By Melanie Laurendine
Indianapolis Zoo PR Intern
Since Olivia Leonard was a young girl, she’s had not only a love for animals but also a passion for conservation. She fostered that passion as a Zoo Volunteer and is about to embark on one of her biggest adventures yet — an internship with Save the Elephants, a world leader in elephant conservation.
The 22-year-old’s desire to work with animals started early. Growing up, Leonard aspired to be just like “The Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin. She loved learning about new creatures and watching wildlife shows on TV. In fifth grade, she decorated her room like an African jungle, and it remains the same all these years later.
In college, Leonard studied wildlife and anthropology, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Purdue. She also had the opportunity in 2011 to study abroad in Tanzania, where conflicts between humans and elephants have led to widespread problems with poaching. So as Leonard began to consider her career path, she knew conservation had to be central.
“Ultimately, I want to do research studying wildlife behavior, ecology or human-wildlife conflict to contribute to wildlife conservation,” Leonard said. “I want to understand why a species does what it does and how that species interacts with its own species and others. Understanding how humans influence these interactions is also important.”
Leonard fulfilled her interest in animal conservation by volunteering at the Indianapolis Zoo. In addition to helping in the Deserts Dome and Hilbert Conservatory, she also volunteered during Meet a Hero, Be a Hero events in 2010 and 2012. Held in conjunction with the biennial Indianapolis Prize, these events allow Zoo guests to meet the Prize finalists, who are the heroes of animal conservation. Little did Leonard know that donating her time during those events would open opportunities for her future.
“I was a table assistant for Carl Safina in 2010 and Carl Jones in 2012, and I absolutely loved doing that because I was able to talk with each conservationist about his work,” Leonard said. “To me, the Meet a Hero, Be a Hero days are like seeing the ‘rock stars’ of the conservation world. They are the role models and the people I strive to be like, so being able to discuss my career goals and opportunities with them was really cool.”
During the 2010 event, Leonard also had the chance to meet that year’s Indianapolis Prize winner, Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants.
“Because he was the winner and someone I basically idolized, I was incredibly nervous to speak with him,” Leonard said. “I finally mustered up the courage to congratulate him. … I had done research about Save the Elephants’ internship program and just asked him a little about it. He actually pulled a business card out of his jacket and gave it to me, saying to contact him if there was anything I needed. I was so surprised. My encounter was brief but exciting.”
Following that meeting, Leonard had the unique opportunity to follow in Douglas-Hamilton’s footsteps. In his book, “Among the Elephants,” Douglas-Hamilton detailed the time he spent researching elephants in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania. Leonard poured over every word in the book before leaving to study abroad. Coincidentally, the research team she worked with studied the ecology and conservation efforts in several of Tanzania’s national parks, including Lake Manyara.
“While there, I saw my first wild African elephant,” she said. “It was exciting to think that particular elephant could have been one Douglas-Hamilton studied or a descendant of one he studied. To be there — in the same place I had read about — was amazing.”
That experience solidified her passion for conservation and, following up on the once-in-a-lifetime encounter she had with Douglas-Hamilton during the 2010 Meet a Hero event, she secured an internship with Save the Elephants this September and October.
She said she’s drawn to the organization’s mission of securing a future for elephants by sustaining their habitats and developing a tolerant relationship between humans and elephants.
“Elephants are incredibly intelligent and sentient, and I think it is important to not only study elephants but to also educate others about elephants and their struggles to survive,” she said. “From my study abroad experience in Tanzania, I understand that human-elephant conflict is a severe problem in many areas and must be mitigated for the benefit of both elephants and man.”
During her time with the organization, Leonard will conduct mammal censuses, map vegetation, input data and much more. She also hopes to work on individual elephant identification projects. Ultimately, she said she wants to promote contribute to the study and protection of elephants as well as to do her part for conservation.
“Conservation is a worldwide effort,” Leonard said. “Everyone must be involved in some way because everything on earth is connected. Human actions influence ecosystems and impact wildlife, without a doubt, and people must be aware of that. Becoming aware and sharing that information with others is, I think, the most powerful way to contribute to species’ conservation.”