Hello, my name is Katrina Leser and I am a student at North Carolina State University, USA. Last semester, I was given the amazing opportunity to intern with the Rory Hensman Conservation and Research Unit. My main objective was to help establish an elephant DNA lab. With help from the National Zoological Gardens and the Forensic Sciences Institute of North Carolina State University, RHCRU was able to lay the foundation for the lab. The aim of the project is to create a comprehensive genetic landscape of the elephant population in South Africa. Not only can this information be used to give landowners insight into their herds for management decisions, but also as a tool for law enforcement to use in future criminal prosecutions. Furthermore, researchers interested in elephant genetics and conservation will have limited access to the database, allowing the information to contribute to our overall understanding of the species.
During my time in South Africa, I worked mainly on the project in an administrative and organizational capacity; writing grant and permit applications, reaching out to elephant owners, organizing equipment, and acting as a liaison between the three organizations involved. I also collected the first samples. Working on this project has opened my eyes to the challenges of conservation. While most countries struggle with increasing their elephant populations, many South African reserves face the opposite problem: an overpopulation of animals. This leads to a large amount of damage to the vegetation which in turn threatens the habitat of other animals, including endangered species. Our hope is that this project will offer a potential solution, providing a scientific approach for reserves to manage their elephants populations. For example, they can use the genetic information to choose which animals should be administered contraceptives or which ones may be candidates for relocation. Most importantly, by increasing our knowledge of the elephant population in South Africa and working closely with those who care for the animals daily, we can better help preserve them for the future.