Friday, August 31, 2012

How to get to Think Elephants International, Thailand: some abstract vocational directions followed by more concrete geographical ones

I’ve spent the last 7 months happily engaged in groundbreaking elephant research for an organization that, above all else, values conservation. I tell you this in part to introduce myself to the TEI blog as one of the research assistants. More importantly, I tell you this because if I knew I’d be doing what I’m doing now,  six years ago when I started university, frankly I’d be baffled as to how I might have gotten here.

I remember how frustrating it can be to finally decide upon a career goal only to realize that the path to reach that goal resembles a maze from an issue of Highlights children’s magazine.

Or even worse, you might feel like there aren’t any paths leading to your acorn/dream job at all.

At TEI we’re all about conducting elephant cognition studies and educating the public about our research findings, the complex issues surrounding elephant conservation, and how we can apply the former to help resolve the latter.

I enjoy being in a position where I can educate others and share my experiences. Perhaps by sharing my experience in getting to this position in the first place, I can offer some insight to the young TEI follower who wants to work with animals but doesn’t know where to start.

I’m by no means an expert in working with animals. Take my words with however many grains of salt you deem necessary.  I’ve stumbled upon a great deal of luck, but have taken a series of small yet methodically determined steps as well.

Step 1: Seek out relevant experience.
How do you get experience in a field that requires you to have experience?
Think small. That makes me sound like the motivational speaker that’s secretly trying to sabotage you, but I honestly recommend it. What I mean by this is that, once you have a rough idea of your goal in mind, don’t underestimate even the slightest movement down a path that could potentially take you there.

It’s important to realize that the experience needed for a job is probably not as specific to that job as you might first think. I had absolutely no experience with elephants prior to starting my work with Dr. Josh Plotnik. The experience I bring to the TEI table is instead that which I’d gained conducting similar research on completely different animals: rhesus macaques & capuchins.

So then, how did I get the experience that qualified me for work with monkeys?
Probably in part by following steps 2 and 3 (below), but to a large extent I credit having worked previously with dogs at daycare centers in my community. It’s easy to get experience working with dogs and other domestic animals, so use such work experience as a starting point. With that experience under your belt, animal work that was previously out of reach might be attainable.

The more experiences you accumulate the less time it will take you to hone in on exactly what work you want to do. I’m still not certain in which capacity I want to work with animals. But, with each day I spend in contact with them, by decisively closing off some avenues and veering off toward others, I get closer to recognizing what it is that I’m eagerly moving toward.

Step 2: Take advantage of available resources.
As a first year at Emory University, I had this idea firmly planted in my head that I wanted to focus on primates. I worked quickly to immerse myself in the field both on and off campus.

I made it my duty to secure enrollment in the single class offered only once a year by prominent primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal. Outside of the classroom, I applied for research tech jobs at the Yerkes Primate Research Center located next to the university.

With a significant amount of luck, I managed to snag both a seat in the class and an opening in a cognition lab working with rhesus macaques.

Step 3: Network.
Not to slight Dr. de Waal in any way, but before I was taken on as a volunteer in his capuchin laboratory at Yerkes, another important contact in my incipient primate network helped me get my foot in the door. Well… the ties I had to this chimpanzee named Woody certainly didn’t hurt my chances. I found out in the middle of an interview that the chimp that I had been sponsoring for a few years at a sanctuary called Chimp Haven, had—unbeknownst to me—come from Yerkes and been a research subject of my interviewer.

Of course, networking with humans works too. I should note that Dr. de Waal had two teaching assistants when I took his class. One later supervised me during my time in his capuchin lab and is currently the Head of Education for TEI, Dr. Jen Pokorny. The other was TEI founder and director Dr. Josh Plotnik.


As promised, if you are legitimately interested in visiting TEI in Thailand for an elephant experience, we are located in the Golden Triangle, within the municipality of Chiang Saen. The small Golden Triangle village is about an hour’s drive north of Chiang Rai, a city that hosts its own international airport. We are just down the road from both the Anantara Resort & Spa and the Four Seasons Tented Camp. In addition to the research experience we offer through Earthwatch, these resorts boast programs for their guests that will bring you into contact with both the TEI team and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) elephants.

I assure you my future blog posts will have much less to do with me and much more to do with elephants.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Only elephants should wear ivory.....

by Rachel Dale
Last year was the worst year for elephant poaching in Africa since the ivory trade was banned by CITES (convention on international trade in endangered species) in 1989, with this year not looking to be any better. Why? Well one factor could be the legal sale of ivory stockpiles that was permitted in 2008. Some argue this caused resurgence in demand for ivory in the Far East. This increased demand sent prices soaring, making the selling of illegal ivory an extremely lucrative trade. Sadly in order to obtain this illegal ivory you must first shoot its producer- thousands of wild elephants. Over 5000 tusks were confiscated in 2011 alone, and that is just the confiscated tusks. We don’t know how many slipped through the net. 

Another factor is that the demand for ivory in countries such as China and Vietnam is still very high. Perhaps consumers don’t care that the lovely ivory ornament came from a living, intelligent being that had to be killed in order for the ornament to be made. Although I believe that people do care, but are unaware where it came from or simply do not make the connection between the living animal and the small artefact. Either way education must be used to tackle consumer demand. 

Yao Ming with a two week old orphan.
Photo by Sean Dundas for Save the Elephants
Recently, in a highly publicised trip, former Chinese basketball player and NBA star Yao Ming visited Kenya as a Wild Aid ambassador. This organisation is focused on reducing the demand for endangered species products. Whilst in Kenya Yao covered every aspect of the problems facing elephants due to poaching. He saw elephants in the wild (with Save the Elephants), baby elephants that have been orphaned due to poaching (with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust) and large stockpiles of confiscated tusks (with the Kenya Wildlife Service). The whole trip was documented by Yao on his blog and by the many organisations he worked with as well as being well covered by the international press. It is the public awareness like this, especially by Chinese role models, that will help educate the next generation on the importance of conservation. 

It’s true; the facts show that the situation is not good for elephants. But with so many organisations working, and working together, to protect elephants and reduce demand for their body parts, I still have hope that elephants can be saved.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Elephant Personalities at the Golden Triangle- Part 2

This is a continuation from my previous blog about the very unique elephant personalities here at the Golden Triangle. Every day I spend with the elephants, I realise that elephants are not too different from us. Each elephant has a different trait and personality; for example, they can be greedy, spoilt, confident, nosey, popular, relaxed, chilled, friendly and naughty. So really elephants are just like humans.
The first elephant in this blog that I am going to talk about is Ploy. She is an extremely intelligent elephant, an A* student. We have the pleasure of working with her frequently and she does very well at any of the intelligence tasks that we set her. The Earthwatch volunteers, who come to help us with our research, all love Ploy too, as she is a very curious and inquisitive elephant. Whenever she meets somebody, she will stick her trunk into their face to get a nice smell of them and probably, in her very clever brain, make a quick personality assessment, or work out if they have any tasty treats. Not only is she one of the smartest elephants here, but she also provides much entertainment between trials at the research site, where there are many free ranging chickens. These chickens really annoy Ploy, to the extent that she has come up with the novel technique of throwing sticks and stones at them to shoo them away. The latter is very effective although she is yet to cause bodily injury to any of the chickens. Watching Ploy play with our baby elephant Am is also a treat. The two of them will run up and down the field together and Am will not leave her side. The whole time they are together, there is much trunk interaction and vocalisation. Special relationships between individual elephants may last an elephant’s whole life time although, just like humans, the quality of these relationships and the bond between them may change over time. For Am at least, Ploy is definitely a role model for now and they have a very special bond.
Ploy and Baby Am
 Am is the youngest elephant at the GTAEF and is already a favourite.  Not only does she look incredibly cute but she has so much character too. She is one of the most vocal elephants at the camp and produces some very interesting and loud vocalisations, mainly consisting of baby squeaks and chirps. My favourite experiences with Am are at the BEEE (baby elephant education experience) that Think Elephants and GTAEF run at the Ananatara Hotel. Am loves doing the BEEE as she gets to run around with her friends, including Ploy. I love watching Am bathing in the river as her face exudes sheer joy. It is very funny watching her climb out of the muddy bank as she often slips but she has great determination to get to the top, which she always somehow manages to do. Am has been taught to kiss guests, so whenever I see Am I get a big muddy kiss on my face. It’s smelly but it is certainly great being kissed by an elephant and, working in this remote area it’s the only type of kiss I get!
 Am posing for the camera
I am going to end this blog talking about Phuki. He is one of three bull elephants at GTAEF and is quite magnificent, although his slightly effeminate name doesn’t quite do him justice. He is a very large elephant and has most impressive tusks. I love looking into Phuki’s eyes as you can see he has had an interesting history and has lived through many events. Phuki is an old boy, approximately 40 years of age, and has been at the GTAEF elephant camp for 3 years. Phuki was used for many years in the logging industry in Chiang Mai province near the Burmese border and then for many years in a tourist camp before coming to the elephant haven at GTAEF. We use Phuki in our cognition research and he has proven to be one of the most intelligent elephants at the camp, passing the mirror self recognition test, and having exceptional olfactory (smell) abilities. I love working with him as he has a very gentle nature and of course is a genius when it comes to the tasks that we throw at him.
 Phuki showing off his beautiful tusks
To be continued.................:)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Becoming an elephant researcher....

by Rachel Dale (TEI Research Assistant)

As part of the Think Elephants International research team I often get asked how I came to be an elephant researcher. Well as with many children who grow up on farms, I wanted to be a vet when I was younger, having always been passionate about animals. But from very early on in life, after visits to an elephant orphanage in Kenya and many David Attenborough documentaries, it was elephants that I was really fascinated by. After leaving school my career path changed slightly from my childhood aspirations and I studied Psychology at university, leading me to believe I had left the hopes of working with elephants in my childhood. 

However, in my final year I discovered the field of animal cognition: the study of the behaviour and intelligence of non-human animals. This is when I realised I could combine my passion for animals with my interest in psychology. I completed a Masters in Evolutionary and Comparative Psychology where we studied many different species to try to piece together how and why different behaviours evolve in different species, and how this may relate to the evolution of human behaviour. I was lucky enough to work with a Professor who studies elephant cognition for my research thesis. This ultimately led me here, to the jungles of Thailand, working as a research assistant for Dr Josh Plotnik on Asian elephant cognition. A childhood dream come true, you could say. 
Me standing with Mike- an African elephant I studied for my Masters research.

But my path to this career is certainly not the only way to become an elephant researcher. My colleagues on the research team and other friends in the field of animal cognition have very varied backgrounds including biology, zoology and anthropology. Having a psychology background I study elephant behaviour and am especially interested in their social intelligence. But it is equally important to study their anatomy, habitat, reproduction, migration patterns and all other aspects of an elephant’s life so that we can understand and help conserve them. There are many routes into the world of elephant research and I’m so glad that I found one.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Elephant Personalities at the Golden Triangle, Thailand- Part 1

My name is Lydia Tiller and I am one of the research assistants at Think Elephants International, looking at elephant cognition with Dr Joshua Plotnik.  This will be the first of many blogs that I will write for TEI and this blog in particular will be my first ever blogging attempt J I have been working with Josh in Thailand for 6 months now and I have come to get to know and love all the elephants very dearly. It didn’t take me long to observe how very different each elephant is from another, which is why I thought I would write about the different elephant personalities here at the Golden Triangle.
Me and Namfon during one of our research trials

Intelligence, close family ties and social complexity are traits elephants are well known for. The saying ‘an elephant never forgets’ cannot be more true, as elephants  have very long term memories  and are able to remember other individuals, past events, places and migration routes for many years. Elephant society is very complex and the lives of males and females are very different. Females spend their entire lives in closely bonded family groups, made up of mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts. The herd is usually led by a matriarch who tends to be the eldest of the group. Once males reach sexual maturity they will leave the herd and live on their own or form loosely bonded bachelor herds.

Being such social animals and living in such a socially complex society, it is no wonder that elephants have strong personalities. Their personality affects how they interact with other elephants, how they influence other elephants and how other elephants will perceive them. Just like humans, some elephants are popular, while others are less so, some elephants have strong leadership qualities, while others are better at being team players, and some are extroverts, while others are introverts.

 Lynchee and Da, two elephants at GTAEF that get on very well. A personality match some might say

The more I get to know the elephants, the more I appreciate how unique each elephant is. Here in Thailand, The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) homes and looks after 26 elephants, and each of these elephants is very different from the others. I could probably write a whole book about them all. However, for blog purposes, I shall just focus on two elephants today, and will continue with different elephants in the next set of blogs.

The first elephant I got to know well here is Bo. She is in her 30’s and oozes personality. Bo is a very strong minded elephant and will do things in her own time, not always responding immediately to her mahout. I had an interesting experience one day when riding Bo on a trip to the river for bathing. All the other elephants entered the river in the normal way via a platform leading into the water. Bo, however, had an alternative motive and chose a different route through the mud. Bo loves the mud and started to throw mud all over herself, and also myself, and then she started to rub up against the muddy bank. She was enjoying herself so much that she didn’t stop and didn’t listen to the commands of the mahouts or me, and just carried on coating us in mud. She finally gave in to her mahout’s commands and Bo and myself were completely caked in mud! Bo is also a delight to study. Currently, we are investigating elephant olfaction and so, after investigating the task that we set her, Bo always nods her head and makes a loud snort to say, “I know the answer”.  A very clever elephant indeed!

                     Here, Bo is enjoying herself in the river, right next to the muddy bank!

The second elephant I am going to tell you about is Meena. She is only 6 years old and is already the star attraction at the Ananatara Hotel and loved by all. Every morning she goes to meet the guests at breakfast. Here, she has wooed the crowds by her confident and eccentric character.  Like all stars, Meena is a bit of a diva too. She gets the tastiest of fruits handed to her every morning due to her fame, which we think has gone to her head, as we have come to learn that she will not work to get her food. We found this out when trying to use her in our research, which she clearly found very unglamorous and somewhat beneath her! We needed her to complete a set intelligence task in order to gain a food reward. Obviously, this work was not what star elephants should be doing as Meena is used to food being handed to her on a plate, and not having to work for it. So, Meena refused to `play ball’ and decided instead to break our equipment, as if throwing a diva tantrum.

Here, Meena is munching away on some tasty grass, while also decorating her head. Stars have to look their best at all times.

To be continued............... J