Memphis Zoo employee works with elephant organization in Africa, brings knowledge back home

By Published: April 25, 2019 4:48 PM CT

Jenny Mitchell woke to the roar of lions in the night. The Memphian was lying in a tent just outside Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana, Africa, and the sound was unsettling.

“It sounded like lions were right outside my tent,” she said. “They weren’t. They were much further away, but the sound carries a lot better in Africa.”

Mitchell also had to go to the restroom. But the 100-meter walk was too dangerous to take at night, so she squatted outside her tent.

“I was super nervous,” she said. “Nothing is fenced in, so there’s no telling what’s out there. It’s the time when animals are most active.”

Some of the wildlife Mitchell might have run into? Leopards, hippos, scorpions and elephants.

Mitchell is a pachyderm keeper at the Memphis Zoo who works with elephants and rhinos. In February, the zoo sent her to Botswana for two weeks to help Elephants for Africa, a nonprofit that works to lower human-elephant conflict in the wild.

The zoo awarded Mitchell the trip through its Conservation Action Network, which supports conservation-focused research and initiatives, including EFA. The zoo has been partnered with the organization since 2011, and it’s the fourth time it has sent an employee to help out EFA.

The Conservation Action Network (CAN) has helped a variety of other causes as well, said Steve Reichling, director of conservation and research at the Memphis Zoo.

“We brought in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers to help our researchers study endangered Wyoming toads” in Wyoming, Reichling said.

Other projects that CAN grants have aided, while also benefiting zoo employees who participated, include pine snake trapping and population monitoring in Louisiana and sending biologists to the Marianas Islands to do translocations of endangered birds from one island to another.

As for Elephants for Africa, the zoo primarily supports the organization through financial aid. Mitchell’s job was to deliver infrared digital game cameras. Had they been shipped, the equipment could have been broken or stolen. Mitchell was excited to contribute to the organization, as was the zoo.

“A big part of modern zookeepers’ jobs is conservation education,” she said. “We want people to see animals in the zoo and realize there are still animals in the wild, and that people need to remember those animals may be struggling. We’ve had this relationship with EFA and we want to take care of any type of organization that is on the front line, taking care of animals we’re displaying as ambassadors.”

Elephants for Africa brings a holistic approach to conservation. It works toward a peaceful cohabitation between elephants and humans in Botswana, home to Africa’s largest elephant population, and mitigates conflict between the two.

“The biggest issue is that the world has too many people and not enough space,” Mitchell said. “Cohabitation is key.”

Tensions between elephants and rural communities in Botswana are fraught and long-standing, and both elephants and humans have lost lives in a conflict for resources. Elephants will raid fields and break fences around national parks, which contaminates farmers’ livestock. Coming across elephants in day-to-day life can be dangerous, and the fear of run-ins with the animals can keep people away from work.

“I can’t speak for every family,” Mitchell said. “But I’m sure they all know someone who’s been hurt by an elephant, or someone that’s had cattle killed by lions. The perception of animals is negative.”

Elephants, meanwhile, can attack humans because they feel startled or threatened.

“Unless it’s a young male, or maybe someone with a calf,” Mitchell said, “they’re not really going to see humans as a threat unless you’re doing something threatening.”

It’s also possible elephants attack humans because of past mistreatment.

“Elephants are incredibly smart,” Mitchell said. “We talk about villagers having bad experiences. It could be the same. An elephant could have been attacked by humans, so it has that memory as well.”

EFA works to mitigate human-elephant conflict through various ways, including research. Elephants travel through distinct paths, and if the organization can establish these routes, it can better alert farmers and other locals when an elephant might be nearby.

The game cameras donated by the zoo and delivered by Mitchell have been set up in and around Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Over the next few years, they will take hundreds of thousands of photos to help EFA understand these movement patterns. Valuable information like this can be relayed to farmers, which can save crops and lives.

“It will give them a heads up,” Mitchell said. “Maybe they don’t walk alone that night. Maybe they have an extra pair of eyes, maybe they take an extra flashlight.”

Farmers can also burn chili to protect their crops, as elephants don’t like the smell. If farmers are aware an elephant might be coming before it gets there, they have more time to prepare.

Educating the community is another large part of EFA’s mission. It holds educational workshops for adults and teaches them how to react if they come across elephants in the wild.  

“Part of it is knowing that if they see an elephant to obviously not run away super-fast, but to back up quietly,” Mitchell said.

EFA also partners with schools in the area, as it wants students to develop an understanding and respect for the creatures. They teach children about the benefits of elephants and take them on game drives, which allows kids to observe wildlife up close and ask conservationists questions.

“They talk them through it – how it is OK to be in somewhat of a proximity if you do it safely and not in a way that’s going to negatively impact the animal or put yourself in danger,” Mitchell said.

Elephants are an integral part of Africa’s ecosystem, and this is something EFA makes clear. By knocking down trees and opening bushy areas, they increase the amount of grass available to other herbivores. The distinct pathways they use offer easy travel routes for other species, and elephants act as seed dispersers, facilitating the growth of woody species as they move through the region.

They’re also beloved symbols around the world, and ones in decline. In 2007, an estimated 472,000 elephants lived in Africa, according to the EFA. By 2013, the number had decreased to 436,000. The Wildlife Conservation Society asserts that 96 elephants are killed by humans in Africa each day, and they’re classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Memphis Zoo has five female African elephants. Four retired from circus life but were born in the wild. One, Tyranza, is the oldest African elephant in captivity in North America at 55 years old. 

After she delivered the cameras, Mitchell spent two weeks helping EFA by entering data, working educational workshops for kids and observing elephants. She learned a lot on the trip and was inspired by the organization. Now back at the Memphis Zoo, she’s strengthened her resolve to help animals both here and abroad.

“It’s amazing to see elephants in the wild,” she said. “And it’s an awesome thing. But on the flip side, we need to remind people coming to the zoo and seeing these animals that elephants in the wild aren’t doing so well. The world has a lot of people, and we need to be more aware of our impact, so we can figure out how to live alongside everything that is on this world.”


Memphis Zoo Makgadikgadi Pans National Park

John Klyce

John Klyce is a freelance writer for The Daily Memphian

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