Lincoln Park Zoo has had a conservation presence in Tanzania since 1995. A bustling ecosystem of lion prides, elephant herds, and mongoose mobs makes it not only a fascinating space to research but also a place worth protecting. Lara Foley, M.S., and Charles Foley, Ph.D., recently joined zoo staff and have dedicated their lives to understanding and protecting Tanzania wildlife in one of the most rich and biodiverse ecosystems.
Tell us a bit about yourselves.
Charles: I am British but grew up with diplomat parents and spent most of my early years traveling. The defining moment of my youth came when I was living in South Africa at 7 years old and my parents took us to Kruger National Park. I remember driving into the park and seeing a giraffe standing close to the road with two red-billed oxpeckers on its neck. I was instantly smitten, and from that day on wanted to do nothing else but study animals in the wild. Little did I know then that meant I would study elephants for more than 25 years in what became the second-longest elephant study in Africa.
Lara: I grew up in Minnesota but I did live for two years in LaGrange Park and remember visiting Lincoln Park Zoo. As a young adult, I was passionate about backpacking, camping, and wildlife conservation. My first love was wolves; growing up in Minnesota, I was fascinated and encouraged by their comeback in the 1980s and ’90s, and I wanted to base my future around working to protect wildlife. Africa was the mecca for wildlife and had been on my radar since high school, so I was excited to learn that I could earn college credit while studying in Tanzania during a college study abroad program. That is where I met Charles and the rest, as they say, is history!
Is there one animal or story that sticks with you over your many years in Africa?
Lara and Charles: For many years, our job consisted of going out each day looking for groups of known elephants—we followed about 28 different family groups. It was, we are the first to admit, an absolutely blissful life. We gradually got to know about 800 elephants, gave them names, and started to identify their personalities.
Naturally, this led to us having our favorites, and top of the list were Addo and Big Mama. Addo was a large, good-natured female who often made the decisions on where the group went and when, and she was unflappable. On one occasion, we were flying across the park in the helicopter, looking for a female with a radio collar. A large herd of elephants heard the helicopter coming and scattered in all directions—except for one female, who looked up at the helicopter, sniffed in its direction with her trunk, and then returned to the serious work of eating. That was Addo.
Big Mama was, as her name suggests, a huge elephant. We suspect that she was either a hermaphrodite or had a hormonal imbalance, as she was at least 30 percent larger than any other female in the population; she never [hormonally] cycled, and had two tiny tusks, both of which broke off later in her life, which left her with a sweet perma-grin. Big Mama, by dint of her size, was undisputedly the most dominant female in the population, and she and Addo combined made a formidable partnership. Although she was unable to have infants herself, Big Mama led one of the largest and most successful family groups in the population, which by 2018 had swelled to more than 60 animals.
How did you work with the local community?
Lara and Charles: The Tarangire elephants and many other species disperse outside the park during the wet season, migrating onto community land where they have access to mineral-rich vegetation. The land surrounding the park belongs mostly to the Masaai, who are traditionally pastoralists and are remarkably tolerant of wildlife on their land.
However, in the past 40 years, large parts of these pastoral lands have been ploughed up for agriculture, negatively impacting both the Maasai pastoralists and the wildlife dispersing onto them. In order to stem this transition, we work in partnership with a local NGO, the Ujamaa Community Resource Team, and communities around the park to help the villagers protect some of their land for communal pastoral areas.
Our ultimate goal is to ensure that the remaining wildlife migration corridors in the ecosystem remain intact, allowing the elephants and other animals to continue to disperse in and out of the park on an annual basis, and the Maasai communities to continue their pastoral lifestyle.
What is a project you have been excited about?
Lara and Charles: Tanzania is justifiably famous for its wildlife. However, until a few years ago, little was known about the actual distribution of these mammal species across the country. In 2000, we collaborated with colleagues from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, and Zoological Society of London to establish the Tanzania Mammal Atlas Project with the goal of building a database of large mammal distribution across the country.
In addition to interviews with local hunters and people on the ground, we established a large-scale camera monitoring program. Motion-activated field cameras take photos or video when activated by heat or motion and are now used frequently even by the general public, but back then, the technology was still fairly new. While these days a camera can store 10,000 digital pictures on one card, the original cameras had a small film camera that would take a maximum of 36 photos.
We would select areas where we had little information on the mammal fauna and set up the cameras. Once the films had been developed, the team would sit around a desk, excitedly flicking through the pictures to see what we’d found. And sometimes we would hit the jackpot: a new species to Tanzania, a huge range extension, or even the occasional hunting drama, with a picture of an unsuspecting ungulate, like a kudu, walking along and 60 seconds later a lioness crouched down stalking it. Did the lioness succeed? We’ll never know, but it made for great entertainment.
What excites you most about working with Lincoln Park Zoo?
Lara and Charles: We are very excited to join Lincoln Park Zoo and to lead the Tanzania Conservation Research Program. We’ve always admired the zoo for its commitment to saving species and its world-class Conservation and Science department. Lincoln Park Zoo has been an important institution to our project, as the zoo was one of our earliest donors (starting in 1995) and we’ve worked with the zoo’s scientists on analysis of our elephant database and scientific publications. So we are thrilled to come full circle and join the team of conservation scientists at the zoo!
This article was first published in the spring/summer 2020 issue of Lincoln Park Zoo’s magazine. Read the full issue here. Photos courtesy of Charles & Lara Foley.