Coexisting with African elephants – An interview with Jake from EleCREW
Conflicts between humans and wildlife are very common in Africa. These conflicts will most likely increase due to the growth of the human population. By 2050, the human population of Africa is expected to double in size, resulting in an ever-increasing need for space to grow food and built houses.
The expansion of human civilization causes the loss and fragmentation of the habitat of threatened species, including the African elephant. Elephants have to come in closer proximity to humans for access to water and food. These encounters between elephants and humans don’t always end well, often leading to the death of these magnificent animals.
ElephantCREW, or eleCREW, is a Zimbabwean non-profit charitable trust dedicated to the conservation of African elephants. The vision of eleCREW is an Africa in which humans and elephants can coexist in a balanced environment.
The NGO has four main pillars: Community, Research, Education, and Welfare (CREW).
- Community (empowerment) – Engaging with and enabling communities that live side-by-side with elephants to do so in harmony, for example, by using crop protection methods, such as chilli fences.
- Research – Collaborating with academic institutions and other NGOs to study elephants. From studying the welfare and cognition of elephants to their behavioural ecology and visitor experiences/attitudes. In addition, EleCREW aims to provide a unique environment for undergraduate field trips and study groups.
- Education – Developing immersive educational activities with our elephants for community and school groups, but also for paying tourists. We aim to affect behaviour change by leaving participants with positive perceptions of elephants, a greater depth of knowledge about elephants as sentient beings and an introduction to methods of crop protection and avoidance of human-wildlife conflict.
- Welfare – Understanding and continually improving the welfare of the elephants under the care of the eleCREW team via behavioural observations and ‘Cooperative Teaching’ methods focussed on enrichment, safety, enjoyment and stress-free medical care.
Jake Rendle-Worthington is the chief executive officer of eleCREW and is responsible for overseeing the trust’s operations, including fundraising and financial viability. By profession, Jake is an animal behaviour specialist. He is primarily interested in the intersection between conservation and animal welfare and finding solutions that don’t compromise either. To me, this is very inspiring since animal welfare is not always a priority in conservation practices.
Here Jake answers some questions about his career path and experience working in elephant conservation:
Where are the headquarters of EleCREW located?
We are based in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, which is at the centre of the last great elephant range, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) – home to over 55% of all African elephants.
What is (are) the goal(s) or vision of your organisation?
EleCREW’s vision is an Africa in which humans and elephants coexist in a balanced environment. We aim to achieve this through our CREW programs (see above). We manage a fenced-off area near a dump site in Victoria Falls. The plastic waste in this dump was being consumed by elephants. EleCREW works on many different projects, such as our community bee project.
We also have developed an immersive educational activity with our elephants which acts as a gateway for engaging communities that live with elephants.
Why did you choose this job or career?
It chose me! I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family with a history of working in conservation and animal welfare. My grandfather was a freshwater ecologist, my mother is an ethologist and welfare scientist , and my father is a regenerative farmer. I have been exposed to these things all my life and gained lots of practical experience along the way.
What did you study at university? Which degrees or experiences have helped you to land this particular job?
I did an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Psychology with combined honours. I continued my studies with a master’s in Animal Behaviour, and along the way, I did another MSc in Renewable Energy.
My background in psychology is helpful for working in conservation. It taught me how people impact conservation and animal welfare through behavioural change.
Philosophy is also important when it comes to environmental and animal welfare issues since there are a lot of ethics involved in this field. Being able to navigate those ethical challenges is essential when staying true to your cause. I can use my understanding of animal behaviour daily, particularly the ethological methods and learning theory.
The degree in renewable energy has proved useful when working in remote locations since there is always a need for solar, wind or other off-grid energy solutions.
What is your experience of landing a job in elephant and wildlife conservation? Any tips?
Gain lots of practical experience! There is only so much you can learn academically, and the more time you spend in the field, overcoming practical challenges and observing behaviour and events yet to be described by science will make you all the more valuable to a potential employer.
What is the most amazing moment or highlight of your career?
There have been many! The most amazing moment would be when I was working one day with an elephant called Kariba in one of our Cooperative Teaching sessions. She took my hat with her trunk and placed it daintily on her own head as though she was wearing it! Elephants have such a great sense of humour. Kariba taught me something new that day.
So far, the highlight of my career was publishing “Standards for the Welfare and Management of Elephants in Human Care in Southern Africa“, a multi-stakeholder initiative that I was the main driver of.
It was a collaboration between international animal welfare and behaviour specialists, ethologists, conservationists, wildlife veterinarians, welfare NGOs and inspectors, elephant facility managers, owners and carers of elephants. It took about four years and seven workshops to get to the final draft.
What do you love about your job in conservation?
Being surprised and delighted by seeing things in nature that I’ve never seen before or aren’t described in any literature. The natural world is constantly changing and evolving and that is what makes it so special and amazing. Whether that be seeing an elephant perform a behaviour in the wild that has yet to be described or seeing the leaves of a copper beech change to green without a reasonable explanation.
What do you dislike about your job?
It can get lonely being based in remote locations. You have to manage this and find a way to ensure a sensible work-life balance.
What is your biggest conservation tip for anybody reading this?
Get out there and experience it! As Baba Dioum said, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Any tips for future conservationists or other things you want to share?
Keep an open mind. The natural world is not set; it is dynamic, constantly evolving and changing. This dynamic world has to be understood first for us to engage with it and keep it going for the benefit of our shared continued existence.
Finally, can people get involved with eleCREW?
If you are ever in Victoria Falls you can come and meet our elephants in person and experience our immersive education activity ‘Through the Eyes of an Elephant’.
Author Profile | Fedra Herman
Originally from Belgium, Fedra Herman is currently studying a Master of Conservation Biology at The University of Queensland in Brisbane. She is the creator of The Wandering Biologist blog where she inspires others to live a more sustainable life and shares her adventures as an aspiring wildlife conservationist.