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. 

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