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On the elephant trail

Earth Day reminds us of the importance of a common commitment to the protection of the Planet. And we do so from our origins, from our first expeditions to Tanzania

The history of Istituto Oikos in Tanzania begins on the migratory routes of elephants in the Tarangire National Park, in those lands baked by the sun just below the equator. Oikos stems from the resourcefulness of Guido Tosi, the researcher who made history in Oikos, founding it and ensuring its growth. In 1996 he was convinced by one of his students, who dreamt of Africa, to find a way to go to the Tarangire National Park. Infected by such enthusiasm, Guido and Rossella managed to access funds from the European Union to go study the migration patterns and the distribution of large mammals in the park for 3 years. This is exactly how Oikos began – from a group of young zoologists who left for Africa without knowing exactly what to expect, but with a great desire to do and contribute to the conservation of a unique natural environment.
I remember very well the emotions of the first expeditions, the nights spent in the tent, the first time I saw elephants. You never know what to expect from those unpredictable giants, and above all you don't know how to behave when they load. And even if over time you get to know them, observing their behaviour is an experience that always leaves you breathless and for which you never get used to.
For more than three years we followed the movements of 12 zebras, 13 wildebeests and 7 elephants, whose pastures were endangered by the crops that had arisen in recent years on the very same routes. We used radio collars and, for the first time in Africa, GPSs for elephants. This system allowed us to identify the areas where poaching is most widespread, even though poachers often snatched the radio collars from killed animals to hide them underground. With GPS we were able to retrieve them, and then we assigned rangers to control those areas. Not only: this method allowed us to get in touch with the world of international research right from the start. Indeed, we traveled to the expeditions areas by plane - landing in the savannah, just like in the movies - with the experts of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, some of whom were the authors of the books I was studying at the time and with whom we were now directly working.
Capturing elephants is a very delicate operation. We followed them by plane and, once close, we shot the anesthetic. We followed them with the cars and, once asleep, we placed the radio collars (which were always removed at the end of the studies), we took the measurements and left. And how true that elephants do not forget: the matriarch of a group whose female we had captured for months recognized our cars and, as soon as she saw us, she charged without hesitation. 
Thanks to this joint effort we have been able to track exact migration movements and highlight the areas of greatest conflict, as well as work with local communities. Working with the community was probably the most demanding aspect of our work, but together, in the end, we managed to develop maps of land use and started awareness-raising campaigns on the importance of routes. Today, for those who do this work, this method is straight-forward but at the time it was not considered that studying the environment meant also studying the behaviour and practices of the people living in those areas. Tanzania was full of researchers using scientific methods even then, however we were particularly convinced that you cannot protect animals and the resources of an ecosystem without considering those who live with and within it. Specifically, without offering the tools to understand that certain practices can cause disastrous effects on the environment. These were our greatest achievements, like being able to work on a multidisciplinary level and in synergy with the Park Authority and local communities, as well as to have conquered our space in the world of international research. 
The first experience in Africa provided Oikos researchers with a great lesson: every day there is always something new to learn, which sometimes questions what was believed until the day before. The great teaching of the Tarangire is to always leave room for doubt, this is what allows us to move forward, improve, and grow.

 Valeria Galanti, Project Manager of the conservation programme for the Tarangire Park.

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