Triple Threat: African elephants, climate change and community-based management - HDR Exit Seminar

*Please note: all are welcome to attend this seminar without booking. The registration link is for access to the Zoom streaming of this seminar ONLY.*

As climate change induced droughts across Southern and Eastern Africa intensify in both length and severity, it is critical to understand how wildlife, people and landscapes are responding to best prepare for a future under similar or worsening conditions. Elephants (Loxodonta africana), as the largest terrestrial animal, are a keystone species and the most significant ecosystem engineers within their environments. Elephants can provide a key example of how megafauna are and will respond to extreme climate conditions, and how this will further strain their relationship with local communities. Elephants are particularly susceptible to drought as they cannot perspire and rely heavily on surrounding surface water to stay cool. So, how will they maintain their health in climate conditions characterised by consistently high ambient air temperatures and low precipitation? With extraordinarily high cultural, ecological and economic value, it is imperative to know as their behaviour influences everything and everyone around them.

Rachael’s PhD has focused on understanding how elephants are responding to drought conditions largely using geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing technologies. Her research spans a continental through to local series of analysis with a focus on spatial habitat use in the past and present. This includes a continent-wide habitat suitability model, down to case studies in Botswana, Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe. The research also highlights how elephant research needs to be diversified to overcome systemic research barriers moving forward. Most importantly, her research delves into how the relationship between elephants and local communities has been fractured by colonisation and the establishment of protected areas under the Yellowstone Model. Rachael shows how integrating community-based management and decolonising the research, management and conservation of elephants is best to prepare the wildlife, people and landscape in Africa for a difficult future in drought conditions competing for the same resources.

With a combination of GIS, ecology and philosophy – this project provides an overview from a cellular to a landscape level of how elephants are susceptible and responding to severe drought conditions. Pursuing her research on an international species throughout the pandemic is a testament to the capabilities of researchers to bypass the trap of colonial and parachute science through remote sensing and interrogating systemic barriers to scientific research, specifically ecology. Importantly, it challenges the standard approach to ecology with evidence to show that treating ecology and society as separate entities is not ethical, thorough or accurate on colonised landscapes.


Rachael Gross (she/her) is a PhD scholar at the Fenner School of Environment and Society on Ngunnawal/Ngunawal Country and is working on the conservation of African elephants, mitigation of climate change impacts and decolonisation of protected areas. She is an interdisciplinary ecologist with a focus on wildlife conservation, geography and political ecology. She has been a student of the Fenner School for 10 years, having completed a Bachelor of Science specialising in biodiversity conservation, and going on to receive first class Honours in 2017 with a project also focusing on elephants. Rachael has a background in undergraduate teaching, science-communication and community outreach/development. Her broad research interests are decolonisation, landscape and wildlife conservation and geographic information systems. Upon PhD submission, she hopes to pursue a research and teaching career nestled between ecology and society with a strong focus on amplifying the voice and autonomy of global First Nations communities in this space.