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Life as a researcher

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Recently I got the amazing opportunity to be interviewed on details regarding my masters project and the unique herd of elephants I observe daily. I am so honored to be part of such an amazing family at the lodge and be entrusted in conducting such important research!

“Many of our followers may know that we’ve embarked on a long-term research project to get an understanding of the physiological and behavioural impact, that human interaction may have on the resident elephant herd. This is quite an intensive process that involves a comparison between the free-roaming elephants on Kapama Game reserve and our semi-captive herd. Chloe Grotto, our resident researcher, collects data for this project on a daily basis.

She answered a few questions in order for us to get to know her better:

Where are you from and what brought you to South Africa?

I am from Chicago, Illinois in the United States. I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor in Animal Science. I then accepted an internship at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, working as their endocrinologist intern for seven months. There I studied stress and reproduction hormones on animals, ranging from red river hogs to African elephants. I even got to call the hormone drop (progesterone drop) on one of our pregnant female elephants before she gave birth a few days later.

My fellow intern and best friend at Animal Kingdom, Macie Smith, showed me this posting from the University of Pretoria saying that they were searching for a new master’s student. The programme focused on fecal glucocorticoids, and the same stress hormones I had experience with while working at Disney. I immediately applied for the position and was fortunate enough to be chosen.

I literally completed my internship at Disney a month after the University’s offer, packed my bags and traveled home for a few weeks to apply for my visas and get my travel vaccinations, and then was in South Africa the following month! Those two months were quite hectic, but it was so worth it in the end!

Explain to us what research you are doing?

My research project for my master’s degree through the University of Pretoria is on the physiological and behavioural measures of animal welfare in relation to an African elephant interaction programme. Currently I am collecting both behavioural and hormonal data on the herd here at Camp Jabulani, and I am also collecting fecal samples from the wild elephants on the Kapama Game Reserve.  I will compare the stress levels of the wild herd to that of the Camp Jabulani herd. Basically, I am trying to see if there is a significant difference between elephants who participate in human interaction programmes and those who do not. I am hopeful that the findings from this study will help management practices of semi-captive elephants in the future.

What did you anticipate/expect to find in South Africa?

I have wanted to travel to South Africa since I was a little girl and saw an African elephant for the first time in a zoo back in the United States. I didn’t really expect South Africa to be so similar to the States. When I first arrived in Pretoria, I saw all the advertisements, McDonald’s signs and various malls you could walk into and realized it felt very similar to home.  

Were you surprised about what you discovered?

On the second day on campus at the University of Pretoria, I stopped to find multiple people gathered around this tree. Looking up, I discovered a family of monkeys eating fruits off the trees. The campus is surrounded by roads so I was very surprised to find wildlife, let alone monkeys, up in a tree on campus! Squirrels and students’ pet dogs were about the coolest animals I saw at my university back in the States. I was also surprised to find how genuine and incredibly friendly South Africans are! I never expected to make such amazing friends and connections in such a short space of time.

What’s in a typical day for you?

Every morning I get up and get ready to go into the bush with the elephants and their keepers. I put on at least three different kinds of insect repellent to try and deter at least a few of the ticks. I go out with the keepers at around 9 am and walk with the elephants to the assigned area in the bush where they will feed for the day. I usually rotate between the keepers, since I have become such great friends with all of them. I switch between leading and calling the elephants or following behind them, making sure none of the young ones stray too far off. I then walk with two of the keepers throughout the bush as the elephants browse and observe what they are doing for several hours.

Every 5 minutes I observe what each elephant is doing and record it on a large data sheet. I will compile the behavioral data I collect later next year when I am in the laboratory on the university site. Two days a week, I collect fecal samples from all of the 15 elephants in the herd. What might sound like hard and smelly work has actually become one of my favourite days in the week, and that I look forward to! The keepers and I have created almost a competition out of it, seeing which team of keepers and I can collect the most amount of fecal matter in a day. It might sound easy, but you would be surprised how an elephant suddenly becomes too shy to poop on the day you need it most! We are so close to getting every single sample in one day, but our best record so far is 14 in a day.

What challenges have you faced?

In the beginning, it was very hard for me to adjust to the weather here and the time spent in the bush. In Chicago, the weather shifts often and there is usually a decent amount of cloud coverage or a breeze during the day. Adjusting to intense sunlight and temperatures exceeding 40 degrees C (104 F), while walking for several hours in the bush, was quite the challenge. I quickly learned to stock up on sunscreen, taking plenty of water and to always wear a hat!

Do you smell of dung at the end of the day?

Fortunately for me elephant dung is mainly composed of hay and grasses, which are not too smelly! I use to work in an endocrine laboratory before I came to South Africa, and I had to process carnivore and primate fecals. Let me tell you, you will not have any nose hairs left after smelling tiger poop! Decomposing meat is a smell that unfortunately sticks to clothing very well, or so my roommates use to tell me when I came home from work.

Which local words did you learn first, and what do they mean?

I get to lead a bit of a double life out here when it comes to languages. I spend each morning with the elephant keepers, who are primarily from Zimbabwe and speak Shona. I greet them with “Mangwanani Akanaka” which means good morning. When I come back from the bush to the lodge, my friends primarily speak Afrikaans, so I greet them with “Môre Môre Môre!” which means morning as well! It has been really fun to learn so many new traditions, cultures and languages here! 

What is your favourite insect and which one do you find most disgusting? 

My favourite insect out here would have to be the dung beetle, because they are some of my biggest helpers when it comes to finding a fresh sample. As soon as the elephants drop the first bolus, you can see the dung beetles beginning to take flight and scope out their target. My least favourite insect by far is the red roman. They move as quick as lightning, chop off locks of hair to make their nests with and they are classified as an ant, even though they look like a demonic spider. Those things give me the heebie jeebies! Since I have moved to the bush I have really tried to acclimatise from my previous life in the city. I have learned, however, that my strong dislike for certain insects has not changed much.

We are very fortunate to have someone with Chloe’s background, skills and tenacity as part of the Camp Jabulani family, and just know that we are going to learn so much from her and vice versa. Chloe will be bringing you updates on the research process as she goes along, before publishing her final findings in the near future.

Please join us in wishing Chloe everything of the best with her research.

The Camp Jabulani Family”