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Gina Cowell of Elephant Aware

Renowned Elephant Conservation Speaker Coming to Hooper Mansion This Weekend

Earlier this week, Marblehead Beacon sat down with Gini Cowell of Elephant Aware Massai Mara, an elephant conservation non-profit. Cowell grew up in Kenya and has worked at the intersection of conservation and elephant education in Africa her entire career. She is visiting the United States on a speaking tour, and will be presenting at Marblehead’s Hooper Mansion on Saturday, April 22 before heading back to Kenya at the end of the month.


Born in Nairobi and raised alongside wildlife, Cowell – together with her brother and parents – has devoted her life to eliminating elephant poaching and dramatically reducing elephant-human conflict. To this end, her family founded Elephant Aware 15 years ago. Working with local communities to educate children and landowners in the area known as the Massai Mara region of Kenya, Elephant Aware has been instrumental in virtually eliminating poaching in recent years, says Cowell. Working hand in hand with local and regional government authorities as well as Kenyan wildlife services, the group has had success legislatively and with regard to enforcement vis-à-vis poaching. 


To Elephant Aware, elephants are worthy of conservation efforts not merely because they are an iconic species, but because the majestic animals offer a range of benefits to humanity. “The way they function as families, and the way they conduct their own conflict resolution,” says Cowell, holds tremendous research value. “They can tell people apart by genders and ethnicities,” she offers, “and can distinguish between the sound of different vehicle engines.” Beyond the value of learning about the elephant mind, however, is the research-rich arena involving the mysterious fact that elephants appear largely resistant to cancer. Examining molecular interactions in elephants, according to a 2022 study involving seven prominent research institutions, could ultimately be instrumental in preventing cancer in humans. 


The goal now, Cowell says, is to continue the group’s efforts to reduce harm, injury, and death that result from elephant-human conflict in Kenya’s Siana Conservation area of the Massai Mara region, particularly in the corridor abutting human-occupied land on which elephants migrate.  


Elephant-human conflict, says Cowell, refers to the impact of elephants and humans living in close proximity to one another. At times this has had tragic results, with humans being trampled and injured or killed, and the offending elephants being destroyed as a result. 


Elephant Aware works to educate communities that surround the natural habitat of elephants, Cowell says, and incentivizes harmonious coexistence among the tribes and wildlife. For instance, Elephant Aware hires and trains locals as rangers, working alongside them to help keep residents secure. The group also goes into schools and holds community meetings to offer education on the value of wildlife conservation. 


Cowell underscores the importance of Elephant Aware’s involvement in and financial support of the general education of girls – a vastly underserved population in parts of Africa. 


In centuries past, the Massai people were nomadic, but now many are landowners. Elephant Aware provides financial incentives to landowners to keep their property hospitable to migrating elephants in the area. “It all comes down to shrinking space,” says Cowell. “We want to make sure the Massai landowners benefit from conservation.” Providing an impoverished population with money in exchange for their cooperation in conservation makes the work a win-win, she says. 


The boots-on-the-ground work of the Elephant Aware rangers – one of whom is Cowell’s brother, Will, who oversees ranger patrols as Head of Security – requires that the Cowell family reside in semi-permanent tents. “I’ve lived in tents for the past ten years,” says Cowell, who was educated exclusively in Kenya and lives in a region that borders Tanzania. “I was homeschooled for some time,” she adds, noting that because there was little access to education where she lived, for a period she attended a Kenyan boarding school as well. 


Cowell attributes much of her understanding of elephants to the work of renowned elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole, who she considers a mentor. Poole studied at Cambridge and Princeton and is considered a world authority on elephant behavior and communication.


The presentation and reception featuring Gini Cowell will be held at 3:00 pm on Saturday, and ticket information is contained here. Additionally, tax-deductible contributions may be made to Elephant Aware here.