Croatia, India, and Switzerland.
Travel, adventure, and wildlife conservation are this woman’s passions, and her work encapsulates it all. It’s no wonder her favourite Wild in Africa jewellery is the Down to Earth stack!
Tell us about yourself.
I'm a behavioural ecologist conducting my PhD research on the social behaviour of male African elephants.
My overarching interest is in a holistic approach to the evolution of sociality, how did the earth evolve such complex structures of cooperation? From the atoms cooperating in the proteins of DNA, the cells cooperating in each organism, the individuals cooperating in societies.
My current research focuses on the changes in behaviour across life history stage in long-lived mammals, a great case study is the African Elephant.
My research looks at leadership by mature individuals during collective movements across the landscape, adolescence and short term flexibility in male aggression, and the social determinants of fission-fusion events in this species.
I'm also interested in how improved understanding of social requirements of a species can better inform conservation and management decisions of endangered species.
Can you tell us a little bit about your professional background?
I had the life changing privilege to combine many passions and interests of mine - wildlife, conservation and the study of the evolution of social behaviour - and conduct a self designed, self funded PhD in the study of male African elephant sociality.
Living the simple life in a tent for over 2 years submerged in an untouched wildlife paradise, the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.
A life of occasional compulsory lie-in's because there is a lion roaring outside your tent, of bush fires destroying your belongings, of a constant chorus of bird song and zebra braying, of intense solitude, of incredible sights you couldn't invent even in dreams.
I am now using the crucial data collected on research drives, hours of recordings watching social interactions of elephants at the Boleti river, and over 9000 hours of active camera trap footage to answer some critical questions about the unknowns of male elephant society.
A better understanding of the social systems, social intelligence and social requirements of a species if vital in effective conservation.
As elephants face an unnatural human-driven extinction threat unlike they have experienced in history - it is becoming imperative to implement effective conservation and management strategies to assist the species protection and recovery.
For example I am hoping to provide evidence that mature bulls lead younger naive adolescents in their navigation of risky unknown environments, due to their potentially decades more experience and accumulated knowledge.
At the moment, 6 countries across Africa allow legal trophy hunting of elephants - it is always mature bulls killed in these hunts (due to their large bodies and tusks), I will argue that this removal of mature, knowledgeable bulls removes a crucial resource from the social network and should not be allowed.
What or who in your life influenced you to pursue this route?
The instinctual feminine sensitivity and empathetic nature has given us some incredible conservation and humanitarian leaders.
As a young girl, figures like Charlotte Uhlenbroek had me in awe as to what it was possible to achieve. Wangari Maathai, Jane Goodall similarly were hugely influential for me.
Currently, what is the inspiration that keeps you motivated and passionate about your work?
Motivation and passion comes naturally when you are in the field wrapped up in the thrill of field work, observing the elephants everyday, and surrounded by the beating heart of Africa.
However, the sterile grind of being stuck behind the laptop in Europe has been the real test for my passion for this project.
But despite all the joy of being in the field – for actual change to happen, there needs to be hard dedication to writing papers, a lot of statistical knowledge and coding to be learnt, and a lot, a lot, a lot of rejection from publishers.
I have been involved in this project for 5 years, first going to start in Botswana when I was 21 years old. Not long after I lost my mum, was declined a PhD upgrade from my original University, and ran into huge funding problems for continuing the work.
The hurdles you have to face can make you want to quit every day, but when it comes to being about saving earths most magnificent treasure – the African elephant, you know it is worth while.
I feel very lucky for my life to have followed the strange circumstances that got me to where I am today – and I know it is my responsibility to keep up the hard work and get the results from my research to the world.
So in other words its just the elephants, even for one elephants life I think all the troubles I face with my work would be worth it.
What is the most impactful aspect of your work?
As I have found myself become more confident with communicating my research and teaching about conservation and animal behaviour, I have to say it has been astounding to see the impact that you can have on people. And you really see how much truly every one cares.
My most rewarding work has been teaching and presenting in primary schools, the natural enthusiasm and strong moral compass children have for protecting wildlife is beyond inspiring. And it is an honour to be a role model to these kids as to the kind of positive impact and direction you can take your life in to protect other life on earth.
Where is your favorite place you’ve traveled and why?
I have to continue to root for Botswana!
It is truly one of the earths last remaining true wildernesses, absolutely teeming with incredible wildlife around every corner.
Only in Botswana will you be on the main A road through the country and have to stop for crossing elephants, ostriches and zebra. And the remote campsites are unmatched, Baines Baobabs probably being my favourite – a night step watching these thousand year old trees silhouetted by the milky way, sleeping on the roof rack.
I strongly encourage people to continue to support tourism after the current world lock down is lifted, Wildlife tourism is in the top 3 main sources of income for Botswana, and the industry provides education and job opportunities for a huge amount of the population.
Why do you feel that wildlife conservation is important?
Conservation has always been, and always will be the cause I battle for most strongly.
It is about increasing your sphere of empathy, and realising there is far more than just you, and even far more than just humans that deserve life and liberty.
But it is also not just a choice of wildlife Vs civilisation – we are vitally dependent on wildlife and a healthy ecosystem in order for there to be a future for humanity.
Especially concerning the elephant conservation crisis; it is about protecting people just as much as it is about protecting elephants. We need to provide support for those that live alongside these (often very dangerous and destructive) animals, and provide them with motivations for protecting elephants and other dangerous wildlife such as lions (in the UK people can’t even tolerate foxes and seagulls!).
So some practical tips for those not living with elephants who want to support their conservation:
1. Research charities and organisations (large and small) working with elephants, if you think they are doing responsible and beneficial work, donate.
2. Never buy or sell ivory products. Do the research and decide for yourself, but in my opinion there is no sustainable model for an ivory trade (Ivory is made from tusks of dead elephants - the prime motive for their poaching)
3. Never ride elephants in tourist related activities, or support any organisations that exploit elephants for entertainment and profit such as circuses.
4. For gift ideas buy elephant friendly products - look up elephant coffee and elephant honey, these products come from programs where coexistence is encouraged between farmers and elephants with projects helping to reduce conflict for those living alongside elephants.
5. Visit elephants in the wild in protected areas and national parks. If countries and communities benefit from wild spaces - they will be sustained and even further developed. Research where you will stay well, are local people benefiting from jobs.
6. Talk to your friends and family and spread awareness. Don’t be afraid to approach these sensitive issues.
What is your favorite Wild in Africa bracelet style and why?
I’m in awe of the “down to earth” stack.
The colours complement each other perfectly, or alternatively you can wear them individually, great for if there are certain energies you want to channel, or areas of improvement you want to make with yourself and you like using stones or other symbols to direct your mindfulness towards.
African Jade is only found in South Africa, it is astoundingly bright in colour and is associated with prosperity and health. African Turquoise inspires change and transformation, wear it to invoke confidence when pursuing new challenges in life. Finally the Red Jasper bracelet brings life force, strength, focus and stamina.
Are there any animals you feel especially passionate about?
I guess it would be a bit too obvious for me to answer with elephants!
But the African Elephant is the icon of earth's current extinction crisis.
If humans are able to wipe out the largest most powerful land animal, a species beloved and respected worldwide for their intelligence and emotional capabilities - what hope is there for the rest of our animal cousins?
The African elephant is an immensely intelligent and socially complex animal, capable of the same emotions as we are and hold important long term bonds spanning decades.
Living with these gentle giants has truly humbled me, it is devastating that one is murdered every 15 minutes for human greed.
Additionally, we'd love to hear your perspective on the current situation. How has lockdown affected you? What do you look forward to most about getting back into nature?
My thoughts are with those working on the front line of health care and vital service provision, as well as those who are sick, and of course devastated for those who have lost loved ones in this startling time.
On the whole I have managed the lock down okay, with lots of time strictly dedicated every day to self reflection, yoga and indoor exercise which I highly recommend for managing mental health in these stressful times.
I look forward to us returning to the outdoors and for us all to renew our appreciation for what the natural world provides to us unconditionally and free of charge or expectation.
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