A Global Experience

A Global Experience

Studying Elephants: Unforgettable

By Rick Davis, BA’88

Creighton University student Tommy Hayek was looking for a study abroad experience that would be unique, memorable and further the education he was receiving as an environmental science major.

“Tanzania fit that criteria,” said Hayek by phone, more than halfway through a semester abroad program in wildlife management studies this past spring through The School for Field Studies.

The School for Field Studies, according to its website, offers “transformative study abroad experiences through field-based learning and research” at locations in Australia, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Bhutan, Peru, Panama, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Tanzania. There is a focus on environmental stewardship and working with local partners to find sustainable solutions to complex environmental problems.

That fit with Hayek’s faith, and what he had experienced at Creighton.

“We are called to be stewards of the earth,” Hayek said, “and being here I feel I can put my faith into practice. I’m able to apply Jesuit principles to my work here.”

He also had an opportunity to study African elephants — up close. It was an eye-opening, adrenaline-rushing experience for the St. Louis native.

“The first experience I had with an elephant was at Lake Manyara,” a national park known for its diverse wildlife, Hayek said.

“When you enter the park, it’s very heavily forested,” Hayek said. “I saw some blue monkeys in the trees, so I was all excited. Then the car in front of us stops, and we hear these crashing sounds.

“This massive forest elephant comes out of the trees” right in front of the lead car. More elephants follow, including a young calf. “It was a huge shock. These massive animals are coming out of nowhere. It was indescribable, an incredible introduction to life in Tanzania.”

Hayek’s research focused on studying the sociability and leadership of male elephants. He worked as part of a team under the direction of John Kioko Masila, Ph.D., a Kenya native and associate professor of wildlife ecology at The School for Field Studies, whose research focuses on elephant conservation.

“There is plenty of research on female elephants,” Hayek explains. “They’re one of the classic examples of matriarchal groups. But there hasn’t been much done on male elephants.”

Hayek had always dreamed of doing this type of work.

“While other kids grew up watching Disney movies, I grew up watching nature documentaries.”

And Creighton prepared him well for the experience, he said. Courses in zoology, biology and organismal and population ecology gave him the knowledge and confidence to apply for the program. He was one of 41 students, from universities across the United States, admitted.

While overseas, he also had an opportunity to correspond with Creighton University President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, S.J. “Since he had been to Tanzania,” Hayek said, “it was really interesting to get his perspective on what I was doing and hear his stories from his time in Tanzania.”

The program ran from Feb. 1 to May 10, but Hayek stayed an extra week so he could climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

The whole experience, he said, has been somewhat surreal — filled with unforgettable experiences and images:

The great migration on the Serengeti, where thousands of wildebeests “stretched out to the horizon” … a lion feasting on a zebra carcass … a group of cheetahs walking along … a leopard resting lazily in a tree. And rare black rhinos, a species that is critically endangered, off in the distance at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area — almost appearing as a mirage in the haze of the afternoon heat.

“They looked like these giant prehistoric animals that would never be able to survive on earth,” Hayek said. “But there they were. There are still these amazing creatures with which we share this planet.

“That was very, very cool.”