Years ago as an undergraduate, my outlook on my career was quite simple: study biology, become a biologist. Specializing in tropical forests, I thought. These forests entertain every sense, with lush green foliage obscuring your view, the conflict of air heating and moisture cooling your skin, the odor of decomposition rising from the ground to meet your nose, and the never-ending symphony of insects, birds, and occasionally monkeys.
Over time I have had the great privilege to make visits to the New World tropics — in Central and South America — for both research and leisure. Yet, this summer, I made the long-anticipated journey to Africa, to study the tropical forests of Gabon with professors and classmates from Duke.
Early morning, before the clouds give way to the sun, we load our gear and selves into the National Parks trucks and set out on the bumpy dirt roads of Lopé National Park. Camera with telephoto lens at the ready, my eyes pore over the hills, inspecting every large-sized rock in the openings between forest stands. Is it moving? No, it’s a boulder. Is that one moving? No, boulder again.
Someone calls out, and the car stops, doors fling open and we file out onto the road. I hold my breath, searching. Boulders litter the forest opening, hiding in plain sight our main objective of the morning.
The young male forest elephant stood distant, facing away from us. Framed by small tusks, his agile trunk foraged in a sparse shrub. Eighty meters away, I had to squint to see him slowly, one or two steps at a time, make his way up the hill. Perhaps he noticed his audience, because he quickened his amble and soon was out of sight.
I felt incredibly fortunate to see the elephant on the hillside, and even more so when my companions and I, a couple days later at a much closer distance, came upon a group of three adult elephants and one juvenile quietly enjoying their breakfast in a damp, grassy opening close to the forest edge. In the tranquility of the moment, we barely dared to whisper as we watched the young one follow its mother along, pulling on the branches of the shrub that she chose.
Forest elephants are smaller than their more widely known relatives in the savanna. The Gabonese National Agency for National Parks (analogous to the US National Park Service) is working with researchers and NGOs to actively protect natural places and wildlife. The threat of poaching has reduced the forest elephant population to less than 40% of what it once was, and continues today, forcing the government to wage a war, in the truest sense of the word, on poachers in remote regions of the country. Our group met with park officials to learn about their plans to develop a tourism industry in the dense tropical forest stands that are the last refuge for the endangered forest elephant. Perhaps giving people the chance to see and be awed by them could change the tide and give elephants the space and protection they need to survive.
My first-hand look into conservation and development in Gabon made it undeniably clear that the conservation of natural places is not straight-forward as I once believed, but is an interdisciplinary and often multi-national effort. It also requires a huge suite of skills, one of which is certainly tenacity.
It’s true, my career path has not been a straight shot from studying biology to being a biologist, but my current career in environmental science is gaining steam and I am excited to see where it takes me. I look back on my outdoor adventures both abroad and in the United States for inspiration, and continue to plan new adventures in my own corner of the world. Stay tuned!