National Geographic Society Newsroom

Elephant Conservation Outside the Box

First Installment   In December, 1991, my boyfriend and I decided to spend a year traveling in Africa in between graduate degrees. But after being seduced by Africa, we never left. And from there, boyfriend became husband, and elephants the subject of my scientific career. While working for the Namibian government in the Caprivi region...

9781101883471 A (3)

First Installment


In December, 1991, my boyfriend and I decided to spend a year traveling in Africa in between graduate degrees. But after being seduced by Africa, we never left. And from there, boyfriend became husband, and elephants the subject of my scientific career.

While working for the Namibian government in the Caprivi region of Namibia in the early 1990s, I was struck by the realities of the elephant-human interface and the contrast between dedicated conservation staff trying to protect elephants and their habitat on the one hand, and farmers having to live with elephants eating their crops on the other. There was so much color and energy to this place and these people that the experience made me want to write a fictional account that illustrated the contrasts of modern Africa in the face of elephants on the brink.

Over the intervening years, although elephant conservation efforts have improved in some places across Africa, in others, the situation for elephants is getting worse, given recent political instabilities in north Africa, a rise in crime syndicates on the continent, and the increase in the demand for ivory in China, all contributing to a rise in the price of ivory and a staggering increase in elephant poaching in some countries*. Having written five nonfiction books about elephants, including my most recent science memoir about male elephant society, Elephant Don (University of Chicago Press, 2015), [see National Geographic author interview:], I revisited the idea of fiction as another approach to drawing attention to them and their plight.

Ivory Ghosts (Random House ebook imprint, Alibi) is a fictional account of the people, places, politics, events and situations that represent the urgency of the elephant crisis in Africa. I set the story in the Caprivi (now called Zambezi) region of Namibia because it is near and dear to my heart and allowed me to evoke a strong sense of place.

The writing of this story was no small feat, seeing as I had never written in the mystery/thriller genre and there was a lot I had to learn about crafting this kind of plot. I was probably a little naïve going into this project not realizing how difficult it would be, but naiveté has a way of buoying one along a very long and often rocky road. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to enlist Michael Crichton’s former editor as well as one of Michael Connelly’s editors to advise me on plot elements and page-turning techniques.

The first version of the manuscript was written with the two main characters, Catherine Sohon and Jon Baggs, having a POV (point of view), and then my agent at the time advised to use five POV’s, including getting inside the villain’s head (a la The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown) as a mechanism to drop clues and provide cliffhangers at the end of each chapter by switching to another character’s POV at the start of the following chapter. In the end I felt I needed to focus on the heroine and tell the whole story from her perspective as I had plans for her as a serial character and I really thought this choice would create a stronger experience for the reader that I hoped would bond with the character and want to read more about her.

I chose to write the book from a first person POV to give the story more immediacy (meaning that you are in Catherine’s head with the story being told in the first person “I, me” rather than “she, her”, which would make it third person). This choice made storytelling more challenging because there was no way for others to deliver clues to the reader without Catherine’s direct involvement in the story moment. I had to convince one of my thriller editors that I could pull off this choice, and after a few revisions she was impressed. When I got the two thumbs up from both #1 New York Times Bestselling Author’s Jodi Picoult and Mary Higgins Clark, I felt that the long, arduous and ambitious road of writing this tale might have been worthwhile. There just may be able to broaden the general public’s exposure to the elephant’s plight through fictional vérité storytelling.

9781101883471 A (3)

In an attempt to broaden the audience even further, and because my husband, Tim Rodwell, have a fondness for the graphic novel format, we hired the amazingly talented artist, Ron Lemen, to work with us to develop storyboards of the first chapter of Ivory Ghosts. The challenge here was to take the first six pages of the book and recreate the setting, action and emotion through images. We hoped that these visuals would entice potential readers to pick up the book and explore—and hopefully the visual experience of the first chapter would urge one to read on.

A few have described my book as “cause fiction,” and although true in a certain light, I was worried that designation might be a deterrent for the very people I was trying to entice. I’m hoping that the visual experience of the first chapter will immerse even the strongest skeptic in a thrilling plot. It wasn’t hard to create fiction from nonfiction. There is plenty of violence and slaughter to draw from, but I hope that I created the least painful way, particularly for an animal lover, to experience the more traumatic elements of the book—perhaps not as eloquently as Hotel Rwanda dealt with some of the more violent elements of that dark piece of human history—but I was gratified to see that reviewers felt I created a “safe” way for a reader to experience the horror of what is amounting to an elephant apocalypse.

Below is the first installment of Chapter 1. I will post the rest in a follow up installment.


If you’d like to learn more and see reviews, also visit the website at as well as our tumblr site at We will be developing the character further through graphic novel elements and if you’d like to sign up for updates, please send an email to me at A short piece in the CNN New Explorer’s series shows some nice visuals of our nonfiction elephant work as well:

We need to encourage more creative ideas out there to help keep elephants on this planet for as long as possible. So many great groups have formed recently to facilitate getting the word out and that has been heartwarming. There are many more ideas out there I’m sure, and I hope I’ve inspired a few more, but this is conservation outside the box as best as I can currently think outside the box given the crisis at hand.

*Portions of the above were adapted from the author’s note in Ivory Ghosts.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Caitlin O'Connell
Dr. Caitlin O’Connell is a faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine and a world-renowned expert on elephants.  Her twenty five years of research has resulted in numerous scientific publications and five popular books, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense. The Elephant Scientist won five awards, including both the Sibert and Horn Book Honors. An Elephant’s Life and A Baby Elephant In The Wild depict the complex social lives of elephants through images. The Elephant Don comes out next spring along with her debut novel, Ivory Ghosts. ELEPHANT KING, a documentary about her research, won the CINE Best Environment & Nature Award. Caitlin's research into seismic transmission and detection of elephant vocalizations has been funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration. For more information, visit her nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific website ( and her author site at She and her husband, Tim Rodwell, write the tumblr blog Also follow her on twitter: Mushara Author photo credit: Max Salomon