Large mammal ecologist, University of Florida/South African National Parks

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Anyone can do it.

Zoliswa Nhleko

What do you do?

I conduct research on large mammals, specifically white rhinos at the moment. My research investigating how poaching is affecting white rhino populations through it's effect on population size (demography), behaviour, physiology (stress) and how rhinos use the landscape (distribution). For the demography question I use time series data collected over multiple decades to see how population sizes changed over the years, before there was poaching and how they changes once poaching started. For the behavior and stress questions I ran a playback experiment to see if rhinos changed their behavior in response to certain sounds. For the stress question I collected rhino poop samples in areas with different poaching levels and will compare the cortisol levels in those samples. Finally for the distribution question I am looking at changes in rhino distribution over the years when there was no poaching and when it started.

Why did you choose this field?

My interest in wildlife started when I was part of an environmental club run by the local museum. One day we learnt about extinction and the dodo. This struck a cord with me and I vowed to work on making sure no other animals went extinct. Eventually i forgot about this promise. Went to University and registered for hydrology and geology major with a minor in zoology (as an aside). But that first I really didnt enjoy geology and loved zoology. So i dropped geology and eventually majored in zoology. I went on to work at a museum myself as an environmental educator and the dream came back to me. So after 3 years in that job I decided to go back to school to work towards a qualification that would allow me to work towards that goal. I registered for a masters in zoology and had the chance to work on a project on the endangered black rhino. When it came to choosing a PhD research topic I knew I wanted to continue research on large mammals, specifically rhinos and here we are.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Being recognized as one of South Africa's young 200 leaders doing great things in their field.

Why do you love working in STEM?

The possibility that one day we may find a solution to a big problem and solve it once and for all. I get excited about all the possibilities and the amazing species we get to work on and the landscapes we get to call our study sites!

Best advice for next generation?

Anyone can do it, I was not the best in maths yet here I am doing impactful work.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

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