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!


  1. Absolutely incredible!

  2. Keep the updates comin Stan, they're a great way to break up the work day

  3. Get some Stanielson!