Elephants: more than meets the ivory


NC State University Technician Online

Date Published

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there is one species of elephant on the African continent, and its status is listed as “threatened.” Tara Easter is on a mission to change that.

Tara Easter recently submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to distinguish African elephants between forest and savanna species, as well as change their status from threatened to endangered.

Easter graduated in 2012 from NC State with a bachelor’s degree in ecology, evolution and conservation biology. While she was at NC State, she traveled abroad to Namibia, Africa accompanied by Werner Dörgeloh. There, she was able to get first-hand experience working with elephants in their natural habitats.

“I’ve known since long before I went on the study abroad program that I’d developed a deep compassion for Africa’s struggling elephant populations,” Easter said. “It was a struggling childhood passion I wanted to pursue, and I was able to fulfill it going to Namibia with Professor Dörgeloh.”

Dörgeloh is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Forestry where he teaches natural resource conservation and wildlife management. He is originally from Namibia, leading to the inspiration to start the study abroad program.

“I know the country like the back of my hand and it is safe to travel. I accompany the students to conduct field work and lectures,” Dörgeloh said.

When Easter returned to NC State, she started a chapter of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots, a student organization aimed at “identifying problems in global and social issues related to conservation” according to the club’s website. Cassandra Backman is the president of Roots and Shoots at NC State.

“The club focuses a lot on community work around the Triangle, like with Duke Lemur Center and the Wedge Community Garden,” Backman said. “We want to get students involved since the message we’re presenting is that we want to educate the community to work together to conserve.”

She was able to return to Africa in 2014 after spending time in a small Kenyan village with a project called Save the Elephants, which involved building a research center aimed at working with farmers using beehives to keep elephants away from their crops.

Easter now works in Portland, Oregon as a conservation biologist focused on saving endangered and potentially endangered species. Her work mainly consists of doing research and writing petitions for endangered species.

“I started assessing the benefits of increasing protections for elephants under the Endangered Species Act,” Easter said.

The Endangered Species Act works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services with the goal of protecting animals and plants from becoming extinct. The status of elephants right now is that they are both under the name “African elephants” and both are still enlisted as threatened.

“The forest elephants and the savanna elephants are the two distinct species of African elephants and they are both declining,” Easter said. “It was clear that these two species needed to be recognized separately as endangered elephants.”

Although there are differences between the species, many organizations have not recognized a distinction as a separate species. Savanna elephants are larger, while forest elephants are smaller and darker.

So far, the work that Easter has done includes petitioning for a bird in the Pacific Island called the Tinian to be listed on the Endangered Species Act, and she recently released a petition for moose in the Midwest region of the United States.

“Lately for me, it’s mostly been behind the scenes work, since unfortunately, I don’t get into the field too often,” Easter said.

A lot of the work to get species placed on the endangered list takes place in labs and offices, and not out in the savanna, but Easter believes it’s all about the end result and protecting the animals.