Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thank you, Earthwatch!

With the end of October comes the tapering off of rainy (read: muddy) season, the lowering of temperatures, and the conclusion of Earthwatch season, 2013. For the uninitiated, Earthwatch Institute is an organization that brings together conservation researchers with “citizen scientists:” individuals from all walks of life who donate funds, time and energy to research programs across the globe. As an Earthwatch site since 2012, Think Elephants International (TEI) uses the funding we receive from Earthwatch for our annual research budget. Earthwatch volunteers, eager to get their hands dirty,  then join our expedition for 10 days, usually in teams of 5-10 . We provide them with food, accommodation, extensive training, and a whole list of chores while the elephants provide the dirt with enthusiastic aplomb.

Earthwatch Team 5!
Photo Credit: Elise Gilchrist
Some Earthwatch sites desperately need the volunteers’ manpower, only requiring able bodies who are willing to collect specimens or count species in a transect. Our research site, on the other hand, benefits not from the quantity of volunteers, but the extraordinary quality that Earthwatchers inevitably seem to bring to the table. Not everyone has a background in research—or even science (in fact, most don’t)—but they have passion, enthusiasm, and a fresh perspective to contribute.

Up close and personal, taking Thangmo's temperature
Photo Credit: Lisa Barrett
During our Earthwatch program, the most frequent question we hear from our volunteers (besides, of course, “Which elephant is that?” and “When’s lunch?”) is “What else can I do?” We would love to have these volunteers running experiments from sunrise to sunset, but the elephants are not ours to monopolize (they are shared by the hotel), so our actual contact time with them is somewhat limited. While fewer hours spent collecting data leads to blessedly shorter time spent on data entry, it also means that some Earthwatchers feel as if they’re not useful to our program. And so, in honor of the men and women (and wonderful teenagers from the Los Angeles Zoo!) who got the chance to “Think Like an Elephant in Thailand,” I present to you the Top 10 Ways Earthwatch Makes TEI a Better Place:

     1. Research can be more efficient: We can run more elephants through our experiments each day without leaving ourselves exhausted and useless in the afternoon. More helping hands (once they’re properly trained) means more time to focus on specific tasks and accuracy in data-entry.
   2. Earthwatchers ask thought-provoking questions: They keep us on our toes and bring in a fresh perspective, framing a problem in way we had never considered.

Orientation day!
Photo Credit: Lisa Barrett
   3. Behavioral observations: Though much of our research focus doesn’t necessarily require more bodies, Earthwatchers are crucial when it comes to collecting behavioral observational data. Being able to watch the elephants interacting from multiple vantage points allows for greater accuracy, but it also requires the increased number of sharp eyes that Earthwatch volunteers provide.

Behavioral Observations
Photo Credit: Lisa Barrett
   4. Fresh pairs of eyes and ears: Earthwatchers bring in new viewpoints, come up with different phrasings and pairings, and can take a step back and view a larger picture when our team may be caught up in the monotonous daily details.
   5. Display a variety of talents: From picture book illustrators to accountants, graphic desginers to retired high school teachers, every Earthwatcher brings something different. We can pick their brains on potential fundraising strategies or curriculum design, or put them to work creating visual aids for classrooms or social media sites. TEI is a multi-faceted non-profit, and every volunteer finds their own way to contribute.
   6. Breaks up the monotony: As much as I love my team (you only have to read the previous blogs to get a sense of the talent I’m surrounded with), I see them every single day, inside of work and out. Earthwatchers are a vibrant group of new faces, brimming with adventures and advice to share, who are exciting even when the exhaustion inherent in coordinating people and animals starts to seep in.

The Fab Five of Team 6
Photo Credit: Elise Gilchrist
   7. Opportunities to work with underutilized elephants: As GTAEF is a foundation that rescues elephants from potentially bad situations, not all of the elephants up here in the Golden Triangle possess the training or temperament necessary for guest programs. Recently, Earthwatchers have been helping us work with Lakheng, a skittish 40 year old who is still learning how to use our equipment. She’s a total sweetheart who is very shy around people and our research site, so our volunteers have been integral in slowly accustoming her to new faces and places.
   8. They act as ambassadors upon their return: After an intense, ten day elephant research expedition, our Earthwatchers are ready to spread the message of conservation. They give TEI excellent lip service and recruit other people and organizations to our cause.

Running through a vet check with Dr. Cherry
Photo Credit

   9. Awesome food: We RAs cherish the ten days of Earthwatch for the chance to eat catered meals from the best cook in town. It’s fresh and delicious and, most importantly, not the same canteen food we’ve been consuming for the past four months.
   10. Inspiration: Our Earthwatch volunteers represent the portion of the population that isn’t apathetic. The field of animal conservation is not an optimistic one; each day we face the reality that the creatures we are privileged to call co-workers may very soon become extinct. But the fact that there exists a fraction of people who are willing to donate their time, resources, and passions to our cause renews our hope that we may one day be able to transform human-elephant conflict into human-elephant cohabitation.

Our Incredible Teen Team!
Photo Credit: Elise Gilchrist

And so, we thank them! We thank them for the support, the memories, the laughter, and the hope that for every Earthwatcher who passes through our program, there are thousands more like them out there who are willing to listen and ready to act. Welcome to the TEI Team of 2013, Earthwatchers. It was a fantastic year!

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