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