Sunday, May 18, 2014

Welcoming New Faces: Teacher Training

by Rebecca Shoer

               Earlier this month, we were thrilled to welcome our three new Thai teachers to the Think Elephants International (TEI) team. Mai, Gib, and Tangmo just completed their undergraduate degrees in Biology and Natural Resources at Mahidol University located just outside of Bangkok. All three are former students of our founder, Dr. Plotnik, who is a professor in Conservation Biology at the university. As members of the TEI team, our teachers will be responsible for identifying and contacting schools, as well as running our curriculum in these schools. Before they could start working in schools, however, the girls came to the field site in the Golden Triangle to learn all about the work we do here with the elephants.

Visiting the elephant camp. Photo by Rebecca Shoer

               First was a crash-course in elephant biology and research with the research assistants. Having been students of Dr. Plotnik, Mai, Gib, and Tangmo are well-versed in animal cognition experiments and elephant cognition specifically, but this was an opportunity for them to see our research site in person, and discuss the process of designing and implementing studies. They also participated in a standard behavioral observation session, a veterinary health check, and toured the elephant camp. This was a great opportunity for the teachers to learn the basics of how we observe elephant interactions, and to interact with elephants themselves. 
Gib (left) and Tangmo (right) observing elephants. Photo by Rebecca Shoer

               We also had a number of discussions with the teachers regarding the ivory trade, threats to Asian elephants, and captive elephant management. Not only did we discuss the origins of the many problems faced by both Asian and African elephants, but we also brainstormed possible solutions and mitigation techniques for these issues. Having grown up in Thailand and understanding threats to elephants from both a scientific and a cultural perspective, we have challenged our teachers to create activities and games that will help their students understand just why it is so important to protect elephants.
               Having finished their elephant boot-camp with the RAs, it was time to work with our Thai education manager, P'Tom. Over the next few days, the girls learned about how to develop curricula, including identifying learning objectives and creating activities that are both fun and develop critical thinking skills. They watched video footage from our previous classroom pilots, and discussed with P'Tom the delicate art of managing a classroom. Finally, it was time to put their skills to the test: together, Mai, Gib, and Thangmo created an hour-long lesson to run in a local orphanage.
               Tangmo led the children in a number of new and fun activities, exploring the differences between Asian and African elephants, learning elephant body parts, and discussing the habitat needs of elephants. The rest of the TEI team had a great time watching our new teachers working with children.

Gib spending time with Lakheng and Pumpui. Photo by Rebecca Shoer

               Our teachers are now ready to start working with individual schools to run our curriculum.  Currently they are locating and contacting schools in the Bangkok area, and we hope to also reach schools in the Kanchanaburri area, a province with high incidences of human-elephant conflict. We are excited to have three new members in the Think Elephants team, as we move to expand our conservation program into classrooms throughout Thailand!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Call Me Maybe: Elephant Vocalizations

By Sophie Wasserman

As you may have seen in our recent Youtube video (Click Here), the Think Elephants International (TEI) research team is currently spending a few hours each day recording the various sounds made by our local, vocal elephants. TEI’s goal is to build up a database for use in future studies but the reality involves a lot of sitting, waiting, and wishing that you hadn’t forgotten bug spray. As we move forward with our project, we've compiled some useful information and a handy identification guide for the typical vocalizations (or sounds used to communicate) of Asian elephants, helpful for your next safari, jungle trek, or trip to your neighborhood zoo. 
While our Research Diaries video above showcases the more high-tech recording equipment, it’s important to remember that in the field, our most essential tools are pen and paper. Although the microphone allows us to preserve the vocalizations, these sound bytes are useless to us without also writing down which elephant made the call, the elephant’s posture and position, the names of other elephants within range, and the circumstances that prompted the call. In other words, the key to interpreting elephant vocalizations is context. For a good example, just watch the clips below!

Pretty intimidating, right? Sounds like some serious stuff is going down. Now watch the clip again—now with the audio and video.

This time, you get a completely different story. Thangmo, the initial elephant, and Lamyai, her arriving companion, are actually very close friends. Their roars and trumpets are expressing excitement at their reunion, as opposed to the terror the sound alone might suggest. We can tell they are not at ease by the way their ears are pinned straight and their tails are raised, but they twine their trunks and relax their ears when they finally meet, suggesting that these elephants are simply exchanging an exuberant greeting. Elephants tend to vocalize at times of high emotional arousal, with similar (to our ears at least) sounds conveying both positive reactions, such as excitement or playfulness, and negative reactions, such as anger, agitation, or fear. In this way, body posture, environment, and even level of affiliation between individuals are all crucial factors when trying to decipher the acoustic communication of elephants.
Male Phuki often rumbles more than our ladies
Though the majority of studies of elephant vocalizations have been completed with African elephants, a few have looked specifically at their Asian counterparts. In general, studies of Asian elephant classify their vocalizations into four main groups: rumbles, trumpets, chirps (which African elephants do not make) and roars. Elephants do make other sounds, but noises like these, including what some call “snorts” or “booms,” are classified as non-vocal sounds and are thus not as intensely studied. Keep in mind that elephant vocalizations are highly complex and variable, so defining a "standard" call is difficult. The examples below are provided to give you an idea  of what a particular category of vocalization could sound like.

Rumble: (from Boonjan, as another elephant arrived)

Rumbles are unique in that they contain infrasonic components, meaning part of the vocalization is below our hearing range. They have the longest duration of any call, typically lasting about five to six seconds. Elephants rumble during interactions within a herd, such as to assemble herd members when leaving a watering hole or to contact members who were separated from the herd, as well as when initiating interactions between herds. Rumbles are also integral to mating behaviors; males in musth and females in estrous produce specific rumbles that signal their body state to elephants far and wide.

Trumpet:  (from Lynchee, at the shower station)

Trumpets are loud, high frequency calls that last, on average, about one second. As seen in the clips above, trumpets are a very versatile vocalization; the three situations found most likely to elicit trumpets are play (especially in younger elephants), disturbance by humans or other animals, and aggression (such as while charging another species or vehicle).

Chirp: (from Lynchee, at the shower station)

Chirps are short, squeaky blasts lasting less than a few tenths of a second, usually produced in a series of 2-8. In the wild, young elephants rarely, if ever, chirp. Chirps seem to indicate confusion or alarm and are usually accompanied by confused running or bunching of herd members. In captivity, elephants have learned to associate chirping, which humans find charming and cute, with food rewards from their mahouts, and often use chirps as a way to ask for bananas or other treats.

Roar: (from Lanna, arriving in the grasslands)

If the clip above sounds familiar, it might be because sound editors for the film Jurassic Park mixed together elephant recordings with tigers, lions and alligators to get the perfect roar for their T.Rex. The mighty elephant roar usually lasts a little over two seconds and can reach over 100 decibels (that’s a little less than a jet engine taking off!). As you might predict, roars are used in instances of aggression, but also frequently used in play as well as upon first arrival in a new location.

Now that you know the four main types of elephant vocalizations, as well as the importance of context in understanding elephant acoustic communication, stay tuned for next month’s look at how elephants produce and interpret these calls themselves.

Nair, S., Balakrishnan, R., Seelamantula, C. S., & Sukumar, R. (2009). Vocalizations of wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus): Structural classification and social context. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 126(5), 2768-2778.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How to Become Un-Endangered (Part 3 of 3)

by Lisa Barrett

 After looking at examples of successfully rescued species (Part 1) and some of the factors affecting which species we decide to save (Part 2), this final post of my three-part series will investigate the conservation debate with the case-study of the Asian elephant.

Part 3: Endangered Asian Elephants

Threats They Face

While much of the elephant conservation world has focused on protecting elephants by curbing the illegal trade of ivory and ivory poaching, there are many other threats that elephants face. Though elephants throughout Asia are vulnerable to illegal hunting and trade, the major threats to wild populations are habitat destruction and fragmentation. Humans have been clearing jungle for land development projects such as farming and road-building for decades, and as we overtake natural spaces, elephants are subject to potentially fatal interactions with humans. This is especially dangerous as human farmland is created and elephant habitat is destroyed; without alternate food sources, elephants may consume an entire farmer’s crop—and livelihood—in a matter of hours. Tensions and profit losses caused by increasing instances of crop raiding often culminates in humans killing elephants in retaliation, and elephants injuring humans in the process (a process termed "human-elephant conflict"). Altogether, reduction in habitat space and the growth of human populations leaves little we can do to support wild populations of the largest land mammal in the long-term.

At current rates, Asian elephants will likely be extinct in as little as 20-50 years. At the same time, there is scarce data on elephant population loss, making it difficult to predict how the population will change or to identify strategies to properly address solutions.

 Habitat loss is the biggest threat to Asian elephants.
Photo from:
Learning from the Past

Elephants are popular targets for conservation efforts—not just because of elephants’ reputation as graceful giants and cultural icons, but because they are intelligent, social, and are critical for their ecosystem (learn more about elephants as a keystone species here). What strategies have been used by conservationists, and how do they create a rescue plan? While we would ideally apply past successful conservation action plans from other species in trying to protect Asian elephants, this situation is particularly complex and conservation is not a “one size fits all” enterprise. Take for example, this extract from an interesting case study about bird conservation from Natterson-Horowitz and Bower’s book, Zoobiquity:

In the 1980s, peregrine falcons were on the verge of going extinct. Biologists removed freshly-laid eggs from their nests to begin a captive breeding program, and soon the population was revived. The adolescent falcons grew up, were released, and began mating with other falcons.
Years later, when the California condor needed saving, conservationists applied this same lifesaving method. But this time, it seemed that the birds could not simply be raised and released. Biologists studying the behavior of these vultures determined that juvenile condors need to be mentored by older individuals in order to learn foraging and resting techniques to survive. By analyzing condors’ behaviors and setting up a mentoring program, biologists eventually brought the condors back from the dead. In this case, the conservationists had to admit their mistake: each population requires its own, specialized species recovery plan.

California condors became extinct in the wild in 1987.
Photo from:

This story demonstrates how one conservation approach may not necessarily apply to another species (even if the species share the same class!), and it shows us that conserving endangered animals can be even more daunting than we found in the first two parts of this blog series. It also exemplifies the idea that it is crucial to understand a species’ behavior before embarking on a conservation “crusade” to help them (read about Conservation Behavior here).

For example, elephants are a migratory species. An important conservation effort for elephants has been to create corridors of vegetated space between fragments of elephant lands in countries such as India and Botswana. However, in some cases it is not possible to preserve the ancient migratory routes of these isolated populations. In fact, the feasibility of implementing this sort of method depends on the geographical area and whether creating a corridor would have drastically negative effects on the human community’s economy. Critics have also claimed that the establishment of corridors is too expensive given that there has been little evidence that corridors are successful.          

Another conservation strategy for Asian elephants involves discovering practical ways of preventing elephants from entering farmland. This method relies on behavioral research that tests efficacy of olfactory deterrents, such as chili pepper, and auditory deterrents, such as bee buzzing, which farmers can then place around their crops as a barrier. These techniques represent very simple solutions to mitigating an ongoing problem and will hopefully delay the disappearance of Asian elephants.

Third, the construction of physical barriers and fences have also aided in diminishing instances of human-elephant conflict. For example, bright spotlights, electrified fencing, and deep trenches have been used to deter elephants from exploring human settlements, but these methods can be expensive to implement. Another option is to send a trained female elephant to lead intruding herds away. However, some elephants may simply be attracted to the trained female.

Although expensive to install and maintain, electric fences usually keep elephants out.
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

As part of every method of conservation, we must first continue to seek to understand the behavior of Asian elephants and to work alongside community members to find the best solution for both sides. This involves educating people about the numerous benefits elephants indirectly offer to the people and helping them to understand the importance of saving elephants. Although some of these strategies are more focused on mitigating future loss of elephants, there are also efforts which concentrate on breeding elephants to foster population growth.

To learn more about conservation methods that could help save elephants, click here.

Looking to the Future 

While the fate of the Asian elephant almost certainly lies in extinction, there is much that can be done to mitigate this grim future. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which lists Asian elephants as a priority species for conservation, has initiated an ambitious program to help conserve dwindling populations of Asian rhinos and elephants (Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS)). AREAS focuses on preserving core land areas for wildlife and working with local community members to practice sustainable agriculture and land use. Legal protection of elephants and elephant habitat throughout Asia is another vital effort, especially that offered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Asian elephant population estimates are difficult to determine.
Image by: Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal

We may not be able to stop the extinction of Asian elephants, but by educating future generations of policymakers and citizen scientists, TEI is investing all of its efforts in the future, and we need your help. Together, we may be able to change perspectives about the environment.

How To Become Un-Endangered

In this blog series, we have discussed how the U.S. Endangered Species Act represents a case study of how successful conservation efforts are often complicated plans requiring much collaborative work, including research, legislation, and education and that they do not come without critiques. We also explored possible factors in deciding which endangered species deserved to be “saved.” Interestingly, Asian elephants represent a charismatic species that may have made the list of those that are “worth saving” a little too late. While we have learned that there is not a single answer or panacea for saving Asian elephants, we have gained valuable insight into what it takes to help a species on the Red List becoming “un-endangered.” With Asian elephants, it’s important to remember that there simply is not enough space for there to be more free-ranging, wild elephants. Unfortunately, it seems we can only try to delay the inevitable by employing a variety of conservation methods, some of which have not convinced us of their efficacy.  
Please consider contributing to Think Elephants’ education programming here.