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March 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Stephanie Manka could hear the agitated beast stomping around the perimeter of the Gabon field station. She could hear the massive four-legged animal ransacking the camp; then it recklessly ripped off the wooden paneling of her room. Panicked, Manka sought safety in another researcher’s cabin. Minutes later, the dangerous African elephant left. She wasn’t dealing with the average Dumbo.
“The Lopé elephants are very wild elephants,” Manka, an MU biological sciences Ph.D. candidate, says. “You have to be a little bit more cautious.”
Manka is currently collecting data in Gabon, a country off the western coast of Central Africa where she is studying the social behavior of endangered forest elephants — the least studied of all elephant species — in the newly established Lopé National Park. “Most of what we know about elephants comes from Asian elephants or savanna elephants,” Marissa Ahlering, a prairie ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, says.
When Ahlering conducted research on savanna elephants as a postdoctoral student, she and Manka studied in the same lab.
Manka is using genetics and behavioral observations to investigate the social structure of elephants and their movements across land. She is also studying the point in a young elephant’s life when it matures and leaves its mother. Her research will provide wildlife authorities with information they can use to better manage the forest elephant population. The species’ needs in the African wild are the first thing parks’ staffs will then consider. Instead of the parks acting as islands surrounded by human effects, they will become one with the natural habitat of the elephants. “Understanding how individuals move throughout a landscape and how they interact with each other can help them better design parks to see if they are large enough and how the parks need to be connected together,” she says. Manka received awards to fund her research from a Life Sciences Fellowship and the John D. Bies International Travel Award. Most important, in 2009, she and Lori Eggert, assistant professor of biological sciences at MU, received a $40,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“(The Fish and Wildlife Service) recognizes forest elephants could be in a lot worse trouble than we think, so the kind of work Stephanie and I are doing is really important,” Eggert says.
Manka hopes her research will aid other scientists in understanding what is important for sustaining a healthy population of forest elephants and also maintaining conservation efforts. However, she also recognizes that it is a possibility that in the next 10 years the forest elephant population could be lost completely. “I can only provide data,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The future of forest elephants is really in the hands of these people (the African government and conservation organizations) as well as local communities.”