Monday, July 28, 2014

Final Thoughts

by Rebecca Shoer

One year ago, I was a fresh-faced college graduate heading into the great unknown.  A Biology and Neuroscience major who had only left the US once in her whole life, I was eager (and, to be frank, terrified) at the prospect of living for a year in a developing country.  My only exposure to Thailand had come from a passing knowledge of The King and I lyrics and a love for our on-campus Thai restaurant.  But at least, I thought, I know something about elephants.

Photo by Rebecca Shoer

Well, it should come as no surprise that my dearth of knowledge about Thailand was equally matched by my lack of elephant facts.  Sure, I knew that they are the largest terrestrial mammals, that their herds are led by matriarchs, and that they are endangered.  But I had no idea about the spectacular sounds they make, and about the amount of noise they don't make (elephants can walk nearly silently).  I didn't know that they are hairy, or that they love to coat themselves in a healthy layer of mud.  I didn't know that elephants only have four teeth, that they are dichromatic, or that they can hold about 14 liters of water in their trunk at one time.  I thought they could be kind and gentle, but I didn't know they could be equally aggressive and dangerous.  Of course, I also learned about how little I, and the scientific community in general, knows about elephants.  What do those spectacular sounds mean?  How keen is their sense of smell?  How acute their vision?  And perhaps, most importantly, how can we save them from extinction?

For some of us, we are simply curious about the natural world.  We wish to learn and understand more about the wildlife that surrounds us simply because we have a drive to explore the unknown.  For others, we want to learn how to protect humans and elephants from each other.  And finally, for all of us, we want to find ways to protect and conserve an incredible, and incredibly intelligent, species. 

Photo by Rebecca Shoer

Perhaps the most valuable lesson for a young person just graduated from an academic setting, is the value of a lack of knowledge.  I had just spent four years learning about (what felt like) everything scientists know about biology, and to move to a place and a job about which I knew very little was extremely humbling.  Yet, at the same time, it was the best decision I could have made for my future plans in conservation.  In a field populated by seemingly lost causes and a desperate sense of urgency, discovering just how little we know about our planet was surprisingly reassuring.  Yes, the fate of our planet can seem truly hopeless at times, but every day we are working to find new natural wonders and ways to protect them.  As long as there are groups like Think Elephants International, I refuse to give up on our planet.

This year has been an incredible experience, full of frustrations, joys, heartbreak, and hope.  I have to thank my incredible fellow RAs (Lisa, Elise, Sophie, and Ou), my Thai mother (P'TomTem), my wonderfully supportive boss (Dr. Plotnik), and the incredible friends I've made along the way.  I wish you all the best, and I hope that you continue to boldly go where no elephant researcher has gone before!

Photo by Elise Gilchrist

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thinking Back on Think Elephants

by Lisa Barrett

As my time with Think Elephants International (TEI) comes to a close, I have been reflecting more and more on what I have accomplished with my team members and what the experience has meant to me.

This fall I will be attending the University of Wyoming (UW) as a doctoral student in the Zoology & Physiology Department. I am so excited to begin on a new journey that will bring me one step closer to fulfilling my professional goals, but I will never forget how my adventure in Thailand has influenced me. Living in Thailand, a developing nation with a fascinating, rich, and complex culture has helped me to learn new things about myself (both personally and professionally) and has equipped me with the skills I will need for graduate school and beyond. Living in Wyoming will certainly evoke a new lifestyle, but I am eager to adapt what I have learned in the Golden Triangle to my new home.

Me and Poonlarb.
Photo by: Elise Gilchrist

By working as a member of the TEI team, I have learned how to work together to accomplish research goals. On a day to day basis, our small group discusses research protocols, designs research apparatus, and inputs data—all while getting along famously! Believe it or not, I couldn’t have asked for better team members with whom to live in a rural town for over one year. These tasks make me better-prepared to collaborate with lab members at UW. Perhaps just as importantly, I have learned how to think from the perspective of other animals (elephants) when designing research experiments.

One of my favorite aspects of research is studying social behavior through behavioral observations.
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

I am so glad that working with TEI gave not only gave me valuable research experience, but also allowed me to delve into the realm of education. Creating and revising curriculum for TEI’s school lessons has reinforced my desire to teach, a desire that has culminated in my goal to become a research professor. I thoroughly enjoyed creating activities and games that would serve to explain each of our ten lesson’s themes and goals.
Working on our monthly newsletter, creating YouTube videos, and writing blogs (especially my three-part series on “How to Become Un-endangered”) was another favorite aspect of the job. The practice of engaging with our fans via social media drew upon my interest in marketing and disseminating scientific information to the public. These are both interests that, after honing related skills at TEI, I hope to incorporate into my future career.

Everyone has their favorite elephants-- mine are Buathong (right) and Am (left). 
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

Lastly, my time with TEI has produced lasting friendships that cover the globe. I will surely miss the other members of the team; we developed relationships based on a very unique experience, and it is one that I will never forget. Although I cannot say for sure that I formed any sort of friendships with the elephants here, I will certainly miss seeing them at research and learning more about their personalities!

The 2013 Elephant Team: Elise, Rebecca, Gae, Ou, Sophie, and me.

I hope you continue to enjoy all of our blog posts, newsletters, and social media posts in the future! I am excited to see what the new team will do at TEI, and I will always remember my year here. Thank you for the enthusiasm about elephant conservation and for the fantastic support!

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Final Addition to the TEI Team

It is hard to believe that I have been a research assistant with Think Elephants International (TEI) for one month now! I’ve been meeting the staff of TEI and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, learning all about the elephants living here, and exploring my new town of Sob Ruak. I guess it’s about time to introduce myself as a new team member to those of you who will be reading my future blogs, social media posts, and research updates. My name is Sarah Jacobson and I’ve come to Thailand from my hometown of Columbia, Missouri.

      Meeting my new friend Thangmo

As I think about how I got to where I am today, looking out on the Mekong from the TEI office, a memory emerges. I recall being in my partially wooded backyard in mid-Missouri and staring at a deer. I was attempting to approach this timid doe little by little while using my hands as makeshift deer ears. I had observed deer on many instances as I explored our neighborhood creeks, and I had deduced that their flicking ears might be a form of communication. I must have looked pretty ridiculous crouching in the grass and slowly creeping forward with my hands in the shape of deer ears swiveling on my head. The deer apparently thought the same, as when I approached too closely, she flicked her tail and promptly ran away. So my interest in animal behavior began with a faulty assumption: the deer’s ears were actually moving to best gather auditory information about her environment. I have come a long way since that initial attempt at taking the perspective of another creature.

I have pursued many opportunities to gain insight into the perspectives of other beings beyond my experiences in the woods of Missouri. My interest in animals evolved from a veterinary focus to that of animal behavior and cognition through my undergraduate coursework at Colorado College. This developing passion led me to spend a semester studying wildlife conservation in East Africa. My animal-centric view was challenged as I discovered the many facets of conservation. Through interviews and discussions with community members near our two field sites in Kenya and Tanzania, I learned to consider the perspectives of the people living closest to the environment. These herders and farmers were struggling with a changing climate and conflict with surrounding wildlife. It was clear through our meetings that these people would not be motivated to protect the wildlife competing with them for land or food unless they themselves were benefitting. The importance of community-based conservation was growing extremely apparent the more we were exposed to various failures and successes of past projects. The resounding theme was that projects initiated by foreign organizations all slowly disintegrated without community involvement and support. I had gone to East Africa to learn about the many threats to the wildlife of the African savannah, but I came away with a much broader perspective that included local stakeholders as a crucial factor in successful conservation.

Some of the local Maasai who I interviewed in Tanzania

After my semester abroad, I remained in Kenya for two months as a research assistant with an elephant conservation organization in Samburu National Reserve. Daily excursions in the park provided insight into the meaning of elephant communication: trumpets and rumbles, the flaring of the ears, and touch of trunks (Learn more about Asian elephant communication here: Behavioral Observations: Trunk Talk). During my time at the Reserve, I met intact elephant families that were spared from the effects of the ivory trade and fractured elephant families where the oldest female was an immature 12 year old. Elephant matriarchs pass down knowledge about food sources, safe places to avoid conflict with humans, and proper reproductive behavior. But a younger female, like in these fractured families, has little such knowledge, and inadvertently becomes an endangerment to her surviving family. I could see how the elephants of Samburu were suffering for the status and wealth of humans, denoted by a trinket carved from their teeth. Fortunately though, community conservation efforts in northern Kenya were admirable and I met many rangers who were dedicated to the protection of the animals that roamed this landscape. Nevertheless, there is only so much that can be done to combat the high demand for tusks and the heavily armed poachers, so poaching continues to take its toll on the elephants there. In fact, one elephant dies every 15 minutes for the ivory trade.

Cirrocumulus was one of the most beautiful elephants that frequented the reserve. Her long tusks doomed her and her orphaned calf when she was killed by poachers.

My time in Africa ignited a passion for the conservation of wild animals and strengthened my desire to combine the study of cognition with conservation. My senior thesis embraced the perspective of another complex species, this time in captivity. I investigated if a mother western lowland gorilla at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, named Asha, experienced anxiety due to visitors outside of her enclosure and whether it affected her maternal behavior. This initial foray into conducting behavioral research introduced many challenges. I measured Asha’s visual monitoring of visitors and self-scratching behaviors to determine her anxiety during high and low visitor density. I became skeptical of these measures of anxiety that had been used in previous studies and questioned whether my study was truly evaluating Asha’s perception of visitors. My research did not satisfactorily answer my questions about whether she experienced anxiety due to my skepticism. Through this project I became interested in captive management and the impact that zoos had on conservation of wild animals.

Asha and her baby Dembe

After graduation, I decided to continue investigating behavior in captivity through an internship with the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes. In this position, I observed the social spacing of the chimpanzees and gorillas housed at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. I discovered the chimpanzee Vicki’s preference for a hammock with a view of Lake Michigan, the teenage male gorillas’ partiality for an area away from their his more dominant comrade, and Chuckie the chimp’s favorite spot to nest in a secluded hollow stump. Mapping space use by animals contributes to important information about effective exhibit design and comparative behavior to wild apes. This method can also allow researchers to measure the cohesion of a social group after a new individual is introduced.

My job at the zoo was to watch the apes, but I found I was attentive to the behavior of the eager children and captivated adults all around me. Like in East Africa, I realized that the perspective of the humans, in this case the zoo visitors, was also important to consider. I observed their excitement and awe while gazing through the glass at Kwan, the huge silverback gorilla. Were these visitors being inspired to conserve the species they were viewing? Or did they just view the enclosures as stages for their own entertainment?  I like to think that these visitors' enthusiasm to learn of the apes’ displays of intelligence and innovation is a promising sign for ape conservation.

Kwan, the silverback gorilla and chimps nesting at Lincoln Park Zoo

And now, with the hope of quenching my thirst to explore elephant cognition while disseminating knowledge about how elephants view the world to the public, I joined the TEI research team. I realize that many people believe human intelligence is superior to that of other animals, but we must remember that most “intelligence” is measured in human terms. I hope to challenge this idea by using the elephant’s perspective to determine their cognitive abilities. I want to change the human-centric viewpoint that defends our society’s environmentally-destructive habits with little consideration of other species. I also hope to help inspire future generations to value the unique abilities of other creatures and be motivated to keep these species from disappearing from our world. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Introduction: New Squad Member

The year was 1997. A younger, intrepid, and equally as observant representation of myself was cruising on bicycle through the eastern Pennsylvania wilderness with no direction or destination in mind. I was fully engulfed by my summer “job” as a truth-seeking 7-year-old in the Pocono Mountains, a segment of the Appalachian mountain chain defining the eastern USA.

Very few rules restrained my day-to-day operation; the matriarch of my domain simply required an early return home in time for our evening supper. Religiously, from early morning to late afternoon, my attention was focused on the potential organisms beneath each rock, beyond the next valley, or above the deciduous canopy. From raptors and ravens to newts and serpents, each and every facet was novel and observations varied. The freedom to ask questions with a hint of curiosity created a fusion that functioned as a pivotal factor behind everything. The limitlessness of possibilities could not be overstated. The pond down the street was my laboratory. Armed with a radiant, golden Ticonderoga and traditional composition notebook, sites and sounds were jotted and hypotheses arose. During that time, the feeling of being inundated with the most natural of senses became regular as I returned each summer. Complex thoughts came about as the ecosystem changed both seasonally and annually. During those primitive years, results were far less ubiquitous than wonders. A fascinating aspect of science is its paradoxical nature; answers tend to lead to more questions.

Since those meaningful afternoons, I think I’ve been subconsciously acting based on those experiences. Through education and exposure to media, I like learning about the great observers and explorers who illustrated the ‘explorer’ we picture today. Almost two hundred years ago, using the HMS Beagle as his vessel, Darwin was shifting the zeitgeist towards a scientific awareness. At the dawn of the 19th century, John Muir was moving mountains (figuratively) in Yosemite Valley by treating massive domes and wee butterflies with the same respect and attention. Little did I know at the turn of the millennium, I was doing the same thing (on a slightly smaller scale). It’s interesting how minds, whether qualified or not, can stumble upon similar trains of thought. All that stuff was science—combined with a bit of imagination and an appreciation for the environment. What’s more, that collection of cached experiences during my youth exists in my memories unlike any other. It’s something I cherish very much. I didn’t quite realize how lucky I was to have the opportunity to maintain a unique connection with the environment into adulthood. Today, I see that fortune and I want to spread it.

Upon reflection, it’s fascinating how the scientific method of making observations, asking questions, and acquiring knowledge came so effortlessly. The child, I truly believe, is born with the ability to be a natural scientist. It’s a form of cognizance that allows for unbiased interpretations of why and how things exist. To ask–why is that thing the way it is?–is beautiful. The power of understanding something, with depth and through time, is part of what distinguishes our mental capacity in the animal kingdom. Other organisms may not be on our level, which is completely rational to understand. But they exist on their own plane through their own perception, however basic or complex it may be. Why then, does that initial curiosity not transcend into adulthood and surpass generations? Why is the childlike curiosity of natureplaying in the mud, making loud noises and asking questionsquite often suppressed? As reasonable as this question is, it does not have one answer. Simply put, we are curious about our environments, but that curiosity is becoming less abundant.

The year is now 2014. My name is Dan (the second Dan to join the research squad). I am one of the new research assistants here in the northern corner of Thailand, in a small town known as the Golden Triangle. Although slightly indirect, the brief account above can explain and define why I am drawn to 
conserving Asian elephants in Thailand and Asia—and any aspect of nature.

In Gishwati Forest Reserve, Rwanda

About one decade has passed since my initial introduction to natural research in the PA Mountains. I like to think I’m wiser now and more attuned to global issues, but maybe desensitized to some aspects of the world that grasped my attention as a kid. I still like to keep my senses fresh and keen through exploring as much as possible. Entering college at West Chester University in PA, seeing the world through diverse cultures and traveling sparked my attention in conservation and a variety of related disciplines. Animal behavior, biological anthropology, psychology, and even foreign languages are just a few examples. Throughout my academic career, that organic lust for nature underlined and fueled my decisions about who I was and who I would become.

I’ve developed that deep connection to nature in a variety of ecosystems now. By working as part of various research teams, I’ve learned first hand how local and global communities can benefit from science, conservation, and education. The first move was to move to Mexico directly after graduating. I spent several months with a group of biologists working towards increasing populations of scarlet macaws, a charismatic icon of avifauna once omnipresent in the southern state of Chiapas, other southern Mexican states, and from Central to South America.

 Scarlet Macaw flying near Palenque National Park - Chiapas, México

Even more recently, a jaunt through East Africa would test my senses, patience, and investment in this field. Working in Gishwati Forest, a fragmented montane rainforest south of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, I was presented with the chance to learn first hand what it’s like to live next to endangered primates. Being one of the most densely populated countries on the planet and hosting two of the great apesmountain gorilla and chimpanzeeRwanda is a model place to learn about human-wildlife conflict. But resources are scarce and land is limited. Through local interviews with farmers and measuring crop-raiding by chimpanzees surrounding the forest, we learned about the extent of the issue and which mitigation methods are most practical. Getting that information back to local communities will hopefully keep primates in Gishwati Forest and farmers at a safe distance.

Interview with Rwandan maize farmer near Gishwati Forest Reserve

Unfortunately, the problem of increasing human populations and battling for land is worsening each day. Fewer people are exposed to nature. Of the seven billion humans on Earth, roughly half of them live in urban areas. I sometimes think about and feel for those 3.5 billion (with a b, that’s 3.5 x nine zeros!) who may never relate on the natural spectrum that I was able to explore as a kid. Because I was exposed to nature and its ability to impact behavior, I now feel a personal responsibility to help protect it. All humans deserve the right to some form of natural exposure. Because it’s either not accessible or its discouraged by others, many will never be able to relate. I feel a bit of anxiety at the thought of future generations unable to experience the awe of diversity.

TEI’s mission of educating the future generation about science and complex thinking is exactly the style of atmosphere paramount to influencing others while growing personally.

Studying elephants is what we do here, but our methodology is not limited solely to conserving elephants. The Asian elephant is used as a spark because of its charisma and likability. It’s usage serves as an icon to reestablish the connection between humans and the environment. If people can learn to think like an elephant, the capacity exists to connect with all fronts of the natural world; the potential is immense. That’s enough about me. Now that you know who I am and why I am here, let’s do some science.

Connecting students and elephants!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Joining the Team

By Hunter Doughty


My name is Hunter. And I am an enthusiastic new member of the Think Elephants International research team!

I have a background in conservation biology, and have gained experience traveling, researching, and volunteering all throughout the world. Two opportunities that have had the most impact on me as a scientist are the positions I held in Namibia and Madagascar.

About six years ago I had just finished my freshman year of undergrad at a local community college and was gleefully spending my summer volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in Namibia. I had always been an animal lover: a caretaker for all living things in our California home, a self-proclaimed vegetarian at age 13, and an annoying outspoken supporter of nature. Yet, I had never experienced anything like I would in Africa. So I was off, spending my days in the Namibia scrubland, where I lived and worked in a surreal world filled with exotic and displaced wildlife. I played with a two-year-old leopard, raised a lamb, slept with purring cheetahs under the African stars, and bonded to one particularly special baboon. However, I also saw the hardships that these animals had gone through, like beatings, trappings, and malnourishment. I was troubled by their stories and frustrated by things I didn’t agree with, even welfare practices at their current safe haven. By the time I began my sophomore year of college I had converted this frustration into a driven set of goals about the changes I wanted to make. That summer abroad had infused into me an almost desperate need to follow my dreams. I was hooked. I was in love with Africa, passionate to help the animals I saw there, and so ready to take a real step in that direction that I would have walked across the US if it had meant going away to a university to get a degree in biology.

Three years later I completed my bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Virginia.  Through the support of my mentor and advisor at UVA, I was elatedly going to be staying on for a Master’s. For the field portion of my new degree I headed off to Madagascar to work as a research assistant for a doctoral student studying the effects of forest fragmentation on Malagasy carnivores. During my stint in the Makira-Mosoala landscape I was once again faced with experiences that would greatly shape the type of scientist and person I would strive to be. I was exposed to a growing list of issues Madagascar is facing such as overpopulation, depletion of resources, deforestation, and most notably to me, unsustainable hunting of bushmeat. Bushmeat is a term used to define wild animals hunted specifically for consumption, and it often refers to animals consumed in developing nations. The scientists, veterinarians, and Malagasy team I worked alongside while in-country all agreed that these big issues, including bushmeat, could only be solved through increased education. And in order to educate both local and global communities we needed a clearer – and more accurate – description of what was actually happening.

Spurred by these ideas I returned to Virginia intent on focusing my Master’s degree on gaining that ‘clearer picture’ for at least some part of the bushmeat problem. So, I conducted a meta-analysis of the hunting of carnivores in forested African regions. In other words, I combed through hundreds of previously conducted studies to pull data that could show trends in hunting pressure. Which carnivores were being hunted? How were they being hunted? And most importantly, for what reasons were they being hunted? These questions formed the basis of my fervent search. Once complete I was able to demonstrate that hunting of carnivores in forested Africa is actually far more pervasive than previously realized. What’s more, old stipulations about why we thought carnivores were being hunted are in fact no longer accurate to current conditions. For example, the residing belief has been that small carnivores like mongooses are rarely eaten because they are considered taboo by most African tribes, however, this is not in fact true. Due to a lack of preferred meat species such as the antelope, tribes all throughout Africa have turned to ‘taboo’ species for their source of protein.

Fast-forward to this year: and my life as a scientist is taking its next major step. My goals to make a difference in the natural world have encouraged me to gain more experience in this field, and have given me the moxy to jump in as an elephant researcher here in Thailand. Excitingly, my first two weeks have been a blur of elephant facts, research protocols, and Thai culture. And despite the whirlwind, I am eager to learn everything this job has to offer and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the good this organization does.

As a new member of the team, I am happy to say that Think Elephants International embodies all of the qualities I have come to admire: honest and innovative research, direct applications to conservation, and a belief that the knowledge we gain is only as useful as the education with which we disseminate it to the public.