Interview with Hannah Mumby

The elephant expert discusses why her research subjects aren’t as different to humans as we might think

July 9, 2020
Source: Credit: Matthias Egeler

Hannah Mumby is assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong and principal investigator of its Applied Behavioural Ecology and Conservation Programme. She is the author of Elephants: Birth, Life and Death in the World of the Giants (2020).

Where and when were you born?
In the UK in 1986.

How did your upbringing shape you?
I was raised by a family that loved to travel, especially my maternal grandfather. He first came to Hong Kong in the 1960s, so I’m the third generation to have links to this city. I was also raised by a family that loved animals. They were always picking up strays. 

Were you studious as a child? 
I was an extremely odd child, very shy and cerebral. I was also a voracious reader. I was in the first generation in my family go to university, so I had no close experience in my family of higher education. But my grandfather, a great traveller and businessman, was passionate about education. He hadn’t been able to finish grammar school because his family couldn’t afford the uniforms.

What made you want to become an academic?
I remember visiting Cambridge on a shopping trip and seeing a fellow of King’s College walk across the lawn. There was a sign, in several languages, telling people not to walk on the lawn. I thought, “he must be terribly special”. I loved this idea of an intellectual life in the pursuit of knowledge. I was 14 and decided that I didn’t just want to be a student at Cambridge, I wanted to be a fellow.

Where does your love of animals come from?
It was always there. I used to watch David Attenborough on TV and make my father record me making nature documentaries. I originally thought I’d study humans, to question myself and my humanity. But I couldn’t answer my questions just looking at humans. I had to look at animals to make me understand humans.

You write in the prologue of Elephants: “When I look in the mirror, I see an elephant…When you strip back all the packaging, I don’t think I’m different to an elephant in many ways.” Why did you begin your book that way?
It’s a way to engage the reader. With an animal like elephants – they’re either seen as so majestic and distant, or so frightening and huge. But they have families, relationships and networks – that’s similar to us. I’m trying to make a point that, I suppose, goes against a lot of what we’re told as scientists, which is that anthropomorphism is a cardinal sin in the scientific study of animals. My background is in anthropology, but later I trained in ecology and zoology. I’ve never lost the idea that I’m essentially doing ethnology, and that elephants are my informants. It’s an approach I take as a scholar.

Your book’s publicity materials call you “the Jane Goodall of elephants”.
I was very embarrassed to read that, because of course I couldn’t be! Jane Goodall is a hero of mine. It was highly controversial, at that time, that she gave names to the chimpanzees she was studying. I also prefer to give elephants names, because I see them as individuals. A lot of science is about finding big patterns, and that’s important. But I like individual variations and personalities.

Where do you do field research?
I’ve been very lucky to have worked in amazing field sites. My first experience with elephants was in Kenya in 2010, when there was an uptick in illegal hunting. For my PhD, I did fieldwork with logging elephants in Myanmar and Thailand. It got me interested in the relationship between humans and elephants. Then I went to South Africa, where there is a lot of tourism and parks with fenced boundaries. Now I have been working in Nepal for a few years.  

What is it like being in a very dense city with no elephants?
There are no elephants here – but there are parts of elephants. Hong Kong is a hub for the ivory trade. One draw to come to HKU’s School of Biological Sciences was its work on the illegal trade in wildlife products, not only from elephants, but also from birds, pangolins and marine species. It’s unusual to have work of this volume and quality being done in a city so well known for this.

How has Covid-19 impacted animal welfare?
I see this as an inflection point to consider our relationship with wildlife. It means we cannot be too superficial about it. Some people have called for bats to be culled, because they are seen as a source of the coronavirus. But that’s actually the opposite of what we should do – we should be studying them. A lot of people like me tout tourism as a potential source of income for conservation, but look what’s happened to tourism now.

How do you feel about captive elephants, some of which are used for tourist rides?
Some places provide excellent care; others are highly problematic. I can’t say that all riding is bad; it’s more complicated than that. But certainly, we should not be taking elephants from the wild. We shouldn’t be producing more captive elephants. And we should support those who do have elephants to make sure they have access to care. Elephants have been in captivity for millennia. Rewilding all of them is not always possible. If there are thousands of captive elephants in a country, it is also a drain on resources. It’s a complex situation.

What’s the greatest threat facing elephants?
It is not just illegal killings. Elephants also face habitat loss and difficulties coexisting with humans, especially in agricultural communities. Everyone wants a story of good guys and bad guys, but of course it’s never that straightforward.


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