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.


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