Ivonne Kienast

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Maribel Garcia awardee honored for conservation efforts in Central Africa

Ten years ago, Ivonne Kienast received an insight that foreshadowed big changes to her life. Dr. Daniela Hedwig — then a colleague at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, now head of the Elephant Listening Project of Cornell’s K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics — told her that once you set foot in Africa, you lose your heart to it.

This has certainly been true for Kienast, a behavioral biologist, wildlife conservationist and doctoral candidate in the field of natural sciences. She began her work in Africa in 2014 and has found herself inspired by its people, cultures, colors, soundscapes and biodiverse nature. Over the years, she has steadily deepened her ties with the continent, particularly in the Central African Republic, one of the lowest income countries in the world.

“Africa is magical,” Kienast said. “My heart belongs to central Africa and its people and wildlife, and I hope to be able to have a positive impact and continue dedicating my life to conservation. I strongly believe that if I can help even a few people have a better education, a better life, dreams and hopes, then I will have achieved my own goals and dreams.”

Kienast’s determination to be of service earned her this year’s Maribel Garcia Community Spirit Award. Facilitated by the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, the annual award recognizes a Cornell student who is making a remarkable and innovative contribution to the spirit of humanity.

Most recently, Kienast has been making an impact as the project manager and head researcher of the Dzanga Forest Elephant Project (DFEP). “While my background is in animal behavior, my drive to work in the field has shifted from purely working with animals to understanding how much we need to help local communities to gain a voice in conservation and to gain access to their heritage,” Kienast explained.

In this spirit — and in an effort to decolonize conservation in Africa — DFEP is a collaboration guided by the motto maboko na maboko, “hand in hand” in the local Sango language. Started in 2021, it involves Cornell’s Elephant Listening Project and the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA) management, consisting of the Ministry for Water and Forests of the government of the Central African Republic and the World Wildlife Fund, with support from anti-poaching organization Chengeta Wildlife.

The project aims to stabilize or increase the elephant population and an intact rainforest in the DSPA by drawing on this network of expertise and developing the next generation of African conservationists. Kienast, for example, is helping to build capacity by training nine locals from the Bantu and Ba’aka ethnic groups in research methods and hiring the first African woman to work as a permanent research assistant in the protected area.

To reach out to the next generation of conservationists, Kienast co-created educational activities for children and founded the Ita Ti Doli (Sisters and Brothers of Elephants) program that hosts two adolescents for one week at the research camp. “Our goal is to have children understand that elephants are sentient beings, and that they shouldn’t be seen as only a threat,” Kienast explained. “Our efforts are also in having the children relate to the local researchers and identify their future selves in them.”

In the long run, Kienast hopes, DFEP will bear fruit well beyond its own region by training research assistants that will serve as future mentors and lead conservation activities in other parts of the country or in central Africa. “I also hope that our program can serve as role model for other research sites in Africa,” she said.

Friends of the late Maribel Garcia '95 established the award to honor her legacy as a creative, inspiring and energetic member of her community. Garcia died in a car accident in 1997. Previous award recipients have been recognized for their work on STEM education in Africa, student-veteran program housing, Black graduate and professional student support and much more.

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