086: Kate Evans Story

Dr Kate Evans, Founder and Director of charity called Elephants for Africa, shares her story and tell us how her passion and interests in elephants shaped her career. Kate is an award winning behavioural ecologist and conservation biologist who conducted her PhD ‘The behavioural ecology and movements of adolescent male African elephant in the Okavango Delta, Botswana’ through the University of Bristol.

With over 20 years of experience as a field biologist throughout Southern Africa on a variety of species, she has a solid understanding of the challenges of large mammal conservation, the complexities of conflict and the importance of stakeholder relationships. 

Kate is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and a member of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group and the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre.

My PhD taught me many things and amongst those was how my work could potentially influence policy. The politics of working in different environment: academia and the challenges of working with difficult characters. So diplomacy certainly helped me through my PhD and since in a conservation is not just about biology, it’s not just about elephant. It is about working with stakeholders from the ground up and from the top down, to instill policy preferably, long term policy. 

“Dr Kate Evans”

If you are curios how Kates interest shaped her career, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!


Transcript

Hello, I am Kate Evans, and I am gonna apologize in advance for any background noise you may hear as I’m recording this from my tent at The Elephants for Africa research camp which is on the Boteti River in the Central District of Botswana. So whilst it’s quiet, it’s night time at the moment and we are by river and there are hippos that can make some noise. So I apologize in advance if they interrupt but otherwise it should be fairly quiet but we’ll see.

So, I am here to talk about my PhD, well my PhD led me here. I am talking to you from a tent in the middle of Botswana. So I did not set out to do a PhD, in fact far from it. Post degree that was it for me really and I’d struggled academically in school but I knew I wanted to be a field biologist, more importantly I knew I wanted to be an elephant conservationist. So I figured in spite of no valid career advice, I worked up myself that a zoology degree was the right degree for me.

And at that time in the U. K. you applied and then you also had interviews and I fell for Swansea University, which is in Wales. And I think they let me in because I didn’t get my grades at A level, they let me in on clearing, I think because I had a good interview and I think the professor saw my passion and my possibility. And for that I’m extremely grateful because as soon as I started my zoology degree I had found my path. I was really interested in it, I was passionate about it and that of course made learning a whole lot easier.

So I got my degree and did quite well really and that was it. I was off to save the world and off to save the elephants in particular. But I had some doubts about me. As I was very outdoor kid, I was quite able, I believe in camping and orienteering and all those kind of things. I didn’t know whether I could be a field biologist, you know, you have this romantic view of what a field biologist was but I was very aware that it’s going to be hard work. You’re living in remote locations a lot of time and it’s more than just the theory of being a biologist, it is learning to survive and more can be quite challenging environments.  

And so after having worked in a factory for six months, I had enough money to travel the world, except I didn’t get very far. I ended up in Africa and I pretty much stayed there. I first volunteered in Namibia and then throughout the southern African region and ending up in Botswana in 1997, gosh! That’s long time ago and fell in love with the place really.

I had lived in South Africa as a child and what I found in Botswana was, apart from a fresh air, that I didn’t feel that I was categorized as white European. I felt very welcome and they have a lot of wildlife and are very pro-conservation, so I felt that I could contribute. They also happen to be home to the largest remaining elephant population and so I felt like found my home and it was here that I wanted to do work. So I set about finding a project. And in the meantime I ended up having an opportunity to do my masters on lion parasitology. Lion parasitology, again being a field biologist, lions, everyone thinks, oh that’s great, but in reality you are collecting lion poop for a year and which is less great but very interesting. It’s amazing what you can find from poop.So I was self-funded at again Swansea university and I had the opportunity to expand that into a PhD, but again that wasn’t my passion. I didn’t set out to further my academic career through ticking boxes, what was my passion was elephants. In fact I did my masters because I realized quite early on that having an honors degree wasn’t going to be enough to get me where I wanted to be and also to earn the respect of people within wildlife departments, policy makers, etc. I 

realized that further education would better train me to be an elephant biologist and elephant conservation, but also to play amongst the stakeholders, I guess. 

So I found the place in to do my…So I came up with a project in elephant ecology up in the very north of Botswana. And off I went back to the U. K. to find a supervisor which I managed to secure at Bristol university so I had my place. And then another opportunity came along through a corporate sponsor to fund my PhD, if a component of that would be rewilding capture raised individuals. So I jumped at that chance and these were all young males and started my journey on elephant ecology and more specifically on bull elephant ecology. So I guess, moving back to the PhD, I could go on about elephants all the time but that’s not why you are listening.

For the PhD, it really was part of my journey and it gave me a platform for long term elephant monitoring, which was my focus. It’s really, I believe important when you are studying such charismatic and long lived okay selected species such as elephant. They have long term data. It is only through the long term data that you can really understand the behavioral needs met behavior ecology, which is what I am. It also gave me a platform to post PhD to set up a charity and now NGO. So charity in Wales, England and NGO in Botswana.

So my PhD taught me many things and amongst those was how my work could potentially influence policy. The politics of working in different environment: academia and the challenges of working with difficult characters. So diplomacy certainly helped me through my PhD and since in a conservation is not just about biology, it’s not just about elephant or wildlife numbers or biodiversity or ecosystems. It is about working with stakeholders from the ground up and from the top down, to instill policy preferably, long term policy so we are not just dealing for the next five or ten years but we’re looking beyond that to the next hundred, two hundred, three hundred years.

In retrospect I wish I’d appreciated the importance of relationships and networking more during my PhD. I was very closed off from spending three years in the bush in a very remote camp. It was about eight hours drive from mount. And my supervisor did come out to see me but ultimately was on my own to collect the data, to make sure I had enough data. In fact I had way too much for my PhD. Thankfully I had the right data and was able to finish it off. 

I was very closed off, three years in the bush and the culture shock was really when I came back to university. That was really challenging and no one really prepared me for that and it’s obviously very different being very independent in the bush coming that to an academic lifestyle in a busy city but I managed to cope with it. But it only took me about six months to get back into the flow of things and then it was really just heads down and getting on with it.

I had a great group to work with, lots of great postdocs and other PhDs that really added to my PhD. They really helped me get it through and make it a much better thesis. But I still wish I’d asked more questions and not just within my department but had networked outside my department. As conservation needs such a multidisciplinary approach and obviously if you are in an academic environment, there is always amazing people doing amazing stuff. So I’d really encourage people to look outside their department and look at how potentially cooperating and partnering with other universities but also other departments within the university to really strengthen the work that you’re doing. I think that would apply to most things.

I have been told many times I am a bad scientist as I didn’t think of the questions. I already had my study species and then came up with the questions. But having said that I’m not sure I could have done my PhD without my blind passion for my study species. It really is what got me through some challenging times. But the most challenging time was not getting stuck in the middle of nowhere by myself with no radio reception. We definitely didn’t have any phone reception. It wasn’t finding funding to complete my studies. It wasn’t clashing with my supervisors or fighting bushfires to save the camp where I was staying and the other tourist camp nearby. It was actually during my PhD right up, when I was back in Bristol, working hard and communicating became difficult and difficult with my supervisor.  

There was a great welfare group and there was a great welfare department within the university. And I did an online tests and tick a lot of boxes and then went to see the welfare offices and it was only then I was diagnosed with dyslexia. So it was quite a shock and within my final year of writing my PhD to then deal with being told I have a reading age of twelve-year-old and I had a huge crash of confidence and I guess in retrospect it was an imposter syndrome. I didn’t think I belong there, how was I doing a PhD, it was ridiculous (that’s the hippo). This is, I shouldn’t be doing a PhD basically…I thought I just let them say, I can’t really compete with hippos.

Amongst all the statistics in writing up and analysis, yeah, I had this massive crash of confidence and it did it was a big journey back for me to convince myself that I did deserve to be there, that I have every right to be there and I could get my PhD and that I did. 

My supervisor asked me who I wanted to be as my examiners, my internal and external examiners at the end of this long journey. I thought, well you know what, you gotta shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars. So I asked for Iain Douglas Hamilton, who is very famous and a real hero of mine, to put it no other way really, he’s campaigned for elephant conservation for so many years. He has an amazing research studies all over Africa and conservation work. And I asked if we could get him as my external examiner and amazingly he said yes. 

So the day of my viva came on and not only was I dealing with the nerves of defending my thesis but I was also dealing with the nerves of meeting a great man who I admire hugely. So that was a bit scary and I chose to walk into university, I thought that would calm my nerves on the big day. And it was on that journey that I was passed by a funeral entourage and that’s actually just what I needed because I realized that this was a big day for me but the world isn’t gonna stop spinning. It really didn’t matter. There were people out there who were saying goodbye to a loved one and it was just a real reality check and perspective. You know PhD is a big thing, but there’s always something more challenging that someone else is going through.

Yeah it really calmed me down. I was able to get into my thesis and after about the first ten minutes I was a blubbing idiot. I was able to calm down and I really actually enjoyed the process of talking to two great biologists. It was a real joy to have two amazing biologists in the room analyzing my thesis. So for me I’ve gone from a pure behavioral ecologist to a conservationist after ten years in the Okavango delta. So after my PhD, I set up the charity Elephants for Africa and have taken on students and continued to focus on male elephant ecology. But after 10 years in the delta we moved and relocated down to another place which is an amazing ecosystem, very very different from the delta with interesting challenges. What was very compelling to come here was the huge male population. On the time when we came here in 2012, it was just males. We now see more females coming through, but at that time it was just males. And as a male elephant biologist it was just like wow, what’s going on here.

But it also brought us to the frontline of conservation. So when I was in the delta it really was amongst the wildlife. There wasn’t any communities living by us, so I was quite excluded from the realities of communities that were living alongside wildlife trying to grow their crops, trying to survive, trying to remain safe amongst wildlife. 

And so here in the Boteti river area is a hard border on the western boundary to community lands. And so over time we built up a good working relationship with Comarca and two other villages since where we now have launched a community coexistence project in 2015 and also an education program for the local primary schools.

So I love spending time with elephants. They are my inspiration. And but perhaps the most rewarding part of my work is when I am educating, either in schools here or at least watching all amazing communities outreach or when I give public talks in the US or Europe and indeed going to schools and in the US or Europe and talk about my work. For me it’s passing on my passion in some way and if I can inspire someone, I think I’ve done a good job. And I am happy if I inspire someone. Yeah my PhD journey was a part of the bigger picture. It always was. It was a stepping stone to get me where I am today.