Keith Eltringham

Pilot-biologist and conservationist
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The Independent Online

Stuart Keith Eltringham, zoologist, wildlife manager and conservationist: born Edgerton, Alberta 21 June 1929; pilot biologist, Wildfowl Trust, Slimbridge 1958-61; Assistant Lecturer in Zoology, King's College London 1962-67; Director, Nuffield Unit of Tropical Animal Ecology, Mweya, Uganda 1967-73; Chief Research Officer, Uganda National Parks 1972-73; University Lecturer, Department of Applied Biology, Cambridge University 1973-89, University Lecturer, Department of Zoology 1989-97; Fellow, Wolfson College, Cambridge 1988-97 (Emeritus), Admissions Tutor 1995-97; married 1958 Sue Tonge (two daughters); died Cambridge 19 January 2006.

Keith Eltringham was a pioneer of aerial survey of animal populations, first waterfowl in Gloucestershire and later African mammals. This work began in the late 1950s when - trained in zoology and aviation - he was engaged as a "pilot-biologist" for the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, the conservation organisation founded by the ornithologist and artist Peter Scott in 1946.

At the trust's centre on the river Severn, Eltringham studied both static and flying waterfowl populations and devised a new method for bird-count comparisons which was used by the National Wildfowl Counts Scheme, now known as the Wetlands Bird Survey, for some 30 years. In assessing the feasibility of aerial survey for population studies of birds and other animals he laid the foundation for many long-term research studies of conservation importance worldwide.

In 1967 Eltringham arrived in Uganda, to run the Nuffield Unit of Tropical Animal Ecology at Mweya in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Established in 1961 by Uganda National Parks and Cambridge University under the directorship of Richard Laws, it was the first wildlife research station in Africa. Eltringham used his expertise in aviation to great effect, particularly with respect to elephants and the "elephant problem". In the 1960s the serious issue was over-population: elephants were protected in national parks and had become so numerous that the savanna habitat was being seriously damaged through loss of trees. Management to prevent further damage included measured culling of the herds.

However, the "problem" changed, as Eltringham and his collaborators observed a dramatic population decline in the mid-1970s, blaming poaching for the ivory trade. Aerial survey of elephants continued, and showed that numbers declined further during the 1980s. This sparked international concern for the viability of African elephant populations and led to the worldwide ban on the selling of ivory in 1989.

Keith Eltringham was born in Canada in 1929. He was the second son of an immigrant farming family, but early in his life the Depression forced them to return home to Bristol. Visits to the zoo in Bristol and the maintenance of a home menagerie engendered in him a strong desire to work with animals.

Growing up during and after the Second World War he developed skills which would combine to equip an accomplished wildlife researcher and manager. He was educated at St Brendan's College, Bristol, and served in the army cadets. National Service interrupted his formal education in 1947; he applied to the Royal Air Force, following his elder brother, Brian, and was caught up in the Berlin airlift on the ground.

He started his university education in 1950, at Southampton University, and moved the following year into the honours stream, taking a "classical" Zoology syllabus. Eltringham's attraction to Southampton had included the existence of the University Air Squadron, to which he applied immediately. In his family memoirs he recalls thinking (wrongly) that he would be rejected because he had failed to navigate himself correctly out of the interview room by opening the wrong door. The squadron gave him an exhaustive and valuable training in aviation.

At Southampton he initially set his goal on teaching but was persuaded by his tutor to stay on and do a research degree. His PhD, supervised by Arthur Hockley, centred on the environmental impacts of heated water being generated from a new electrical power station on the River Test. His study animal was the gribble (Limnoria lignorum), a marine wood-boring isopod crustacean which is effectively a marine woodlouse. At the time it was perceived that local wooden craft might have been in danger of increased wood-boring damage. Eltringham was able to show how the effluent affected Limnoria populations and his close study revealed that there were also two other gribble species (L. tripunctata and L. quadripunctata) present in British waters (reported in Nature, 1958).

In 1962 he was appointed to an Assistant Lectureship at King's College London, where he lectured for courses on marine biology and conservation and developed his marine research. He at last got the opportunity to work with large mammals on his appointment to the Nuffield Unit of Tropical Animal Ecology in 1967. Here in Uganda he directed research relating to both animals and plants in the Queen Elizabeth National Park and took over the various game counts and surveys which had already been put in place. Research progressed at pace on elephants, buffalos and TB, large mammal parasitology, and on the grass communities. Postgraduate students studied pelicans and Uganda kob; visiting scientists worked on hares, banded mongooses, ultra-sound in bats, rodents and insects; and topi were studied by Professor Peter Jewell, who became Eltringham's lifetime friend.

Until 1972, when Amin's regime made it too difficult for the research station to continue, Eltringham developed expertise in many directions, including large mammal behaviour, pelican biology, the immobilisation of animals for study or treatment and, above all, the aerial survey of populations of pelicans and various large mammals. He calibrated the counts by using visible measured-distance ground markers and a constant height, constant width, transect method. Many of these activities continued through his later years as a lecturer at Cambridge, when he was deeply involved with studies of wildlife in places as far apart as Spain (ibex), Rwanda (large mammals) and Peru (vicuña).

Eltringham's conservation work took the form of alerting authorities to animal overpopulation, human or cattle encroachment and to declines in particular species. His report to ICUN (the World Conservation Union) on the reduction of the common hippo throughout Africa resulted in the species' addition in 1995 to Appendix II of the Cites convention, whereby trade is strictly regulated.

His books and edited works - including The Ecology and Conservation of Large African Mammals (1979), Elephants (1982), Wildlife Resources and Economic Development (1984) and The Hippos (1999) - bear witness to his determination and scholarship in the field of conservation.

John Flowerdew

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