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Studying Elephants in Gabon

Posted on Friday, January 17, 2014

Eli Vitale '14 spent winter break in Gamba, Gabon, participating in an internship with the Smithsonian Gabon Biodiversity program. The program, established in 2000, is a partnership between the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Shell Gabon, and other stakeholders including the Gabon Government.

The purpose of the initiative is to generate a further understanding of biodiversity in the Gamba landscape through scientific research, conservation efforts, and management practices geared toward minimizing the impact of development on biodiversity.

The internship enabled Vitale to pursue an intensive and field-based abroad experience outside the academic semester, something he had not been able to do during the course of the semester because of his academic and athletic commitments. He was a member of the Hobart soccer team through junior year.

"This internship in Gabon has opened up new possibilities for Eli and rekindled his passion for understanding the natural world," says Meghan Brown, associate professor of biology.

As part of the internship, Vitale took part in a study on wild forest elephants. His daily tasks included working in the field checking camera traps that have been strategically placed in the surrounding jungle, tracking down elephants, taking GPS waypoints of their location, and taking dung samples for DNA analysis.

"This experience was an irreplaceable opportunity for me," says Vitale. "I gained valuable experience in a field that I have been passionate about. It has been my dream to study wild animals."

According to Bradley Cosentino, assistant professor of biology, African forest elephants are hard to observe in dense rainforests, so researchers know less about their natural history than Savannah elephants. One problem the elephants of Gabon face is the ease of access that logging roads provide poachers.

"Increased poaching pressure has made the elephants vulnerable to extinction. Eli's fieldwork will be essential for evaluating the status of forest elephant populations and for understanding basic aspects of their life history," Cosentino says.

Lisa Korte, director of the Gabon Biodiversity Program, is pleased with Vitale's work. "Everything worked out well with Eli's internship. He was an enthusiastic and valuable member of our elephant team."

For Vitale, a biology and environmental double major, his interest in the field dates back to his childhood. "I have been interested in wildlife conservation and biology since before I even knew what the terms meant," he says. "As a young boy I had the opportunity to spend countless hours in the woods behind my house in Red Creek, N.Y., studying animal tracks, catching frogs and snakes and hiking."

The opportunity was presented to Vitale by Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Joel Helfrich, who suggested the possibility during a research project the two worked on together. "Professor Helfrich inspired me to pursue this opportunity and pushed me when I doubted it as a possibility. I am extremely thankful for his persistence and his confidence in me."

"To me, the most important part of Eli's experience in Gamba is that he seems to have found his passions -- in his case, for conservation biology," says Helfrich. "One of the key experiences that students should have in higher education is not found in social activities or in learning specific disciplines, but instead in finding and following and mastering your passions. Although the idea is clichéd, I think that is what college is for."

 


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