MU graduate students explore elephant-farmer relationships in Kenya

Monday, November 14, 2011 | 12:15 p.m. CST; updated 7:57 a.m. CST, Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Tabitha Finch, an MU doctoral student, collects an elephant dung sample in a Masai manyatta, or village, in the Mara North Conservancy in Kenya on May 28.

COLUMBIA — It rained hard before MU graduate students Tabitha Finch and Maggie Berglund and Finch's field assistant, Hannah Gicho, went out one day last June to collect elephant dung. It was something they did almost daily during a research project in southwestern Kenya.

Their Toyota Land Cruiser got stuck in a mud hole, and it stayed that way even when several people came to help push it out. They decided to jack up the car and pull mud away from the wheel.


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Right after Gicho pushed down on the handle of the old-fashioned jack, it swung up, hit her in the jaw and sent her flying. She collided with Berglund, knocking them both down.

Gicho began to hyperventilate. Finch dumped out a cloth bag used to carry a toothbrush and medicine to give her something to breathe into.

When they were able to get the car unstuck, they drove about half an hour to the nearest hospital, in Kilgoris, Kenya. Gicho learned that her jaw was broken. She had to have her jaw wired shut for six weeks, which made her duties as translator for the American students more challenging.

That was the scariest experience for Berglund during her stay in Kenya from mid-May to early July. Berglund, a master's student in journalism with an emphasis on science reporting, was there to document Finch's work studying why African elephants raid crops for food.

Such raids have been on the rise as the elephants lose their habitat to farmers making charcoal and growing crops. The elephants can do a lot of damage to the farms, which puts them and the farmers at risk for injury or death, Berglund said. Also, the damaged crops affect the farmers' income and that has ripple effects through their families and communities, including how much education they can afford for their children.

Finch, 26, a doctoral student in biology, is analyzing the dung samples for genetic relationships among elephants, stress hormones and parasites. She hopes to help decrease conflicts between Kenyan farmers and elephants.

As noted on Berglund's blog, The Dung Diaries, Finch did all the dirty work. She was on the lookout for dung piles less than 12 hours old and found them through a network of scouts who reported to Gicho. Finch took three intact samples from each fresh dung pile, measuring the circumference of each to estimate the age of the elephants. She logged the locations of the farms using a GPS and kept a detailed field notebook by hand.

Finch also preserved the dung samples and brought them back to the U.S. to analyze them.

Berglund took photos, audio and video of Finch's work and blogged about it in The Dung Diaries.

“I’m Tabitha's personal paparazzi,” she said, smiling.

Berglund, 37, has a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in environmental education. Her target audience with the blog is K-12 students. She wants to give them an easy-to-understand and lively look at how science happens.

"Science is not a bunch of rules but a specific way of thinking, asking questions and finding answers," Berglund said.

Once in Kenya, Finch had to learn how to drive a stick shift, something Berglund already knew how to do. The real lessons came during her field work, most of the roads to farms where recent raids had occurred were unpaved.

In nice weather, the worst of it was dusty roads and bumps so hard the women smacked their heads on the roof of the car. On rainy days, black mud, which is what the locals call soaking wet soil, posed an obstacle and sometimes a hazard in reaching farms.

Sometimes, though, mud was the least of their concerns. One dung-collection day, they were watching elephants and zebras from their car when a hippopotamus emerged from the bushes. The women were surprised because hippopotamuses typically only come out of the river to graze at night.

Suddenly, the hippopotamus charged in their direction with its jaw gaping, a sign of aggression. Finch recalled thinking, "We're done." Berglund, less fazed, didn't put down her camera until Finch urged her to back the car up.

But then, the hippopotamus hurdled past them, toward the herd of zebra.

Another time, the team rounded a corner and unexpectedly came upon elephants, which had been hidden by trees and bushes. Berglund was excited about being so close to the elephants, but Finch honed in on their flapping ears — a sign they were upset.

“Let’s move,” Finch told Berglund. "If these elephants want to take us out, they can!”

Berglund will stay in Columbia after she graduates, which she estimates will be in May of 2012, and might pursue work in science communication. Finch is considering raising grants for further research after she graduates. Meanwhile, she heads back to Kenya this month for more dung collection.

Finch's feelings about the elephant-farmer conflict changed as a result of spending time there. In regards to the farmers, Finch is not sure what she would do if she had to co-exist with the largest land animal on the planet.

"It's complicated."

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Charles Mason November 14, 2011 | 4:13 p.m.

Why would they needlessly travel all the way to Kenya just to study elephant dung when they could just observe the comments that are placed here?

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro November 14, 2011 | 4:23 p.m.

YOUR comment, and now unfortunately mine, are the only ones currently placed here.

(Report Comment)
Charles Mason November 14, 2011 | 7:11 p.m.

You see? I KNEW some elephant dung would appear if I waited long enough.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor November 14, 2011 | 10:41 p.m.

I can see the conversation now;

Mom and dad ask researcher, "Where is all that money going?".
Researcher says to mom and dad,
"Oh, you know, study sh*t and stuff..."

(Report Comment)

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