In honor of World Elephant Day in August, Indagare’s Alex Schulte sat down with her father, animal behavior biologist Dr. Bruce A. Schulte, to discuss his decades-long research of elephants, what he is currently studying and how tourism can further support elephant conservation and help mitigate human-wildlife conflict.
Few can deny the majesty of an elephant—not only are they the largest land animal, but they are “ecosystem engineers,” responsible for shaping and maintaining their habitat. And while this means they’re integral to their environment, elephant’s coexistence with local communities is not without its challenges. To protect these impressive and endangered animals, we need people dedicated to fostering elephant’s cohabitation with humans. Dr. Bruce Schulte, who has studied elephants for nearly 30 years, is focused on doing just that.
Today, Bruce is a University Distinguished Professor and Associate Vice President for Strategy, Performance & Accountability at Western Kentucky University, and spends much of his time studying elephants in Kenya. “In middle school, I wanted to be a marine biologist,” he says—his hero and inspiration was Jacques Cousteau, the famed divemaster, oceanographer, filmmaker and author who co-invented SCUBA. But when his marine research in India was unfortunately thwarted due to suspicion that he worked for the CIA, he returned to school for his doctorate and switched gears from marine biology to mammalian chemical ecology.
He began this journey by studying the North American beaver—an ecosystem engineer, like elephants—but as he neared completion of his doctorate, he was pointed towards the lab of Dr. L.E.L. “Bets” Rasmussen and the intriguing world of chemical communication by elephants. “From the start,” Bruce says, “my collaboration with Bets was one of deciphering elephant chemical communication, improving the care of elephants in confined spaces and facilitating the coexistence of people and elephants in the wild.” His research program for the past 28 years has continued these lines of study and application.
Much of your work has been with elephants in zoos and circuses. How would you describe your experience working with captive elephants?
“Working with people who care for elephants in captivity has been highly rewarding. These individuals are concerned with the health and welfare of elephants and over the years have been supportive of our research endeavors. Working with animals in a controlled setting allows us to quantify variables that may affect behavior. In our projects, we have been able to collect behavioral data, measure hormones and investigate chemical signals in elephant urine, feces, temporal gland secretions and breath…We learn a great deal to benefit elephants in these facilities and see how that translates to elephants in the wild.”
How are captive elephants important to conservation?
“Most people will never have the opportunity to see elephants in the wild. Elephants housed in facilities across the globe serve as ambassadors for their wild brethren. They encourage people to connect to elephants and hopefully motivate them to protect our planet and make room for elephants and the many other wondrous species on Earth.”
Can you tell me a little bit about your current elephant research and your project in Kenya?
“In 2017, we launched Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in Kenya (ESAK), in partnership with many organizations including my university, Wildlife Works (a company involved in carbon credits and maintaining a wildlife corridor), Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, the Kenya Wildlife Service, Earthwatch Institute and the International Elephant Foundation.
Two major issues confront the conservation of elephants: illegal poaching and competition with humans, referred to as Human Elephant Conflict (HEC). The region of Taita Taveta in Kenya has an estimated population of 15,000 elephants, with 100,000 people residing here and regularly interacting with elephants. From 1995 to 2017 elephants were involved in 61.6 percent of the reported 39,012 human wildlife conflicts in the Greater Tsavo Ecosystem.
The ESAK project combines our understanding of elephant biology with the experimental testing of deterrent fences in the field. We enlist the aid of local farmers to grow crops on their fields and use different fence designs to examine their efficacy. We also work to employ locals and assist with food security.
The coexistence of elephants is further challenged by an environment faced with a changing climate instigated and accelerated by humans. As such, we also collaborate with social scientists to evaluate human perceptions, practices and preferences. Our team’s involvement includes aiding farmers with climate smart agriculture practices and facilitating student education on living with elephants and sustainability.”
How did Covid impact your research and the elephant community?
“All studies have involved combinations of undergraduates, graduate students, animal keepers, veterinarians, citizen scientists and colleagues. In 2020, the pandemic prevented graduate students from traveling to Kenya to conduct their research, and it reduced the ability of our Kenyan colleagues to carry out studies with farmers and villagers. The reduction of people out in wild spaces likely affected many species in a positive manner; however, the loss of tourism and research dollars also hindered conservation efforts.”
Are there any other destinations you would like to visit to continue your research?
“The next destination will depend on the questions being asked and the team involved in answering them. I have worked with elephants in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and I have colleagues in Botswana. I have also traveled to India and Sri Lanka, but never studied Asian elephants in the wild and such work would be enthralling. I would also love to see forest elephants and the desert elephants of Namibia.
Over the years, I have also continued my marine research, moving from coral reef invertebrates to mammals such as Florida manatees, bottlenose dolphins and most recently, harbor porpoise, humpback whales and killer whales. I hope to continue current cetacean studies in Alaska and expand globally.”
When travelers go on an African safari to see wildlife—especially elephants—how can they make a positive impact on supporting elephant conservation and ethical elephant tourism?
“Be prepared, aware, informed, polite and generous. Remember you are the visitor. A tourist should consider where the money they spend goes and how much of it helps local people and conservation efforts. Safari can be a life changing experience for you and those you meet, or simply a box to check on your life list. Choose the life-changing experience.”
How can tourism serve as an agent of change within local communities and in mitigating human-wildlife conflict?
“Meet local people, and if you wish to purchase gifts, buy local from artists, craftspeople or retailers. At home, investigate and support organizations and researchers who fit your philosophy for conservation. The support could be monetary, but other means exist as well, such as promoting them on social media, telling others about their work and contacting your political representatives to support legislation that benefits conservation and confronts climate change.
It is important to recognize that climate change directly affects the food security of people in countries where elephants reside. When people are hungry, conservation is not a high priority. By reducing human impacts on the environment and on the climate, we are helping people and wildlife globally.”
Do you have any insight on how these lessons might be applied in other destinations popular for elephant-sighting, such as Southeast Asia?
“Elephant and wildlife conservation, ecosystem function, food security and climate change are global issues. We have only one planet, and we need to take care of it, now. Ecotourism can be part of the solution. Each of us can make a difference if we take the time to become informed, be active in our local to national politics and be thoughtful global citizens.”