Monday, June 23, 2014

Gaining Experience with Think Elephants!

by Ou Yonthantham

Hi, everyone!       

My name is Laddawan, but you can call me Ou. I am one of the new research assistants at Think Elephants International (TEI). I’m originally from Nakhon Si Thammarat, in the south of Thailand. I just graduated with a degree in Conservation Biology from Mahidol University, Kanchanaburi Campus. I first heard about TEI from my co-adviser, Dr. Chomcheun Siripunkaw. She introduced me to Dr. Joshua M. Plotnik, TEI’s founder,  and the topic of elephant intelligence. Later, during my senior project, I chose to study this topic under the supervision of Dr. Plotnik.

Namchoke giving me a kiss!

I chose to study elephants for a few different reasons. First, there are only about 3,000 captive elephants and 3,000 wild elephants in Thailand. The wild Asian elephant population has steadily decreased because of habitat loss, fragmentation, and human – elephant conflict. Therefore, I believe the best way to conserve elephants is through education. Conservation Education (CE) is a process of influencing public attitudes, emotions, knowledge, and behavior about wildlife. At the root of CE lies the idea that if people know about and love elephants, it’s easier to encourage them to conserve elephants

Second, one of the things I find most interesting about elephants is that they are very smart. They don’t have hands like humans but their trunk serves a similar function as the human hand. The trunk is a very important appendage for elephants. Elephants use their trunk to breathe, take baths, grasp food, and interact socially with their friends. We don’t know a lot about how the elephant uses its trunk to make decisions. So, in my independent research study, we investigated how elephants use their trunks to gather tactile information.

Here I’m presenting my project (elephant intelligence) in MUKA Science and Management project exhibition 2014 at Mahidol University, Kanchanaburi Campus.

In nature, elephants touch each other a lot with their trunks. In my study, we showed that elephants can use their trunks to differentiate between things. This is interesting because unlike humans and chimpanzees, which use their hands only to gather tactile information, elephants use their trunks to gather information both by smelling and touching. This suggests we may be able to learn a lot about how elephants navigate their physical and social worlds by studying how they use their trunks. Studying elephant intelligence and behavior also has implications for how elephant conservation protocols are designed.

Elephants use their trunks to gather information.

I like working for TEI for many reasons. First, I like to work with elephants. Elephants are wonderful and they surprised and impressed me while I was working on my project. Additionally, the TEI team is very professional. When I had questions about my project, we discussed it together and felt like a real TEAM! Second, I wanted to practice speaking, reading, and writing the English language. This is a good opportunity for me because TEI’s research assistants are fluent in English and our work is mostly done in English. Finally, I think if you want to get the best experience, you should try something different from other people. Most other conservation biology students from my program are working in jobs not related to their degree. TEI lets me use what I learned about science and animal behavior to directly affect conservation in a way that I really like.

The TEI team poses with Am.

I am very excited to work with elephants and the research team at Think Elephants International. I’m helping to do research and communicating with the mahouts. It’s a very good experience because I get to practice my English skills and learn more about elephant behavior. In the future, I want to study for a master’s degree in Conservation Biology. I will use this knowledge to help conserve wild elephants and let people know about why and how to conserve elephants.


International Zoo Educators Association. (2005). Developing a Conservation Education Program (online).Available:

Srikrachang, M. (2003). Conservation and management of elephant in Thailand [Ph.D. thesis
In Biology]. Bangkok: Faculty of Graduate Studies, Mahidol University.

1 comment:

  1. If people want to see elephant in a human way, there is only one way;

    .. see them in wild..