Student management

Graduate student receives prestigious international scholarship for elephant research

Kenyan-born graduate student Nelson Mwangi is researching elephant conservation as part of the ecology graduate program. “We are trying to promote human-elephant coexistence,” he said.

Mwangi recently received support from the Wildlife Conservation Network Scholarship Program. The WCN is an international organization that protects endangered wildlife species by supporting community conservationists. This program funds much of Mwangi’s graduate studies.

The management of the non-profit organization Save the Elephants nominated Mwangi for the WCN scholarship program. Mwangi worked in the GIS department for Save the Elephants before coming to CSU for postgraduate studies in 2021. In this role, he helped track over 300 elephants across Africa.

Through his efforts at Save the Elephants, Mwangi co-authored a 2022 publication on Landscape Dynamics (landDX), an open-access spatio-temporal database for the border regions between Kenya and Tanzania. He contributed to the design of the database.

Inform management decisions

As Mwangi worked with her thesis supervisor George Wittemyer – a professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology – to plan her research, they chose projects that would inform management decisions.

Elephants move great distances with the seasons, to ensure access to food and water. Access for elephants to move between these areas is called habitat connectivity.

“Infrastructure is growing at such a rapid rate that we are losing habitat connectivity,” Mwangi said. “We’re trying to improve predictions of where connectivity is and where it will be in the future.”

One advantage of conducting research in Kenya is that most protected areas are unfenced, so elephants can roam freely. However, the establishment of permanent settlements and infrastructure can reduce habitat connectivity and make it difficult for elephants to access key habitats.

“If we can comprehensively understand how elephants use space and how it has changed in the past, we may be able to predict how it will change in the future and make appropriate management decisions,” Mwangi said.

This understanding can also help make decisions about relocating elephants, such as orphan elephants, to new areas where they can thrive.

Path to a Career in Conservation

Mwangi grew up wanting to be a pilot or an aeronautical engineer.

“Either you’re a pilot in Kenya or you’re a doctor: there’s more money in there to help your family. We were driven to try to find high-paying careers and not necessarily what we wanted to do,” Mwangi said. “So that’s what I wanted to be, but in a way, that’s more what my society wanted me to be.”

Mwangi was accepted as an undergraduate student in an aeronautical engineering program at the Technical University of Kenya.

“I took the first ecology course I could, and I was like I didn’t want to be a pilot,” Mwangi said. “My heart wasn’t in it.”

After that, Mwangi changed her undergraduate program to environmental science. From there, Mwangi pursued internships with Save the Elephants, and he’s been involved with the nonprofit since 2016. He prides himself on inspiring others to care about wildlife.

“My younger sister followed in my footsteps. She is five years younger than me and has just completed her undergraduate studies in wildlife management,” Mwangi said. “She works with the county government from where we were brought up, Naivasha sub-county. She is interested in the study of vultures.

Impacts of the pandemic

Before Mwangi received this WCN scholarship, the financial pressure at the start of the pandemic directly affected him as a new graduate student.

“COVID affected me in a very different way compared to other graduate students who live in America because I had to get a student visa and some COVID tests before flying here,” Mwangi said, “which was very expensive, but you know I finally got to Colorado.