Big footsteps to follow: Living and working with elephants in Botswana – Hayley Blackwell, Elephants for Africa

Hayley Blackwell is the Scientific Officer for Elephants for Africa (EfA), originally from the UK, but has been living and working in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana since 2016. Initially joining EfA as a volunteer research assistant for one year, Hayley was offered the position of Scientific Officer, an opportunity she couldn’t refuse…

What does your current role involve?

As Scientific Officer, I conduct research in the Makgadikgadi, studying the demographics and social behaviour of the predominantly male elephant population (over 95% of the elephants we record are bulls, which is very unusual) and assist with EfA’s Community Coexistence Project and school Environmental Clubs. I have also been tasked with trying to expand our research into new areas.

This involves planning and researching new ideas for projects, networking with other researchers with relevant experience and engaging with local stakeholders. I am also involved in writing grant applications in order to fund these new research ventures. Currently I am working on a collaboration with SnapshotSafari of the University of Minnesota, who have created a web platform where volunteer citizen scientists can classify images from camera traps. Images from EfA’s camera trap project are going to be included on the platform, and I have been helping to develop the website’s content and tutorials. In addition, I train new members of staff in field research techniques and data entry, assist the Project Manager with writing reports for government ministries and curate our long-term behavioural monitoring database.

What led you to where you are now?

I completed my BSc Zoology degree at Cardiff University, and opted to do a four-year course which included a Professional Training Year. This meant that I spent the third year of my degree conducting a research-based placement. I completed my placement with the Udzungwa Forest Project, a forest conservation project in Tanzania coordinated by the University of York and Flamingo Land Zoo. I was based in the UK research office at the zoo for the majority of the year, but I successfully applied for a travel grant from Cardiff University, which allowed me to complete a short field season in Tanzania. This included carrying out ecological monitoring surveys and working closely with local villagers to promote more sustainable living practices to reduce deforestation.

After graduating, I struggled to find employment in the conservation industry. I often saw volunteer positions advertised which sounded amazing, but required the volunteer to pay thousands of pounds for the opportunity – money that, unfortunately, I didn’t have. Instead, I spent 9 months volunteering for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in the education department, teaching children that came to visit the reserve on school trips, whilst also working part-time in retail to support myself financially.

This meant working six or seven days a week, but I found it very rewarding working with the school groups, and volunteering part-time allowed me to remain active in the environmental sector whilst also earning a living. It was during this time that I saw the volunteer Research Assistant position with EfA advertised. EfA provided accommodation and three meals a day, which reduced the economic burden considerably.

Aside from the financial aspect, I remember reading the job advert and feeling like this position was made for me, a perfect combination of all my interests: applied research, fieldwork, community engagement and education. I knew it would be highly competitive and, feeling a little disillusioned after being turned down for so many positions in the past, I felt sure someone else more suitable would be chosen. But I believe that it was my passion and combination of experience that allowed me to stand out and be chosen for this very varied position.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I love the variety that my job entails. EfA is a fairly small NGO; we currently only have four full-time staff members and two part-time staff in Botswana, as well as two part-time UK-based members of staff, plus affiliated students. This means that, although my main focus is on the research and scientific output of the organisation, we are all able to get involved in most aspects of the project. From conducting research drives in the National Park, collecting data on male elephant social groups, to visiting farmers in their fields providing advice on crop-raiding mitigation methods, writing reports and grant applications, and teaching primary school children – no two days are the same!

What challenges do you face in your role?

Living permanently in the African bush, in a small research camp, can be challenging. Amenities such as electricity and running water, which are often taken for granted, can be in short supply. We have use of one building, which contains our office and kitchen, but we sleep in tents. We are lucky that we do have some network connectivity, which means that we can access the internet on our mobile phones. However the reception is extremely poor and it can take hours to load a single email or webpage. In a world which is increasingly becoming online, and does not cater for those without a decent internet connection, this can be frustrating.

How to apply for a conservation job - free eBook

There are currently five of us living in the EfA camp, so it is vital that we all get along well as we live and work together 24/7. We also maintain the camp and research vehicles ourselves. If something breaks, we fix it in whatever way we can, whether that is a broken shower, holes in the office roof, faulty solar panel wiring or a loose car radiator hose. I never expected that working as an elephant researcher would require learning so much about car mechanics! Working in the African bush is not just a job but a lifestyle. Personally I enjoy this lifestyle (most of the time!), but it is certainly something to bear in mind if you want to do this kind of work. To be successful in conservation you need to be fairly practical; theoretical knowledge and academic achievement is not enough.

Male elephants socialising in the Boteti River, the western boundary of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park

Male elephants socialising in the Boteti River, the western boundary of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into conservation?

Everyone says it: experience is vital. However, you do not necessarily have to spend thousands of pounds travelling to some remote corner of the world to get this experience. If you are just starting out, try looking closer to home, and get involved with local wildlife organisations, nature reserves, even citizen science projects.

This can be done in your spare time – you don’t have to devote yourself to volunteering full-time. If you are at university, societies are a great way to get involved in a wide range of conservation projects and network with people in the industry. Trying out lots of different areas of conservation also allows you to find out what it is that you’re really passionate about, whether that is research, environmental education, sustainability, environmental policy…there are lots of options. Once you find an area that you are passionate about, this should come across in your applications and interviews.

Another thing to remember is that experience is not limited to field work experience. Often it is skills that you might not associate with conservation, such as project managing, logistics coordination, marketing and people management which will help you to progress up the career ladder. These are all skills which can be gained from employment outside the conservation sector.

Once you do find a position, whether it is paid or unpaid, get involved with as many aspects of the organisation’s work as possible, network, and be open minded – the world of conservation can be a small one, and you never know when a career opportunity may present itself.

If you would like to find out more about Elephants for Africa and the work that Hayley and her team do, head over to www.elephantsforafrica.org or like them on Facebook and Instagram for more pictures and stories.

Further Reading: Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists

Career Stories, Conservation Jobs & Careers Advice, Conservation Leaders