Dr. M. Philip Kahl


Dr. M. Philip Kahl (1934-2012)

Marvin Philip Kahl – Phil as he liked to be called – was born September 28, 1934 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Having first become interested in birds in a high school biology class, he went on to graduate with a B.S. in Zoology/Botany from Butler University in Indianapolis in 1956. Phil attended the University of Georgia in Athens, obtaining a M.S. in zoology/psychology followed by a Ph.D for research on the Wood Stork (Mycteria Americana). Phil spent the next 35 years studying the behavior of birds across North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and Antarctica funded by grants from the National Geographic Society, and fellowships from the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the American Museum of Natural History.

In 1988, Phil was awarded by the prestigious Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation the coveted MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially called the ‘MacArthur Genius Grant,’ to spend anyway he liked with no conditions attached which allowed him to switch to the study of elephant behavior. Phil and his companion, Billie Armstrong, spent six seasons from 1991 to 1997 in Africa observing the behavior of elephants and recording their observations on film and tape. Most of their study was on the visual communication displays of wild elephants in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

Phil published approximately 45 scientific papers, 3 books, and numerous other articles on storks, flamingos, spoonbills, elephants and other subjects relating to vertebrate ecology and behavior. Phil collaborated on the excellent and comprehensive monograph, “Storks, Ibises and Spoonbills of the World” written in association with James A. Hancock and James A. Kushlan. It is beautifully illustrated by the talented artists Alan Harris and David Quinn and was published with the support of Brehm Foundation by Academic Press in 1992. This beautiful book is a must-have for all ornithologists.

Phil was a world traveler, wildlife photographer, writer, scientist, and researcher. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic, Audubon, International Wildlife, Natural History, and many other books and magazines.

With all of his accomplishments, Phil’s first and real love was research. To ensure that Phil’s legacy of research continues, the Estate of M. Philip Kahl and the Elephant Research Foundation have provided the initial funding for and are partnering with the International Elephant Foundation on a new research opportunity.

The Estate of M. Philip Kahl, Elephant Research Foundation and the International Elephant Foundation is proud to announce that we are currently accepting applications for the:

International Elephant Foundation and Elephant Research Foundation
M. Philip Kahl Postdoctoral Fellowship – Elephants


I am delighted to hear that the International Elephant Foundation has created a Postdoctoral Fellowship to honor Phil Kahl. I knew Phil for about 20 years, during which time I learned that he had graduated from Butler University, where I teach. He is also, to my knowledge, the only Butler graduate to have won the MacArthur Fellowship: The “genius grant.”

Phil was the epitome of a dedicated researcher. He was thorough, organized, creative, persistent and a little bit roguish – in the way an elephant bull would be. When, in a classroom presentation at Butler, a student asked him how often female elephants mated, he responded that they had sex about every four months (adding that this was better than he had done at Butler).

I worked with Phil (and Billie Armstrong) on one large project – the ethogram for the first edition of the Elephant Husbandry Resource Manual. Phil would take good ideas from any source – and give credit for those ideas to that source. He felt that one should either do science the right way – or not do it at all. He was serious about his science. He thrived on work.

Phil also had a considerate, kind attitude – he was generous – although he did not always like that pointed out. For example, his mother was a fanatical fan of the Indiana University men’s basketball team, and of their controversial coach, Bobby Knight. He took his mother down to IU to watch a practice session as her birthday present, not telling her that he had arranged for her to meet Coach Knight. She was overwhelmed to be able to have a chat with her basketball hero – and Bobby Knight was most gracious (a side of him that not everyone appreciates).