Working with Save the Elephants (and landing a dream conservation job)

Lydia Tiller works for Save the Elephants and is the Research and Science Manager for their Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program. Save the Elephants are working to preserve vital migration corridors, maintain elephant-friendly landscapes and promote tolerant relationships between elephant and man. There is an increase in pressure on elephants due to the rising human footprint thus understanding elephant needs and movements is more crucial than ever. Lydia discusses their important research, her current job, career path and advice she has for landing your dream role! 

What is your current role with Save the Elephants?

I work for Save the Elephants and I am their Research and Science Manager for the Human-Elephant Co-existence Program. I specifically work on the Elephant and Bees project based in Tsavo, managing all aspects of the research being collected including data analysis. This project, which was established by Dr Lucy King, explores the use of Beehive Fences as a natural elephant deterrent. Not only do the fences reduce elephant crop raiding but they also provide an economic boost through pollination services and the sustainable harvesting of “Elephant-Friendly Honey”. We also monitor 20 collared elephants across the Tsavo ecosystem.

Tracking elephants using GPS collars that report via satellite have been shown to be effective in defining how elephants use ecosystems and provide data that can help understand their movements and preserve connectivity. The collars will provide invaluable data which will enable us to better understand the behaviour and movements of elephants which will help guide planning and decision-making.  Currently, we are also developing a mobile conflict unit where we will work with project organisations to help set up more beehive fences across Kenya.

Left: One of the beehives covered in a cage to prevent honey badgers from raiding (photo credit Alexa Piggott) Right: Processing their Elephant Friendly Honey in the honey processing room (photo credit Madi Schiller-Chan)

Left: One of the beehives covered in a cage to prevent honey badgers from raiding (photo credit Alexa Piggott) Right: Processing their Elephant Friendly Honey in the honey processing room (photo credit Madi Schiller-Chan)

What motivated you to work with Save the Elephants?

I have wanted to work in elephant conservation since I was a child and Save The Elephants (STE) is an organisation that I have always greatly admired. I really love the ethos of Save the Elephants, as we are a science-based organisation using research to enhance knowledge and inform policy. The people who I work with are extremely inspirational such as my boss Dr Lucy King and the founder of STE, Iain Douglas-Hamilton. When I got my job with STE it really felt like a dream come true!

What are the highlights and challenges of the job?

Collaring 20 elephants was definitely a highlight as it was my first time to do so. It was a life changing experience to be so close to wild African elephants, to smell them and feel them breath. Knowing that after the collar goes on we can understand their movements and protect them is also a special feeling. I have become quite attached to the elephants, as I was there when the collar went on, and now I follow and monitor their movements every day. The biggest personal challenge of my job is being apart from my partner, family and friends. I love my job though and everyone is very supportive of what I am doing and know that the cause is worth it. Luckily, technology makes things a bit easier.

Measuring an elephants tusk during the collaring operation (photo credit Naiya Raya)

Measuring an elephants tusk during the collaring operation (photo credit Naiya Raya)

What opportunities are there at Save the Elephants?

Save The Elephants has an internship program in Samburu and Elephant and Bees has a program here in Tsavo. It is a fantastic opportunity to get experience working in elephant conservation and seeing the types of research that we conduct. Here in Tsavo, we always have two international interns and one Kenya intern at a time. It is great to have so many interns from different backgrounds and I love seeing how so many people grow during their time with us. We also have Masters and PhD students who are conducting a variety of projects across our two main research sites. You can find all the information on the Save The Elephants website as well as the Elephant and Bees website.

Is it important to work closely with the local community?

For any conservation project to work and be successful, you have to work with communities as they are the ones living with wildlife. Working with the community here in Sagalla, Tsavo, is the heart of the Elephant and Bees Project, as we are working with farmers on a daily basis Not only do we work with the farmers who have beehive fences but we also try to support the community in other ways too. For example, we have a full time education officer, Kennedy, who works at the local school behind the research centre.

Kennedy conducts weekly conservation education lessons with the school, runs a film club where he plays documentaries to the kids and also runs a farm club where he teaches the students all about farming. We also fund a water tank for the school, one of the teacher’s salary and we have a permaculture garden to grow crops for the student’s meals.  At our research centre we have a community hall, which is great as the community come and use the hall weekly for meetings and even dance lessons!

Outside their community hall with a team of their interns (photo credit Elephant and Bees)

Outside their community hall with a team of their interns (photo credit Elephant and Bees)

What made you choose conservation as a career?

We are living in an increasingly human-dominated world where wildlife is struggling to survive as their habitat is shrinking and they are being poached at alarming rates. This deeply saddens me, so at a young age I decided that I wanted to try and dedicate my life to trying to help conserve wildlife  – in any small way possible.

What were the key steps in your career to get your current conservation job?

It has been the people that I have met through the various stages of my education and career. For example, during my Masters degree (Wild Animal Biology at the Royal Veterinary College and Zoological Society of London) I met an elephant vet called Khyne U Mar. She was very inspiring and so I kept in touch with her. After my Masters, Khyne invited me to come to Sheffield to meet a researcher called Dr Joshua Plotnik. I went to meet him and he happened to be looking for a research assistant for his elephant behaviour project in Thailand. I happened to be looking for a job and so I ended up getting the position. It was then through this job in Thailand where I met the amazing philanthropist who funded my PhD.

How did you get your PhD funded?

Well this is quite an incredible story…. While I was working on the elephant behaviour project in a remote part of Thailand I met a man called Peter. One evening in the local hotel bar, I was giving a talk about elephants to some project volunteers. Peter happened to be listening to my talk and afterwards we got talking. I told Peter about the work I did and my passion for elephants. He said that he funded PhD students and that he would like to fund me. I was in shock and could not quite believe it. After a few hours of talking, we said our goodbyes and the last thing Peter said was that “you will never forget this moment in your life”; and, true to his words, I never have, as 10 months later, in September 2013, I started my PhD at DICE, funded by Peter. Words will never be sufficient to describe how grateful I am to Peter, as his incredible generosity has enabled me to pursue my career working with elephants. Tragically, Peter passed away in February 2017.

It’s crazy where life takes you sometimes and how being in the right place at the right time can really change your life. During my PhD research, I was also able to meet some really influential elephant researchers, which helped me come back to Kenya to work with elephants.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Completing my PhD. It was a very rewarding experience, but also a very challenging one. There were many stages over the four years which I had to complete, from developing my research ideas, to raising over £20,000 to conduct field work, to finding and training 12 field scouts to help me collect data, to living very remotely in the field, to analysing all the data and then finally writing it all up! It was definitely an incredible journey of my life that I shall never forget.

Ex camp coordinator Naiya Raya, Lucy King and Lydia Tiller during the collaring (photo credit Lydia Tiller)

Ex camp coordinator Naiya Raya, Lucy King and Lydia Tiller during the collaring (photo credit Lydia Tiller)

What advice would you give someone wishing to get a conservation job?

Firstly, be as proactive as you can, so attend lots of lectures/talks, try to meet the speakers, talk to them, ask questions and get their contact details. Try to keep in contact with them not only because they are interesting but also you never know what opportunities are going to come up, they might know of internships or jobs and if you’ve met them they can think of you! Being nice to people goes a long way as well, especially in conservation as it is a small field where lots of people know each other!

Secondly, try and get as much experience as you can. I know it is not easy having to volunteer and do unpaid internships because the cost of living is high. But the more experience you have the better it looks on your CV! Not only do you meet new people but you gain lots of new knowledge and expand your skillset. Additionally, try to get as much education as you can because it is such a competitive field now. Conservation is a growing industry and there are lots of jobs out there but you have to try and stand out from a lot of people.

Thirdly, being prepared to spend many hours applying for jobs and not giving up. After my masters there were a few months where I didn’t have any work. I spent hours applying for jobs not getting anywhere. I then got a job in Oregon working on a seabird project for 6 months. It wasn’t quite elephant conservation but I gained so much experience from it and really enjoyed it. You should remember that your first job in conservation may not be exactly what you want to do and might not be with the species you want to work with, but it is all great experience and these skills are transferable. I think it’s about seizing opportunities and not giving up.  You can get there if you stay positive, have the determination and put yourself out there!

Finally, knowing that in conservation you are not going to earn millions and it’s about passion and I promise it’s worth it when you get there! 

If you want to find out more and follow the amazing work of Lydia and Save the Elephants, go visit http://www.savetheelephants.org/ or http://elephantsandbees.com/ for more information and how you can get involved!

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