The African Elephant Research Unit (AERU) was established at the Knysna Elephant Park as a means of addressing the lack of research available on captive African elephants in South Africa, particularly with respect to their welfare and husbandry within their own unique environments.
Ten years have passed and we now find ourselves entering a new era with big changes, as we say goodbye to our long-standing Director of AERU, Dr. Debbie Young, and welcome our new Head, Dr. Maud Bonato.
Dr. Debbie stepped through our doors in October 2009 to help conceptualise and manage AERU and with her arrival, the volunteer-research program was born. Dr. Debbie has been a tireless and fierce champion for the welfare of our elephants here at AERU/KEP throughout the last decade, so in saying goodbye, we wanted to highlight some of the many accomplishments she and the AERU team have achieved in that time:
- Established a training program mandating positive reinforcement which has not only paved the way for some pretty awesome relationships between our elephants and our guides, but it also keeps both guides and elephants happier and safer.
- Consulted with and actively participated in the release of elephants back into the wild, including our beloved Shaka and Clyde who now roam freely at Botlierskop Game Reserve in the Western Cape.
- Collaborated with multiple Universities, as well as established researchers, resulting in ongoing elephant research in both wild and captive elephant populations. This has led to more than 10 publications.
- Established Fiela’s Legacy Lab in 2013 with an aim for AERU to do non-invasive hormonal level assessments and broaden the field of comparative research. With this, AERU is able to analyse elephant dung on site, more effectively and more efficiently.
Dr Debbie’s contribution has been profound and her footprint in the soil here at AERU will leave a lasting legacy. She is and always will be a part of our herd and we wish her all the success and happiness in her new endeavours.
While Dr. Debbie left last year, it has taken us until now to find the right person to fill her shoes.
Coincidence would have it that the perfect match was right at our doorstep:
Originally from France, Dr. Bonato came on holiday some 25 years ago; she fell in love with the country and decided to make South Africa her home.
After completing her undergraduate studies in Animal Ecology in France, Maud graduated with a MSc in African Mammalogy and Conservation from the University of Pretoria in 2001, followed by a PhD in Behavioural Ecology from the University of Stellenbosch in 2009. Since 2014 she has worked as a Research Fellow within the Department of Animal Sciences, University of Stellenbosch, based at the Ostrich Research farm in Oudtshoorn, South Africa.
Maud has specialised in captive and farm animals and has embarked on the quest of getting a better understanding of the reproductive behaviour of farmed ostriches and factors that could promote welfare in ostrich chicks. In parallel to that, she developed a keen interest in understanding how human-animal interactions as well as animal socio-dynamics can influence the welfare of captive species.
Maud has more than 25 peer-reviewed publications under her belt and we hope to add many more to that number once she familiarises herself with, what is for her, a completely new field of research: Elephant behaviour, welfare and so much more.
We are thrilled to welcome Maud as our new Head of AERU!
Post Covid-19 we also look forward to welcoming additional new team members, Primrose Manning as Research Officer and Lizzie Dawson as Assistant Research Officer.
The future for AERU brings great promise with a full team of strong researchers:
Dr. Maud Bonato Head of AERU, PhD in Behavioral Ecology
Primrose Manning Research Officer, Master of Science in Animal Behavior.
Lizzie Dawson Assistant Research Officer, Bachelor in Animal Science with honours.
Christina Tholander Lab Technician & Volunteer Co-ordinator, Bachelor in Biochemistry
Lauré Myburgh Research Assistant & Admin, Bachelor in Agricultural Science
Nikki Perosino Assistant Volunteer Co-ordinator, background as Vet Assistant & Anaesthetist
We are looking forward to diving into the goldmine of data we have collected through the last 10 years with volunteers and students, as well as our ongoing data collection, and are excited to have a full team of accomplished researchers, as well as someone like Maud, using her skillset and knowledge, to bring it all together.
As a volunteer you can be part of our amazing journey.
JOIN THE HERD!