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Making a promise to an elephant with Dr Kate Evans

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Dr Kate Evans (pronouns: she/her) is the founder and director of Elephants for Africa, a non-profit organisation dedicated to African elephant research and conservation. While Elephants for Africa focuses their research around male elephant ecology in Botswana, it also partners with organisations in South Africa and Malawi currently as well as hosting many international students and collaborators. We speak about Kate’s journey through the world of African wildlife conservation as well as her experiences balancing motherhood with your career, overcoming dyslexia to complete a PhD and the process of starting and running a non-profit organisation for elephant conservation.

Making a promise to an elephant with Dr Kate Evans | #itsawildlife

KATE’S JOURNEY

Kate has always been a global citizen – born in the UK but living and working abroad across Europe, the middle east and Africa – and from a young age, she has been called to elephant conservation after making a promise to an elephant back when she was seven years old. She explains –

“I made a promise to an elephant when I was very young and that was basically my calling. I wouldn’t say it’s a vocation or a job – it’s a calling: some are called to church, I was called to elephants.”

While living in Pakistan, her family took a holiday to Sri Lanka where they visited an elephant sanctuary. Kate explains –

“There was a young elephant there who had recently lost its herd and was now in human care. It was visibly upset in my memory – crying and distraught – obviously its world had been turned upside down and I remember feeling that was incredibly unfair. And so, that was the elephant I made a promise to!”

Although she had always loved nature, it was elephants that captured Kate’s imagination! And it was her determination and her vision from that experience that motivated Kate and inspired her journey towards dedicating herself to elephant conservation. At school, no one was sure how to help Kate achieve this goal –

“When I went to the school careers officer and I said I wanted to be an elephant biologist, they had no idea what I needed to do!

Kate ended up taking science for her A-levels and then enrolling in zoology at university, inspired by David Attenborough who did those same studies. Although she struggled through school, once she started her zoology degree, Kate thrived!

“Having struggled through school, I managed to get into university and then I really thrived. I think having found the subject that was really my passion, it became easier for me to study and to learn and to do better academically.”

Once she had her degree under her belt, Kate realised she needed some practical field experience. Having always loved the outdoors and done activities like army cadets that helped her feel confident in her bush skills and camp crafts.

“I worked for a while in a factory and then left with money to go volunteering as many of us do at the start of our conservation careers… I worked and volunteered throughout Southern Africa.”

The first stop was Namibia and then Kate ended up in Botswana where she began falling in love with the country and the people there.

“I felt welcome. I felt safe. And having friends and connections in South Africa, I knew I had a safe place to go if things were to go wrong as a woman traveling alone. That just gave me the security and the confidence to be in Southern Africa and explore the opportunities there.”

Botswana is also home to the largest remaining elephant population in the world which is a big tick box if you’re an aspiring elephant biologist! Kate began exploring avenues whilst she was in the country. Initially, she began working on hippo ecology in the Okavango Delta of northern Botswana, the largest inland delta in the world.

“Living in the Delta was incredible. We had a rodent plague and all sorts going on – we’d walk into elephants, lions, you name it, we encountered it! And, my field skills went from pretty good to extremely good in quite a short time, and I felt comfortable reading animal behavior….”

“I felt more and more confident about establishing myself there, establishing myself as a field biologist.”

When Kate left the hippo project, serendipitously she caught a ride with a lady whose partner was involved in lion research. After their conversation in the car, Kate ended up working with them for a year and completing her Masters investigating lion parasitology.

“Again, working in the Okavango Delta following lions around sounds very glamorous! But I was collecting their poo the less glamorous aspect of biology.”

Although part of her would have loved to stay on – it was a wonderful camp with a wonderful family – Kate felt it was time to go and find her elephant work. Thanks to the network she had managed to grow, Kate put some feelers out and was setting up another project looking at population dynamics and female elephant ecology when someone got in touch who actually owned elephants. He was interested in rewilding his young males because he knew they’d leave the herd in when they hit adolescence.

“He basically said he’d fund one aspect of what became my PhD and I was suddenly thrown into the world of male elephants – which was when I realized how little we know about them relative to females.”

Kate felt there was a lot they needed to learn.

“After all, how can we conserve and manage a population when we only really know about the females when it comes to social lives?”

“And I think that a downfall of conservation management is that we often think about the ecology and the numbers, but rarely consider the social system and interactions!”

And unsurprisingly, this very quickly became Kate’s passion to understand male elephants and importantly, get people talking about the social requirements of all this wonderful species!

“We hope we can conserve and ensure that future generations can enjoy elephants, but if we fail to consider the social needs of social herd animals we are destined to fail”.

COMPLETING A PHD WITH DYSLEXIA

Overcoming challenges and expectations has always been a key part of Kate’s story. Although she didn’t do particularly well at school and found it extremely challenging, Kate pushed through to complete her Bachelor of Science, her Masters and enrolled in her PhD. While she was writing up her PhD thesis, Kate was diagnosed with dyslexia as she explains –

“When you’re writing up your PhD and you’re told you have a reading age of 12, there’s a massive crush of confidence, they call it imposter syndrome now.”

“As well as dyslexia, I also have Irlan syndrome, which many dyslexics have where the words are just a river of mixed letters on the page. For me, I get bold letters that distract me, and so I might think I’ve read the page, but I’ve just been hopping around with this distraction of letters that flash up.”

Despite this, Kate’s passion for the project and the support of her friends and family inspired her to push through and she submit her thesis. There are also systems she has been able to implement, especially with improvements in technology such as spell checks, dictation and getting text read out loud that can make things easier.

Kate emphasises that learning about and using the tools that are out there to help you is important if you do think you’re dyslexic as well as accepting and embracing your differences. She explains –

“I’m happy to be different. It’s a good thing to be different, and the team that I’ve built around me are different. They think differently, and that’s why we’re such a good team. You don’t want only like-minded people. Yes, you want to have a vision of conservation and coexistence, but if you can surround yourself with wonderful, supportive people that think differently, you’ll do great.”

ELEPHANTS FOR AFRICA

Throughout her PhD, Kate felt fortunate to have her sponsor, but she quickly realized she needed to diversify her income if she wanted to expand her studies to include other elements of elephant ecology. She began establishing relationships with a network of other funders.

“I think it’s pretty clear that whilst getting a Masters and PhD was fantastic, it was never on my agenda and while I’m glad I did it, it was not my end goal.”

One of the challenges Kate faced as a young female biologist was not being taken seriously or being listened to. She explains–

“I would often go into meetings and realize that whilst I had experience and a lot to say, I wasn’t being listened to. And I’ve had situations where I’ve gone into a room with my now husband and people spoke to him rather than me – and he’s not a biologist. So, getting a Masters and PhD gave me some kudos in that kind of world.”

Kate’s vision had always been a long-term monitoring program and she felt the best way to achieve this was establishing an NGO to ensure that there was credibility behind the money she received for the project.

“While people had faith in me, which is lovely, I wanted them to donate through a charity so that there was more transparency and more opportunities to attract other funders as well.”

Since becoming a charity, Elephants for Africa has worked not only in wildlife conservation but also in capacity building within the local community. Kate explains –

“Four or five years ago we said we wanted a minimum 80 % of our staff to be local and we’ve achieved that. Although we’re only a small charity we want to aim for a more balanced mix of people representing African biodiversity, African conservation, and African elephants.”

WOMEN IN WILDLIFE SCIENCE

Early on in her career, Kate became aware of the attrition of women in academia. She explains –

“If I think about conservation, there are a lot of women, especially amongst young biologists, but the attrition is there which leaves very few female role models to aspire to.”

Balancing your career with motherhood is also a leading cause of this female attrition from higher-level positions. Kate, as a mother of two, shares some of her insights from integrating her family life with her career.

“It’s the most wonderful thing and the most awful thing – and I say that with a clear conscience because you know motherhood and being a parent is always seen through rose-tinted glasses.”

“Throughout my career, it was never spoken about how to integrate a family into a career – any career – because still in this day and age, it’s fundamentally down to the woman most of the time to do a lot of the parenting and a lot of the care.”

“I have an incredibly supportive husband who does a lot of that but western society and the world that we live in is still very enabling for the man to build his career while the woman takes the cost of the choice to have children.”

“So often, I think we are sold this perfect ideal [of motherhood] and no one discusses with a new mother, the difficulties of just getting pregnant and then being pregnant and then childbirth. I’m a very practical person and I want to know the pros and cons.”

Initially, Kate found it was easier to balance her field work with being a new mum but although her little ones love nature, there are times when she can’t combine her family life with fieldwork:

“Very early on it was easy because they’re quite portable when they’re little. So, they just came with me and did field work with me which was great! Now they’re less portable, so they stay home when I go to the field but I’m looking forward to the day when they’ll come with me.”

Kate demonstrates it is possible to be a career biologist and a mother but explains the importance of balance:

“Often, I was breastfeeding on the desk whilst typing emails and writing funding applications and reports and all the rest of it… So, you juggle, you do the best you can. And, there comes a point where you have to accept that you have to come first. And I think that’s the one thing with motherhood. You know, you, you don’t come first.”

One of the big things that struck Kate as soon as she had a child was feeling a loss of identity.

“I became so-and-so’s mom but I don’t really want to talk about nappies and all, I’m really interested in, like politics and environment and conservation… So, it’s about finding your tribe because there are other women out there like you. Completely love their children, adore them, will do anything for them and with them, but they need their own life as well. They need their own identity.”

Kate’s top advice for biologists considering motherhood is to know what you’re getting into.

“I mean you know that’s what you’re getting into but what does it mean – physically, emotionally – and find that tribe, take them on the journey with you, and ask for help when you need it.”

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