Photo: Max Salomon
Caitlin O'Connell, the ecologist and pachyderm prodigy, believes large mammals have a lot to teach us. Look for her gorgeous new book, An Elephant's Life: An Intimate Portrait From Africa. Here are five things she knows for sure:
There's hope for endangered beasts.
Officials in Namibia, where I've conducted research for 20 years, changed the laws so that communities could profit from wildlife tourism. Putting responsibility in the hands of the people empowers them to care about their land and wildlife.
We can learn a lot about human interaction from elephants.
When a subordinate male puts his trunk in the leader's mouth, it dissolves tension. Modern life has reduced physical contact, but it's important to look someone in the eye, shake their hand, hug them—you're saying, "I see you, I respect you, now let's get on with our business."
Helping animals begins with helping people.
For years Namibia was devastated by HIV. Antiretrovirals have made things better, but I'm still studying the disease in local communities. You can't address wildlife issues without addressing the humans who have to live with and care for the animals.
Being an artist makes me a better scientist.
Some people think you can only do one thing, but I was a studio art minor; now I write fiction on the side. My books translate my work for the public—I'm finishing up a novel about the ivory trade. And being a writer pushes me to think more creatively in my research.
You can design the life you want.
My husband is also a scientist, and we've made hard choices—refusing secure academic jobs—to have freedom to spend time together in wonderful places. We're writing a science fantasy book for young adults, an we've traveled to Paris and New Zealand for inspiration.
More Life Lessons and Wisdom
From the December 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!