Keeping “Elephants Alive” | An interview with Anka Bedetti

For over two decades Elephants Alive has been monitoring and researching one of the largest populations of elephants in South Africa. This work is vital during a time where elephant numbers are under immense pressure from habitat restriction, human-elephant conflict and poaching. 

Anka Bedetti joined Elephants Alive in 2016 as the Tracking and ID Study Projects Manager, one of many different roles that play a part in research and monitoring in support of elephant conservation. In this interview she shares more about her role, how she got there and her advice for conservationists.

Why do you work in conservation?

Personally nature was always something I gravitated towards, it always piqued my interest so it seemed only right that it would be the path I follow. David Attenborough who has inspired so many said, “a wildlife-rich natural world is vital for our well being,” and, being part of that, to ensure this is maintained and happens is ultimately very rewarding. 

Dedicating your life to a cause that effects not only your specific field of interest but has a wider impact on the environment and communities. Conservation effects animals, nature and people and for me it is important to be part of that. 

What are your main activities in your current role?

I am lucky, I have had the opportunity to be working in the field as a research assistant and ecologist. These day I would consider myself more of a desk jockey, conducting the majority of my work from my computer.

My primary role is to monitor the elephants of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation area via satellite real-time tracking system. At Elephants Alive, there are currently 60 active elephants fitted with satellite collars covering a range over South Africa and Mozambique, which works out with 30 elephants either side. 

The comparison of the two different countries allows for quite interesting analysis. The satellite collars produce a signal every 4 hours (lasting three years) and pin pointing the specific location of that elephant allows us to check if they are safe. Ultimately using GIS mapping, modelling spatial data allows for movement signatures to be monitored which can translate into the field as a preventive strategy against poaching. 

Credit: Kevin Andrew MacLaughlin

What is the best part of your job?

The best part of the job is the combination of both research and its application in the field, translating research in to practice because there is a definite need to bridge that gap. The academics carry out amazing studies and analysis and then you have people that are working every day in the field and receive the paper and cant apply the theory. That’s what I love about Elephants Alive and the tracking project; it is trying to make the link between the two so a plan that is accessible can be made resulting in a solution. The on going research at elephants alive is looking at the problem and asking what is the solution and how can this be backed up by science which is very rewarding. 

I love research but I also want to see the difference that research is making in conservation. Having access to technology that wasn’t available 10 years ago is exciting to help bridge the gap between research and field work the ground. Overall the reward is being able to work with elephants and contribute towards their species survival. 

What is the worse part of your job?

Poaching – we had an incident reported not far from one of our own collared elephants. The data transmission from the collar displayed the reaction of the elephants following the poaching incident. I can see it all happening on my computer screen and you know that once again the poachers have won. 

Then there are elephants that are part of Human Elephant Conflict cases, as data shows elephants for kilometres far out of the boundaries of the park and cross over into human inhabited land. This can result into devastating effects for humans and elephants. Those type of incidences are very disheartening but it is exactly why we as conservationist have a job, to stop it from happening again. 

What are your career highlights/ proudest moment so far?

Being awarded my Masters degree in Evolution and Behavioural Biology was a huge achievement for me, even though that was ten years ago now. It has led to where I am now, working for Elephants Alive, giving me the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of people and in particular meeting and working closely with Sir Iain Douglas Hamilton the founder of Save the Elephants. I have had the opportunity to visit them in Kenya, and from these opportunities you become involved with other projects and now I am working towards my PhD combining my work and my passion. It doesn’t get much better than that. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into a similar role?

There is always this huge pool of volunteers, which is amazing and it definitely helps for your career progress, but you cant volunteer forever and eventually you need to make a living. 

I would say to someone who wants to work in the world of conservation, get your skills before you go out into the field. If you’re in a position to go and obtain your Bachelor’s degree or your master’s degree, even if it’s not in conservation, there are always transferable skills. 

What I have noticed and my colleagues also say is they can’t find people with the skills to do statistics, GIS mapping and programming. Having these types of skills can get your foot through the conservation door. A lot of people love animals and want to save them, which is wonderful, but if you want to work in this field what practical skills can you offer? I urge students to do that extra statistic module nobody enjoys doing and then go into the field and gain some hands-on experience. This along with networking and you will find yourself having a lot more to offer. 

As an example, I did a three-month internship in South Africa assisting research on road kill. Initially I thought to myself, “I didn’t travel all this way to look at squashed toads or peel unidentifiable dead things off the side of a road,” but it was with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) who are a massive conservation organisation. By this point I already had my master’s with my GIS mapping skills and could offer those services straight away and that’s how I got my foot through the door and was able to network with others from the EWT. That is actually how I got the ball rolling into the elephant research. 

There is no lack of passion in conservation; it’s transferring that passion into the practical skills required. 

What are your next steps?

My plate is really, really full right now, it is funny to think that far ahead. I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to turn the tracking project at Elephants Alive into a PhD. About 80% of the work I am doing at the moment can be used for my PhD which is what I am working towards. I am just about to complete my first year into my PhD project, another three left…. 

If you’d like to learn more about Elephants Alive you can visit their website or Facebook page.

Main image credit: Kevin Andrew MacLaughlin

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Project Manager