At daybreak, the researchers set off across the tree-dotted plain.
A spotter team in the air swooped over to identify pachyderm potential; a veterinarian and capture crew on the ground then moved in, eventually darting a suitable male.
In just a few minutes, the 5-ton elephant was pacified, and different groups started to work: Watering the animal to prevent overheating, tagging its back with white paint, deploying a collar, measuring tusks, back, and shoulders, estimating age, and taking blood and parasite samples. Soon, the animal lumbered back to its feet and continued on its way.
This was the typical protocol for several successful elephant taggings this spring in Kenya, as part of a partnership between the Beverly-based School for Field Studies and two other programs trying to learn as much as possible about one of the world’s largest mammals.
The goal is to “ask elephants some questions, and actually learn from them,” said project leader Moses Makonjio Okello, a senior director for the School for Field Studies’ center for wildlife management studies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Founded in 1980 – starting out in Kendall Square in Cambridge, then moving to Beverly a few years later — the environmental study program enables roughly 550 students from 300 colleges a year to partake in, and contribute to, ongoing research at its field stations in Africa, Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand, Panama, the Turks and Caicos islands, and Bhutan.
“It’s very hands-on. They understand that you’re a student, but they treat you like a fellow researcher, which can be rare when you’re 18, 19 years old,” said Stoneham native Jennifer Clinton.
While an undergrad at Fairfield University in 2008, she took part in the Turks and Caicos program; she described waking up to crashing waves and spending afternoons out on the water working with fishermen and local fisheries to determine sustainable harvesting practices.
Today, she’s continuing her interest in islands and political policy with an internship at the Institute for European Environmental Policy in Belgium.
“The program really set me on the course I’m on now,” she said via Skype from Brussels. “That was definitely the first major stepping stone on my career path.”
Which is the nonprofit’s goal, explained Mark Seifert, dean of academic programs.
“We want to just inspire,” said Seifert, who also is an alumni of the program. In 1988, he studied deforestation in Costa Rica as an undergrad at the University of Maryland. “They’re seeing the wonders of the world – touching it, feeling it, contributing real knowledge.”
Although based out of the school’s Beverly headquarters, he regularly visits all the sites — including new ones forthcoming next year — traveling about four or five times a year.
“It’s never tiring, even though I’m away for weeks on end and come back with bug bites,” he said. “A bad day in the field is better than any day in a cube.”
By next fall, the Beverly organization will operate programs in 11 countries, with the introduction of two new offerings focused on biodiversity and development in the Amazon in Peru and the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam. Both will focus on environmental ethics, natural resource management, and sustainable development issues, according to Seifert.
Particularly in the Amazon, he said, “students will be enmeshed in this wonderfully rich environment — moist, wet, green, thick, birds, insects, you name it.” Meanwhile, students involved in the Vietnam and Cambodia program will get a chance to see the world-renowned Angkor archeology sites.
In eastern Africa, the focus is on one of the most beloved yet imperiled animals on the planet. The goal of the five-year study, according to Okello, is to determine the preferred habitats, range, and space needs of elephants, how they ultimately interact with humans, and the threats and conflicts they face. The majority of the research is taking place in southern Kenya around Amboseli National Park, an area home to an estimated 1,500 elephants. The issues are compounded by the transitioning of the Maasai people and other ethnic groups from the traditional nomadic, pastoral lifestyles, to more sedentary, agriculture-based ones.
As the endeavor moves forward, various groups of students from the School for Field Studies will have the opportunity to take part, engaging in hands-on research in partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Kenya Wildlife Services. Students will look at the Maasai steppe through the lenses of ecology, resource management, and socioeconomics.
And as the paths of humans and elephant herds continue to criss-cross, those issues become more complex, according to Okello, speaking via Skype from his base in Africa.
Elephants are a “flagship species,” helping boost tourism and conservation awareness on the continent, he said, as well as a “keystone species” important to diversifying habitats for other animals (such as by opening up dense bush through their daily foraging). He also called them one of the most intelligent animals outside of the primate family, with a social organization that reflects that of humans; however, because adults weigh anywhere from 3 to 5 tons, they can do a lot of damage, and ultimately need a lot of room, not to mention resources.
As he noted, they can eat for 16 hours nonstop, and drink 80 to 100 gallons of water a day.
So as the landscape of Africa changes due to human interference and climate change, “there’s a compression and lack of sufficient space,” he said.
Going forward, the project is to focus on five main research areas: First, tracking elephant movements (their general home range, places they frequent, places they avoid); their habitat (their different homes, what draws them to each one, what routes they use); population sizes and structure (what other elephant groups they interact with, how they’re related); the overall cost and benefits to humans (their role in tourism, negative impacts on livestock and crops, the competition they pose); and threats (poaching for their tusks, encroachment of increasing human populations – about 4 percent per year in Kenya – new settlement blocking their migration routes trodden by centuries, retaliatory killings).
Overall, the goal is to encourage separation and discourage competition, while fostering coexistence, he said. Eventually, they also hope to affect policy and planning on a higher level.
What ultimately makes this project unique, Okello noted, is that it attempts to look at the world through the eyes and experiences of the elephants, rather than forcing it through the prism of human understanding.
“Maybe instead of saying ‘the elephant needs this and that,’ maybe we ask the elephant and find ingenious ways of getting answers,” he said during a lecture given earlier this year at the School for Field Studies headquarters.
The initial — and admittedly most challenging and dangerous — step was the collaring process, which took place over several days this spring. Four males and two females were tagged (at a cost of roughly $12,000 each); next year, the goal is to collar another 11, Okello said.
Okello hopes the research leads to a deeper human understanding and appreciation for creatures that have marched back and forth across Africa for thousands of years.
“The courage for humanity to consider other species and their viability is something we need to have,” he said.