Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Elephants in the Media: 10 Top Stories

As I sit on an elevated bank beside the Mekong River, a natural transport system traveling from as far as Tibet, I begin reading the early news stories of the day. Fishermen and shipping vessels cruise with and against the current as they continue their ordinary rituals. With my handy electronic mobile device, I am given the power to swipe my finger in a few directions, tap away at various concentrated pixels, and access the inter-webs faster than this sentence reads. A vast plethora of knowledge exists on that little radiant rectangular screen. I can read stories of the world from the most credible sources while sipping my early morning cup of joe. How lucky we are and how grateful I am to have such access!

Especially intriguing is when the wrinkly, lumpy, mammoth sized creatures we study here at TEI make the headlines. Because they can be majestic and goofy at the same time, media coverage surrounding elephants exists all over the web. But since there are so many people talking about them, it can be overwhelming to know where to dive in first. With this blog entry, I want to facilitate that initial awakening as you learn more about elephants. Whether this is your first exposure or you’re an elephant guru, I hope you can enjoy this quick collection of media coverage and allow it to send you further into the deep end, a place full of information and knowledge of elephant culture, biology, behavior, intelligence, and conservation.

Links 1-5 featuring work by Dr. Joshua Plotnik, Founder and CEO of Think Elephants International 

1. WHYY's program "Radio Times" tunes you into a conversation with Dr. Plotnik, along with Dr. George Wittemyer, an African elephant expert, to address global elephant conservation.

2. At the recent International Primatological Society Conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, Dr. Plotnik explains the complex terminology of convergent cognitive evolution and why we study elephants. 

3. The New York Times "Science Take" examines our most recent publication on elephant reassurance and empathy. 

4. The Science Channel's program "Through the Wormhole" takes a look at elephant intelligence and self-awareness through mirror self-recognition...with the voice of Morgan Freeman.

5. Still relevant, Discovery Magazine covers Dr. Plotnik's Elephant Cooperation study.

And elephants in the news around the globe...

6. Learn about the complex situation of elephants in Myanmar as the country begins to expand.The Wild Life: The Half-Captive, Half-Wild Elephants Of Myanmar

7. What does it take to complete a census of every elephant population in Africa? Find out how it's done with Africa Geographic: Episode 1

8. As gentle as you may think elephants may be, they can potentially be dangerous in both captivity and the wild. People that live next to wild elephant populations are at risk every day. Learn more about how Indian scientists are combatting the problems of human-elephant conflict as elephant habitats are destroyed.

9. Dr. George Wittemyer discusses his recent work revealing the magnitude of African elephant poaching and the ivory trade. George Wittemyer @ Colorado State University

10. From the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, learn about human-Asian elephant conflict in Sri Lanka from several perspectives. National Zoo 

And of course, check us out at thinkelephants.org to learn more about what we do and how to get in touch. 

By no means is this a complete list of elephant information...it will always keep changing and evolving. Surely there are several credible sources left out here, but just I wanted to compile some of the information I have recently come across to help the reader have a more holistic experience learning about elephants. I hope this aids that process. And if you have any suggestions of your favorite elephant articles, be sure to send them my way at daniel.dixon@thinkelephants.org

Thanks and enjoy!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

There's Dollars in That Dung

By Hunter Doughty

A look at elephant dung and how humans use it.

I began writing this blog entry thinking I would be able to find at least a few interesting examples of elephant dung use to talk about, but to my amazement I was way off. There is not a select few examples, but tons of examples! Apparently, elephant dung is a hot commodity at the moment (no pun intended). In my search I came across elephant dung coffee, paper, medicine, beer, artwork, mosquito repellent, souvenirs, fuel, and shoes. And I am sure there is plenty more where that came from.
But to answer how elephant dung is so versatile, we must first learn a bit about the biology. The average Asian elephant eats about 150kg of food per day. Surprisingly though, an elephant only digests 40-50% of this. Which means that all of that excrement is extremely nutrient rich. It is full of intact plant material and seeds. Interestingly, many of these seeds have evolved to only germinate after being passed through an elephant (sort of like how some plant species have evolved to only germinate after a fire). Additionally, elephant dung does not smell. This is likely related to it being so poorly digested. Most smelly excrements contain high amounts of volatile chemicals, such as sulfur compounds, that are produced as a byproduct of bacterial metabolism1. In elephant dung however, lesser amounts of organic matter is being broken down, so there are fewer available compounds for bacteria. Which means less bacterial metabolism is occurring, and hence, less smelly byproducts.

Related to those intact fibers, let’s first look at elephant dung paper. Dung paper is made through the same general process as tree bark paper, except that the wash and boil phase seems to hold a bit more significance. To read the full breakdown of the steps to make such paper check out the Thai Elephant Conservation Center’s2 website from Chiang Mai, Thailand. Dung paper seems to be a popular source of revenue in zoos and conservation centers worldwide where elephant products are used to generate awareness for elephant conservation needs. Additionally, elephant dung paper has become a part of the recent eco-friendly movement wanting to promote treeless paper. Companies targeting an international market, such as Poopoopaper3, sell various paper products made from the excrement of a range of species like elephants, cows, and horses.

Another eco-friendly use for elephant dung is as a fuel source. In Africa, the need for heat source fuels is staggering. So many people need fire for cooking and warmth every day, that deforestation for firewood has had a significant impact on the landscape of the continent4. It is no surprise then that proponents of reforestation practices have turned to elephant dung as a viable alternative. Dried elephant dung can be used directly as a firewood substitute; same as how dried cow patties can be used5. And being such a dense compaction of plant material, these ‘bricks’ likely burn much longer than their equivalent size in fresh grasses.

Additionally, scientists in recent years have figured out how to use elephant dung as a source of natural gas. All of that undigested plant material makes for a high caloric value substance that is then ‘digested’ in a contained setting where the methane that is produced during bacterial breakdown can be harvested for use in cooking, heating, and powering things like water heaters6. This technology is being employed in Africa, Asia7, and interestingly, western zoos. Yes, some zoos like the Rosamond Gifford Zoo8 in Syracuse, NY, USA, have turned to the mass amounts of feces they incur as a sustainable way to power their facilities. And the Munich Zoo in particular has implemented a fairly successful system of using ‘poo power’9 and solar energy to keep their lights on.

Separate from its use as a bio-fuel, elephant dung has now joined the ranks of species like the civet in creating what some humans would call an equally important daily energy source, coffee. Right here in the Golden Triangle the elephants we work with are also being employed by the company Black Ivory Coffee10 to produce, or should I say excrete, bitter-free coffee.  According to the owner, an elephants’ gentle digestive track helps to lightly break down the coffee bean, which can then be harvested and provide for a cup of Joe that is not only “very smooth”, but contains “flavours you wouldn't get from other coffees,"11 (I have a few guesses as to why…). Priced at $520 per pound, Black Ivory Coffee is one of the most expensive coffees in the world. And although the company itself is not purely for the benefit of captive elephant management, they do at least donate 8% of sales back to the elephants here in the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. So, caffeinate on!
To take this coffee fad even further though, a Japanese brewery has begun using these coffee beans in their latest stout. Labeled Un, Kono Kuro, the Sankt Gallen brewery12 believes that their combination of fine brewing and delicately digested coffee will provide you with a experience as heightened as this Japanese reviewer’s was: “The combination of bitter and sweet stayed fresh and lingered in my head. It was a familiar aroma that accompanied me through the entire beer.” If you are feeling so inclined, you can try the stout for yourself by either purchasing it online, or ordering it on tap in their shop in Tokyo.

Lastly, the elephant dung use that surprised me the most was in the form of art. Chris Ofili is an English Turner Prize-winning painter who gained particular fame and notoriety by incorporating elephant dung into his artwork. Starting in 1993 when he first travelled to Africa, Ofili has been using clumps or smears of dung in his multi-media pieces to add a controversial and arguably animalistic effect13.  And in response to Ofili’s work, the UK artist and designer Insa, created a pair of ten-inch high heels, also made from elephant dung, that were showcased in a 2010 exhibition highlighting Ofili’s work14. Entitling the shoes ‘Anything Goes When it Comes to Shoes’, Insa wanted to both experiment with the material and “[teach] himself how to work with a medium that at first may seem inappropriate.” Well Insa, I can say from personal experience that having elephant dung on your shoes is actually quite appropriate, at least when you are an elephant researcher.
In conclusion, from bio-fuel, to stilettos, to everything in-between, it seems elephant dung is a resource that humans the world over have come to utilize. And given the challenges that both wild and captive elephants are facing, I think that no matter how bizarre the use is, if it provides humans with another reason to conserve elephants, or just calls attention to elephants as a species, then it is a good use to me.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Anthropomorphism: A Tendency to be Feared or Favored?

            By: Elise Gilchrist

            Anthropormorphism, as defined by Wikipedia, is the attribution of a human form or characteristic to anything other than a human being. This term describes an age-old human tendency to define our world in ways relatable to our day-to-day lives. We have used human-like characteristics and descriptions when talking about ancient deities, describing weather patterns, and discussing our natural world along with the creatures that inhabit it. Have you ever seen two birds huddled next to each other and said “Awe, they look like they are in love”? Or have you had full conversations with your dog, maybe believing they understand a bit of what you are saying? And have you ever watched the chimpanzees at the zoo and marveled at how human-like they are? We have all done it; it is one of the many ways we relate to the very strange world surrounding us.

Is this dog happy or sad?

            Anthropomorphism however, is a phrase and tendency that is often frowned upon in the scientific community. Using language that suggests animals have emotions and even intentions often lacks objectivity. Scientists who study animal behavior have been warned to rely on what one observes, without equating intentionality to the actions. For example, when a scientist watches a dog wag its tail, the scientist describes such behavior as “the dog moved its tail back and forth in rapid succession,” as opposed to “the dog wagged its tail because it was happy to be reunited with its owner.” The latter, as you can see, is clearly less objective and implies an intention that is not necessarily true.
            This concept was more formally put into place with the onset of a field called behaviorism. This is an approach to psychology and animal behavior research that proclaims you should study observable behaviors of people and animals as opposed to the unobservable workings of the mind. One of the founding fathers of this field is the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner who was staunchly averse to attributing human-like emotions to any animal. Behaviorism emerged in the early twentieth century and its influences on scientific thought and research methods in psychology/animal behavior are still apparent. However, this strict behaviorist approach has started to dissipate. In recent years, fields devoted entirely to studying topics like animal personality and non-human empathy, have begun to emerge.

Are these elephants kissing?
            So the question is: is anthropomorphism, related to the field of animal behavior and conservation, inherently bad? To discuss this I want to bring forth a person whom advocates on both sides have clashed over, Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall is one of the world’s most famous primatologists, having spent decades studying the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild. When she started her research in Africa she had no formal scientific training, and for better or worse, no pre-conceived biases about how her work should be conducted or recorded. This means that Goodall did the unthinkable, she named the individuals she was studying.
            Naming your test subjects is another practice most behaviorists would frown upon. After all, giving human names to animals may bias you toward interpreting their behavior using human constructs and emotions. Jane Goodall’s work has been met with significant amounts of criticism over the years, particularly because she has never shied from attributing emotion and personality to the chimpanzees she studied. I will not argue the validity of her work, but I will present it in light of my own childhood experience. When I was young I was given a book called In the Shadow of Man, written by Jane Goodall. To this day, characters from the book like Fifi, David Greybeard and Flo, all still hold a very permanent place in my memory. The interesting thing about these characters is that none of them are human. Goodall’s best-selling books have done something no author had done before: they presented chimpanzee behavior in a way that was both memorable and relatable to most readers, regardless of their age or involvement in the scientific community.

Is this horse feeling joyful?

            Anthropomorphism is certainly a tricky subject and there are very good reasons that scientists should be wary of it when interpreting animal behavior. However, I would argue that it could be an effective tool when used to educate and enthrall a more general public. For I know that even after my own intensive undergraduate training in animal behavior, I cannot recall much about B.F. Skinner’s experiments, but I can still recount anecdotes about the amazing intellectual capacities of chimpanzees over a decade after reading Jane Goodall’s book. So, maybe attributing human characteristics, like names and personality traits, to non-human animals does in fact hold merit, at least when communicating science and engaging the general public in important conservation initiatives.

Is this bird comfortable in my hand?

            If any of our readers have opinions on this argument we would love to engage in a discussion. Please comment on this blog if you agree or disagree with the points I made above. It would be great to hear your take on this!

“Anthropomorphism” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 10 August 2014. Web. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropomorphism.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

There Is No I in Ecosystem, But There Is A Bit Of Me

By: Sophie Wasserman

After over a year with Think Elephants International (TEI), I have finally learned to “think elephants.” Of them, about them, for them, like them. I think elephants in the office, in the field, and sometimes even in my dreams. I think elephants are stubborn, sassy and temperamental. I think elephants are brilliant, charming, and playful. I think elephants have excellent aim when throwing grass at your head, I think elephants base their estimation of your character almost entirely on your ability to provide them with food, and I think elephants deserve a chance to continue their existence on this planet.
The ability to “think elephants” is a skill we’re trying to teach to future generations. One of my favorite lessons in the TEI education curriculum uses a ball of red string and a little imagination to teach children that everything in an ecosystem is connected. Called the Web of Life game, it illustrates the concept that an ecosystem is made up of inter-related food chains, as well as the idea that elephants are a key stone species; if you remove elephants from the equation, the whole complex network falls apart. Often it’s a turning point in the classroom, a tangible demonstration of just how co-dependent organisms can be and a breakthrough in terms of a students understanding of the role they play in their own environment. It’s inadequate to study an ecosystem without realizing that you make up an integral part of it.
To me, the most important part of conservation education is not students learning facts or figures, but children coming to understand that their actions have consequences. In the same way that poor choices can slowly erode our environment, preemptive actions can save it. This year with TEI made me realize that the true value of our curriculum lies in the problem solving it inspires, the discussions it sparks, and the fundamental shift in assumptions from what’s happening to the environment to what’s happening in my environment. We are actors, not passive observers, in not only our ecosystem but our classrooms and communities as well, and the sooner we can get children to realize their own agency and ability to affect positive change, the better off our planet will be.
I have frequently joked to friends, family, and Earthwatchers that it’s “all downhill” from here: no job could ever live up to the unbelievable experience of the past year with Think Elephants. I worked with an incredible team, with an intelligent species, and in indescribably beautiful country. In truth, however, I leave TEI facing a long road uphill, inspired by my work here to continue fighting for the conservation of endangered species everywhere.
Finally, thank you to all of TEI’s friends and fans for the enthusiastic, unwavering support; we could not have come so far without you. Get ready for another fantastic year with new team members Sarah, Hunter, and Dan!