The 2011 graduate is completing a yearlong research project on elephant crop-raiding in Kenya.
There’s nothing accidental about Sophia Weinmann’s career trajectory that led her to a graduate program in international conservation and wildlife protection. From service work to internships and a volunteer position with the Peace Corps, the 2011 graduate in biology and environmental studies has intentionally pursued opportunities that stem from her childhood fascination with nature.
Now, as a master’s of science candidate at the University of Montana, Weinmann is part of an international effort fostering human-elephant coexistence in Kenya. Over the last year, she has partnered with the nonprofit organization Save the Elephants to conduct field experiments on the potential of non-palatable crops to reduce elephant crop-raiding in a village near Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park.
A Cleveland, Ohio, native, Weinmann says a service trip to South Africa during high school ignited her passion for working and studying abroad and later inspired her to serve as an agricultural Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea after graduating from Oberlin. During that two-year service, she taught environmental education at a middle school and, with community leaders, wrote and secured a grant to establish a beekeeping cooperative and three apiaries.
“As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I developed an interest in the human dimensions of conservation and an understanding of grassroots development,” Weinmann says. “During my service, I realized that the cooperative offered my Guinean friends the potential to transform their futures by providing a low-risk opportunity to learn beekeeping and gain a secondary income. The Peace Corps also equipped me with technical skills, such as project planning and foreign languages, and cultural agility.”
Weinmann’s dedication to ecological justice and her background in beekeeping led her to an internship with Save the Elephants (STE) in 2015. STE’s innovative beehive fences deter elephant crop-raiding while simultaneously reducing the human-elephant conflict.
“I was inspired by their ability to secure a place for elephants in the rapidly changing world, and I knew I had found my niche,” Weinmann says. “I was especially interested in the stories I heard during my internship about the influence of crop type on elephant crop-raiding behavior. For my graduate research, I wanted to examine these questions and determine the potential of non-palatable crops to reduce elephant crop-raiding behavior and the human-elephant conflict it creates.”
The ivory trade isn’t the only threat to Africa’s elephant population. The surging human population and development is pushing into elephant rangelands, which means loss of habitat. When farms are established where elephants are used to roaming, they become a target for crop-raiding by hungry elephants. A year’s crop can be wiped out in a single night.
Weinmann is currently analyzing data on her yearlong fieldwork testing the viability of non-palatable crops. This includes research plots with plantings of maize (a known elephant favorite) alongside sunflowers and morgina in the fields of 10 farmers. The project involved camera traps at each farm to record crop-raiding elephant activity; field monitoring; and interviews with farmers.
She has been fortunate to interact with elephants on several occasions. In addition to game drives in Kenya's national parks, Weinmann visited the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and its release site near Voi, a town in southern Kenya.
“Being able to see baby elephants so closely and to touch them was an amazing experience. I loved being able to feel their trunks and experience their distinctive personalities and dynamic nature. It was powerful to see the sadness in some of their eyes knowing that many have been orphaned as a consequence of humans—such as poaching or by falling in wells.”
She also had close encounters with elephants when she was conducting field work. “One time, I was in a farmer's field collecting data on crop health when I saw two elephants emerge from the bush. We watched the elephants eating from a nearby tree. It was an incredible but unnerving experience. It made me realize just how vulnerable farmers must feel when elephants enter their fields, and how much courage it must take to chase an elephant away to protect their livelihoods.”
Weinmann received a 2016 Fulbright research grant and $6,500 from the Oberlin College Alumni Fellowship fund to cover research and living expenses. She is on track to defend her thesis in December 2017 and plans to publish and present her research soon after. In addition to sharing her findings with the scientific community, she will make recommendations on planting non-palatable crops, which will help Kenyan farming communities coexist with elephants.
Following graduate school, Weinmann says she intends to pursue work with a nongovernmental organization in Africa that prioritizes wildlife conservation and sustainable development through working sensitively and effectively within the local socioeconomic, cultural, and ecological contexts.
“I am interested in working on these issues because both wildlife conservation and rural community development are vitally important,” she says. “Oftentimes these conversations happen separately. Through my work I want to make sure that both humans and wildlife benefit. They are two pieces of the same puzzle, and they need to be addressed together.”
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