Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Canines in Conservation

Dogs have been trained to assist us in so many different ways; from retrieving game for hunters to acting as eyes for the blind, they work for our love and affection. They are also companions for many of us, providing entertainment and comfort in our households. We often think about the ways that dogs help humans, but their assistance in the conservation of other species is not as well known. There are many organizations that employ teams of dogs in conservation efforts to work alongside scientists, park rangers, and customs officials.

Fido has been man’s chosen hunting partner for centuries due to their loyalty and keen ability to track scents. This super sense of smell doesn’t have to end in a dead animal; it can also be applied to the preservation of other species. Many scientists have found that dogs are more efficient and effective than other methods in ecological research. Why are dogs so effective? The main reason they surpass field biologists and ecologists in population surveys is their superior sense of smell. They can detect scent 100 million times better than humans and can find multiple odors up to a quarter mile away1,2!  So when evidence of an animal is hidden from our vision, a dog can smell it out, leading to more accurate estimates of a population. They also are able to cover ground much faster on four legs than a team of humans3.

The assessment of population numbers is one important way that conservation canines assist scientists with ecological research. They can be trained to locate live wildlife, for example flushing out birds or finding nests, which allows the researchers to easily count individuals. They can facilitate the detection of carcasses, allowing scientists to assess potential environmental impacts of human artifacts such as pesticides or wind mills. Dogs can also be trained to herd animals of interest in order to capture and mark them for further tracking. The predatory instinct of a dog can be utilized to assess the behavior of other species as well. Scientists can study the behavior of an animal when a dog is present, acting as a faux predator. This assessment of anti-predator behavior can be more efficient than waiting for an interaction with the natural predator to occur 4.

Humans often use dogs to guard property or protect against other humans, but they can also be used to protect against other species. The presence of dogs can help manage human-wildlife conflict by deterring wildlife from human areas 4. The Anatolian shepherd was bred in Turkey to protect livestock from wolves, and the breed is now being employed in Namibia by the Cheetah Conservation Fund. This organization is providing local herders with these dogs to reduce conflict between people and cheetahs. With the Anatolian shepherds guarding their livestock, the local people have stopped shooting and poisoning the cheetahs 5.
The canine ability to detect animal scat is extremely useful in determining many characteristics of an animal population. The location of scat can help establish the distribution of a species in an ecosystem and provide insight into their use of resources. It is an especially useful research method when studying species living in dense forest or those that are more elusive for people to detect. Researchers at the University of Washington used dogs to detect grizzly bear scat in the Canadian Rockies and determine whether the bears were coming close to areas of high human density. They also analyzed the scat for hormones and parasites to assess physiological health and determine whether the bears in close contact to humans were more or less healthy than those that stayed away. 

The performance of the dogs used in this study was compared to a variety of other ecological monitoring methods. The results of the scat detection showed the same distribution of grizzly bears as radio collaring them, but at 3% of the cost. The dogs were also able to detect 3 times as many individual bears in every square km than did a hair snag technique 6. This demonstrates how scat detection dogs are an excellent low cost and non-invasive alternative to collaring or trapping animals in order to learn more about their ecology. These feces finding dogs have been used to monitor many different species including lizards, jaguars, gorillas and even whales6, 7! Human scientist struggle to find whale scat in the murky water, but a lab named Tucker’s ability is particularly impressive. He demonstrates his skill in this video:

Dogs are helping to conserve elephants in several different ways. There are many teams of anti-poaching dogs throughout Africa helping rangers track down the humans killing elephants for their tusks. One unit in East Africa working with the organization Big Life, trains dogs to follow the human scent on materials or even footprints left behind at a poaching site. Dogs have led rangers to the poacher’s door as long as a day after the elephant was killed. This impressive ability has added another deterrent to poachers since many are afraid of the skills of these hounds 8. Some anti-poaching dog units are also being trained as attack dogs to help protect rangers.
Other pooches are working with customs officials to fight the ivory trade by sniffing out elephant tusks traveling illegally through airports and shipping ports. The dogs are able to search luggage much more efficiently than humans and to do so without bias. The addition of two sniffer dogs, Cooper and Lumi, to the Gabonese government’s detection team has motivated the other law enforcement agents to work harder in friendly competition with the dogs 9. Using dogs to combat the trade of illegal wildlife could make it harder for corrupt officials to allow ivory trinkets or endangered animal skins to pass through customs. It’s difficult to bribe a canine who knows a play reward awaits the discovery of these wildlife products.
Countless pups are employed to help us and the many other species we are working to conserve. Their abilities far exceed humans in detecting invasive plants, illegal snares, and evidence of animals. They can travel quickly over large areas and be used in remote places, as long as a handler can keep up! The dogs' sense of smell is even refined enough to distinguish between scat from two individuals of the same species. The possibilities are endless for training dogs for future employment in conservation efforts! Amazingly, the only payment that these pups require comes in the form of fuzzy tennis ball or a bout of tug of war with their human partner. Dogs are certainly the best friend of man and through conservation work they can be a friend of wildlife as well.

Here are a couple of organizations training and implementing teams of dogs in conservation efforts:

1Syrotuck, W. G. 2000. Scent and the scenting dog. Second edition. Arner Publishing, Rome, New York, USA.
2 Bryson, S. 1991. Search dog training. Howell Book House, Chicago.
3 Mecozzi, G.E., & Guthery F.S. 2008. Behavior of walk-hunters and pointing dogs during northern bobwhite hunts. Journal of Wildlife Management. 72, 1399-1404.
4 Dahlgren, D. K. et al. 2012. Use of dogs in wildlife research and management. Pgs 140-153 in N. Silvy, editor, Wildlife Techniques Manual, Vol. 1, 7th ed. The Wildlife Society Inc. Washington D. C., USA.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Helping Eles for the Holidays

Tis’ the season for giving, and what better to give to than our cause for elephants!

Think Elephants International would be grateful to have your support for our elephant research and educational programs. From now until December 31st we’ll send you, a friend, or a family member, a custom holiday card from our research station here in Thailand as a thank you for your donation of $25 or more.

Card Option #1

Card Option #2

Card Option #3

Giving is easy! Make a donation through our Paypal site and we’ll send a follow-up email asking where you would like your holiday card sent, and which of our three custom elephant cards you would like us to use.

* Donations can be made in the name of the donor or a recipient of your choice.

* Donations may be tax deductible! Think Elephants International is a 501(c)3 non-profit foundation, and tax receipts can be issued for your contribution.

* Mail from Thailand can take several weeks to arrive in the United States, and thus a delivery date cannot be guaranteed.

* Promotion ends December 31st.

Donate Here:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Elephants in the Media: 10 Sources to Start

As I sit on an elevated bank beside the Mekong River, a natural transport system carrying water and debris 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 so majestic, and equally goofy, media coverage surrounding elephants exists from corner to corner of the web. But since there are so many writers spreading elephant knowledge, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin your journey. 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. 
(See end of podcast)

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 soothing voice of Morgan Freeman.

5. Discovery Magazine covers Elephant Cooperation and how elephants can work together to complete a task.

And elephants in the news around the globe...

6. Learn about the complex situation of elephants in Myanmar as the country begins to expand its borders to travelers from every corner of the globe.

7. What does it take to complete a census of every elephant population in Africa? In order to save something, its important to know how many of them exist. Find out how it's done with graphics, photos, and videos with this interactive magazine. Africa Geographic: Edition 1

8. As gentle as you may think elephants can be, they can potentially be dangerous in both captivity and the wild. Those who 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 with the use of technology 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 to learn more about what we do and how to get in touch. 

By no means is this a complete list of elephant will always keep changing and evolving. Surely there are several credible sources emitted, but I wanted to compile some of the information I have recently come across to help the reader generate a holistic learning experience with elephants. I hope this aids that process. I also hope that each of these links will send you to ten more links as the Internet tends to do. If you have any suggestions of your favorite elephant articles, be sure to send them my way at

Thanks and enjoy.

Monday, November 3, 2014

In The Morning Hours

By Hunter Doughty

The peach-red sky splayed across her doorstep. Infiltrating into the darkened room, it creeped across her apartment aback the cool a.m. breeze. She stumbled out of grogginess to pull on khaki shorts and her usual blue t-shirt. The familiar logo stretched proudly across its front. She braided her lengthy blond hair and brushed her teeth.

Gathering datasheets, cameras, laptop, and phone, she zipped up the ever-burdened backpack and slung it over her shoulder. With a final jingle of her keys, she walked out the door.

Across the landing were two similarly dressed comrades. With sleepy smiles they exchanged hellos and headed down the stairs. A second pair of logo-bearing shirts met them at the motorbikes, and they were off. A caravan of research clothes, backpacks, and scientific minds.

The humidity of rainy season had given way to crisp fall mist that chilled her bare legs along the curved road. They drove on, passing shopkeepers opening their stalls for the day, monks collecting alms from the pious, and town dogs milling sanguinely about their familiar turf.

It was an awakening commute. The cold air mixed with fresh surroundings to bring her into full consciousness of the day ahead. She flicked on her right blinker and slowed into the gated drive. Passing from asphalt, to gravel, to dirt, the motorbikes navigated their way down the slim road that wound along the Ruak River and its surrounding grasslands.

On the final turn she caught sight of them. The grand creatures that had become a staple in her daily life. With gray wrinkles, rounded backs, gently flapping ears, and swaying trunks, they could only be elephants.

Parking their bikes, the team filed out to the research station and began setting up. Buckets of sunflower seeds, objects testing sensory modality, and tripods for documentation, were all a part of the proverbial routine.

Glancing down the drive she could see a large bull elephant and his mahout making their way towards them. Somjai was a handsomely tusked male whom they worked with often.

With everything in place, and the 4,000 plus kg pachyderm standing before them, they began their study.

With a content smile she watched the dexterous movements of Somjai’s impressive trunk, and the methodical way he passed from bucket to bucket in search of the correct answer. This is my life, she thought. Research with elephants in the morning hours.