Rachael Gross

PhD Student

Rachael Gross is currently researching how African Savanna Elephants (Loxodonta africana) are responding to climate change with a focus on their susceptibility to drought, and how decolonisation is the key to future elephant management and conservation. The project sits at the intersection of conservation and ecology, GIS, community-based management, and climate change and focuses both on the Africa-wide population and is accentuated by some key case studies in Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia.

Prior to started a PhD in 2019, Rachael completed a Bachelor of Science at ANU majoring in biology and biodiversity conservation before completing H1 Honours at the Fenner School in 2017, her honours project was also on how elephants are responding to climate change but focused more on behaviour than broad ecology. Rachael also works as a tutor and demonstrator for several Fenner courses and more broadly works in science communication and outreach.

    Research interests

    Project Title: Climate Change: the African Elephant in the Room.


    Elephants cannot sweat and as the largest terrestrial mammal, African Savannah Elephants (Loxodonta africana) have very poor heat transfer mechanisms and are biophysically susceptible to drought so they rely heavily on external water sources. Higher temperatures and decreasing rainfall are known to have negative effects on the immediate behavior and survival of elephants, but very little long term research has been done on their movement or spatial dynamics in response to a changing climate which is becoming evident as the drought across Southern Africa gets worse. With 84% living within protected areas, and most populations being fenced in – they are unable to migrate to their ancient water sources while their perennial water continues to dry up. My research aims to highlight that elephants are and will continue to respond to climate change, and that this response is a risk to themselves, other vulnerable species and vulnerable communities inside and outside the parks by using predominantly GIS and a community-based approach.

    This project is a combination of geographic information systems, African Savannah Elephant (Loxodonta africana) ecology and conservation, community-based management and climate change. It is exploring how elephants are responding to climate change-induced drought, and how their response may impact their survival, that of other vulnerable species and local communities and looks to how this situation may be managed in the future.

    Research Questions:

    1. Are and how are African elephants responding to climate change, and will this response be a risk to their survival, impact other endangered species and have a negative effect on their surrounding communities?
    2. Is the current research on elephant ecology and movement biased towards certain countries and parks that may not be adequately indicative of the wider elephant population and could refocusing on small parks alleviate this?
    3. How can local communities be involved in the cultural and natural resource management of elephants to best prepare them for the associated issues of climate change-induced drought?