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Preview: Elephant Tails - Anantara Resorts & Spas - Thailand

Elephant Tails - Anantara Resorts & Spas - Thailand

Elephant Tails - Anantara Resorts & Spas - Thailand

Copyright: Anantara 2007

To the Five Ancient Chiangs (13 years too soon, a century too late)

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 06:37:00 GMT

It was recently announced that tourism gurus were planning to encourage folks to visit the 5 ancient cities of Lanna influence or the 5 Chiangs - Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai (now in Thailand), Chiang Tung (now Keng Tung in Myanmar), Chiang Rung (now Jing Hong in China) & Chiang Thong (now Luang Prabang in Laos): It reminded me that, in 2004, a similar plan was hatched and a lucky bunch, myself included, got to travel on a recce. These were the days before R3A and China's 'belt and road' superhighways when I was not yet an upstanding member of any community, had four elephants to look after and fewer cares. I thought I'd post my trip diary here, may give some insight into why it has taken 13 years for the plan to be re-tabled! _________________________________________ A wiser man than I (and despite the odd flash of genius on my part, history holds a few of them) once said that exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as not to deserve the name.  I would tend to agree, unless, it turns out, the exploring you intend to do happens to be in a large, coil sprung 4WD. The journey really began, as all good journeys in this part of the world do, with a visit to a temple.  Rush hour Chiang Mai traffic was as good a way to get used to the extra bulk, handling and power of the Discovery and prostrating myself, insence burning and an offering of a small wooden elephant in hand, before the Buddha and a road building monk should bring us all the luck and guidance we needed to travel through four countries, as many border crossings (some of them still officially closed to Westerners) and five ancient cities (Chiangs) in six days without ever leaving the ancient Northern Thai Kingdom of Lanna. Day 1 – Late start – smoking vehicle – hill tribe 4WD – Bad hotel Despite having asked for and received the appropriate blessings from the deities, by the time we reached the Mekong for the first time and our first border crossing, things were already going badly and it was looking as though I’d have to return before the adventure really began. Firstly we’d awoken at the allotted time in Chiang Mai to find that our travelling partners and organisers, the Tourism Authority of Thailand Friendship Autoventure were gathering in a place un-advertised in the programme – they had mentioned this in the briefing but none of our fluent Thai speakers had been there, it was our fault, not theirs but they had left without us. Luckily the Thai residents were on hand to guide us through the outskirts of Chiang Mai, towards Chiang Rai, with a quick stop to ask the blessings of King Meng Rai the first Lanna King, through Chiang Saen towards Chiang Khong and an eleven O’Clock border crossing and a date with the convoy and the rest of our team. Big cars with big engines, empty roads in excellent condition as are found throughout Northern Thailand, meant we were making good time.  Weaving through the tall forests and national parks between the two big cities, through the rice plain around Chiang Rai and up into the hilltribe country close to Chiang Khong before disaster struck. Topping a pass, through a small thatched village, all the dials on my car began to go haywire.  This wasn’t really a problem as my real car has no functioning dials at all so I never know how fast I’m going, how hot the engine is.  However the smoke coming out of the dashboard probably did count as a problem, the small explosion that followed had me on the brakes.  Ten minutes from a ferry deadline with twenty kilometres to go, no choice but to abandon the car, clamber into the second Discovery and get to the ferry. We arrived at the ‘Gateway to Indochina’ with five minutes to spare; five minutes local time which can be anything from half an hour to three.  This was a stroke of luck as half our team, those rushing up from Bangkok had also not arrived, their driver h[...]

A Tale of One City

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 01:11:00 GMT

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… well, actually, no, it wasn’t the worst of times (or was it?) in the city of Verona in the deep Centre of a country we’ll call Erewhon. Despite being central geographically Verona had always been off the beaten track, marketed as the daffodil of centre, known for it’s mists and mellow fruitfulness, but less visited than the Northern beaches where the sun shone and Erewhonese whisky flowed. For as long as anyone could remember the gentlemen of Verona, when in need of an elephant to transport things into the hills, to move a VIP or even, in the best of the worst of times, to wage war or family feuds where the dignity of each house demanded one or more of the pachyderms; they’d approach a village some way out of town, populated by renowned hereditary elephant keepers and discuss terms of business. Time passed, diesel engines came and Erewhonese engineers (yes, this is a different Erewhon) built roads, feuds became illegal and could no longer be fought on elephants in the streets, the village turned their elephants, for awhile, to helping remove timber from the surrounding forests, then forests further away, then the timber was gone so they came home to quiet village by the river with its green hills of bamboo, some miles from the centre of Verona. Improved roads bought tourists from wider Erewhon and the Lillipution Isles.  Tourists were keen to see elephants, sit on them and ride, so the village set up a cooperative and guests paid a fee to ride the elephants through the bamboo forest that still surrounded the village.  The elephants came in to provide rides for a short morning, a short time after lunch, and then went back out into the bamboo at night. Since the feuding had stopped the Gentlemen of the Houses of Verona bought land and built villas, alike in dignity, in the countryside and the forest shrunk, the elephants had to be put on long chains at night to stop them munching on the Veronese hedges or the crops that other villages grew to feed the growing city.  The elephants still had the forest time they craved, the company of other elephants and some exercise, giving rides, during the day; their owners still had their tradition, the tourists paid them to ride the elephants so they had houses, lives, their kids went to school and their elephants could be provided for. The vets and welfare people came and agreed: it wasn’t the best of camps but it wasn’t the worst of camps because it had forest rest, it had limited working hours and it was run by people that understood elephants need these things as a bare minimum and understood to give a lot more.  It was better than moving to a camp in the mountains around Milan where there was rest but not forest at night, certainly better than, heaven forfend, a trip to Genoa on the coast where they said the elephants worked 10 - 12 hours a day and there was still no forest rest, just a 1m chain and a shelter if you were lucky. An equilibrium fell on the rural valley, on Verona itself, and for 10 years or more the pastoral status quo left people time to focus on one another’s wives and live comfortable lives for elephant and person, largely under the radar of the world. But then some Lilliputions got it into their heads that riding an elephant somehow harmed it, the Erewhonese looked into this and asked the vets, the mahouts, the elders, anyone “Have you ever heard of an elephant harmed by riding it?”, to which everyone replied: “With the right sort of seat?”, “Yes”, “Only a few hours a day, not in the high heat”, “Yes”, “Then no, not in the 3,500 years we’ve been doing this.”.   So they laughed, but the Lilliputions who’d got ‘the idea’ did not stop, after awhile the Lilliputions that had made lives in Erewhon began to say “You don’t know Lilliputions like these, they won’t ever stop”, but still the[...]

Statement on the Arrival of a Baby Elephant

Wed, 04 Oct 2017 08:18:00 GMT

In managing a camp for captive Thai elephants, as we have for the last 14 years, we are almost daily faced with seemingly insurmountable problems.  Balancing the need for these large, intelligent, hungry animals to feed, exercise and live alongside humans within the, comparatively large, area available to us with their needs as wild animals and the hereditary, 3,500 year old human traditions of keeping them is a herculean task. Accordingly we have long held that uncontrolled, unmanaged breeding to create more captive elephants to face these insurmountable problems in ever constricting space is not a sustainable answer.  We have strict non-breeding policies in place and one of the reasons we never purchase an elephant is that we recognise that to do so drives a market either for breeding or for wild capture. In January this year we were faced with a dilemma: an elephant who had originally been a street rescue, who had left at the behest of her mahout and returned after he said he wanted to provide a better life for her was diagnosed pregnant. While acknowledging it may be damaging to our reputation and it is certainly against our philosophy it was determined that it is also against our philosophy to turn out an elephant in need.  With our assembled veterinary & scientific team, forest environment and funding structure that allows mother-to-be to get the right balance of exercise, rest & nutrition without having to be on show to guests it was decided, for the elephant, that we were better placed than any of the alternatives then open to her to handle the pregnancy and birth. Meena gave birth to a baby male, she being too young and it being her first birth she rejected the baby and turned aggressive towards it.  She was aggressive and confused to the point that only now, four weeks later after hard work by our Veterinary and Target Training Positive Reinforcement team, after lots of help from friends within the veterinary and elephant community, are we reasonably confident that the tide has turned. Having been through this process we are more convinced than ever that breeding into captivity should be discouraged in the strongest possible terms but feel vindicated in our decision to look after the birth here.  Our unique team of scientific & veterinary experts and our amazing support network undoubtedly made the difference in bringing both mother and baby together at a time when our mahouts’ traditional knowledge did not provide satisfactory answers. The mahout has signed a contract agreeing to keep mother and baby together on site for the foreseeable future and to follow our instructions that any training performed will be under our instruction and therefore Target Training Positive Reinforcement.  We would have preferred not to have played any part in bringing a baby into captivity but, having taken on the responsibly, we cannot do anything other than do our utmost both for him and his mother and to help him feel loved and part of the family. We repeat our call to everyone not to purchase elephants for any reason in the current climate in South East Asia.  We see very clearly that the current trend to purchase older, docile, retirement age elephants in order to provide sanctuary-like tourist activities is driving a market to breed.  Suddenly rich selling mahouts replace elephants that they would otherwise have cared for into retirement with young elephants and return to the trekking camps. More harmfully still: the elephants chosen to be mothers are those in the ‘unprofitable’ age group, too old to be cute babies, too young to work in trekking camps.  Like early teenage humans, pregnancy is possible but is certainly not recommended and is fraught with danger to both mother and baby. We will look after Meena and son to the best of our abilities and with the fullness of our resources, so please do not feel upset if you see us being proud of a young son growing, but we consider this whole[...]

Elephant Tourism: The Harms of Received Wisdom

Sat, 23 Sep 2017 05:16:00 GMT

This article first appeared in a slightly edited form and with some lovely pictures on the Good Tourism Blog where it gathered quite some interest so I sought to reproduce it here. ___________________________________________________- The last decade or so has been a very confusing time for anyone watching captive elephants in South East Asia.  A tradition that has been a source of pride for the countries themselves and invoked a sense of awe in visitors for thousands of years has gone sour. From the days when early explorers returned with incredible stories about these massive beasts and the people who could control them, when the armies of Alexander met them on the battlefield and the armies of Persia, Carthage & Rome, 500 years before Christ1, hired and revered ‘Indians’ to control the elephants of their armies, mahouts may never have been the pinnacle of society but their skills have been acknowledged & admired.  They have been accepted as people who are willing and able to do things and work with an animal that, in us laymen, inspires both fear and love. But mahouts have fallen from this position of communal respect to a societal place where, to read some ‘news’ sites, internet pages and social media timelines, they are on a level with murderers, their deaths - particularly at the hand of their elephant - celebrated with the overall feeling that “they got what they deserved”. In the space of a decade, about 0.3% of the time their tradition has existed, the received wisdom in the English speaking internet and European world has shifted from awe and respect to the automatic assumption that a mahout is a cold hearted torturer. Working, as I do, with mahouts I think I can safely say that they are not confused by this in a large part because it manifests itself in a language other than those they speak and because, working everyday with elephants, they are still confident & proud in themselves and their skills and do not feel incentivised to change their ways. But those who do operate in these languages: Destination Management Companies, Journalists, Travel Agents, Tourism Marketing bodies and, increasingly, Elephant Camp Owners can be forgiven for being confused. A tour package that, ten years ago, would have been sold out to rave reviews is now shredded, a target for actual hatred, on the internet.  An advertising campaign that, ten years ago, would have attracted thousands now discourages visits merely by having a picture of an elephant. So what has changed?  Not the tradition, the bare bones of which are the same and not the situation, there are still some 3,470 elephants in captivity in Thailand alone2, under the care of their mahouts.   Foreign, specifically English & European speaking, public perception has changed. How does this happen?  Well, first of all there is a kernel of truth: there are bad, aggressive, scared mahouts; traditional methods for training elephants caught from the wild can be horrific, resulting in deaths from wounds or, years later, from stress - data from Myanmar have shown that wild caught elephants do not live as long as captive born even after they get past training and live ‘full’ lives3. Plus the modern world has no real place for captive elephants: kicked out of their forests and forced to find the 250kg of food each elephant requires everyday living cheek by jowl with humans means that they often end up in inappropriate places and doing inappropriate things. But there is also a degree of misinformation.  Sometime prior to 2001 a concerned Thai citizen took a video of the training of a young elephant, whether or not the calf was wild caught the trainers were using an horrific technique that we know, again from Myanmar, caused the death of between 12.4%4 & 30.1%5 of elephants that went through it.  The video was released and immediately prompted the Thai Government to outlaw such training - or[...]

Why Don’t You Let Them All Go?

Thu, 03 Aug 2017 01:06:00 GMT

I was recently up in the mountains, a pretty village with one road in and one road out, a valley surrounded on four sides by three different National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, which one were we in?  In all the excitement I kind of lost track myself. We were there to discuss elephants (kind of of course), creatures the villagers claimed not to have thought too much about despite having lived in this valley surrounded by forest since times when the forest spread far further than its current limits. In the past three years or so that, as it seems to have done in many places, has changed.  Not in a hard-core way, there other villages in the vicinity that seemed to be at all-out war with elephants, nightly visits from the big beasts taking a terrible toll on crops.  These gentle villagers, perplexed as they were, had a relatively small problem, four times in the past three years elephants had appeared in their valley and eaten crops - that it had happened twice this year already was why they called our potential partners in this project who then called us. The headman called the village together, our partners got to presenting while we sat and observed. These meetings always fascinate me for the human element: nowadays we all move around so much (and in truth some people always did) we have to remind ourselves when we walk into an elephant village as strangers and we watch for the reaction of the crowd that these people, some 40, some 60 years old have probably seen each other on every day of their lives.  At the very least they have grown up together, been to school together, competed over the same loves, been to one another's weddings, witnessed the birth of others’ loved ones, witnessed the death of others’ loved ones (possibly even been responsible for either).  To say they know each other is an understatement. We often get into trouble by dictating policy for “the elephants” as though they weren't separate characters; we cannot, either, go to one meeting and say to ourselves “the villagers” want this or want that. There was so much potted personal history under the head man’s lean-to, characters you have to live in the village to understand - one guy may always be the one to take up new ideas, but he may not be the person to talk to, he may have history of giving up after two weeks; that guy at the back may always stand up and shout in village meetings - whether they are about elephants or the price of peanuts - but that doesn't mean he is skeptical he just thinks he should've been headman (or wishes the head man's wife had chosen him after being his first kiss in school 40 years ago), he may have history (with his long-suffering wife) of taking a task sticking to it (albeit just to prove the headman wrong).  Those two ladies arguing with one another may actually be friends working together to steer the meeting in a direction they want under a scheme they cooked up on the lao khao last night. This is why you don't take me to serious meetings, I spend my time making up all these outrageous histories for these polite and gentle people and so when the time comes for me to talk I have no train of thought at all and cannot. But I was also listening & I thought it worth recording their proposed solutions to their new found elephant problem because, cut off as they are - not entirely: they travel, they have phones that work outside the valley - from the barrage of information, misinformation, opinions and idiotic blogs like this one we call the internet they can be thought of something close to traditional values regarding wild elephants. What the old folks would call common sense, a solution to a problem suggested while only taking the parameters of that problem into account.   The first interesting point was that they were convinced that these elephants were ex-captive elephants recently released to the forest, they maint[...]

The Wrong Light

Tue, 11 Jul 2017 00:53:00 GMT

It is not often you’ll see me plugging a movie in these pages but I’ll do it now. I do it not because I’m a producer of this one (in a Kickstarter kind of way); not because I introduced one of these ladies to elephants, unknowing of this story and after the story had happened; not really even because since I’ve been messing around with elephants up here I have seen this as a far bigger issue, not only the abuse of the ladies, girls & boys in question but the ‘industry’ that has grown up around their ‘rescue’ - with some genuine organisations; some good ones that, nonetheless, cause harm by seeking to enforce their values onto the children, have them grow up separate from the people who are their people and; of course, the outright frauds of which this movie highlights one of several I have tripped over down the years. I do it because every time I read these stories I am reminded - much less seriously, what can be more serious than a child’s life? - of the elephant rescue industry and the parallels. Only John could take a story as serious, as sad, as this and think, “hey, it’s all about meeeeee!”. But, you see, in any business where donation money is to be made from providing life improvements for things people care about, children/elephants, continued donations often require new stories and the temptation, for some it seems, is to embellish or make up stories. Every elephant, no matter where acquired from must be a “rescue”, its previous life must have been hell, its conditions now unimaginably better. You hear some questionable things down the years: perfectly healthy elephants bought for vast donated sums only to be presented as beasts in need of urgent care; missions to the Thai/Myanmar border because “I’ve got a donation for another rescue, I need to produce an elephant”; blind elephants being bought for more than a similar, sighted elephant because “every sanctuary needs a blind elephant”. I could go on, but I won’t.  Of course, in most cases, the seller takes the massive money given and buys another elephant to look after in exactly the conditions the buyer gets busy terming as abusive for their donor. We had a case here.  An elephant with us for 2 1/2 years; you’ve seen our place or you’ve read about our work, nowhere is perfect and we certainly do not claim it, but we certainly provide veterinary care, fodder, enrichment, other elephant quality time and a natural environment.  This particular elephant was a bit tough, we remember, because they were one of the cases where we had to daily pressure the mahout to get the free roaming happening, to ensure the exercise is done. But that’s the downside of not buying elephants, when mahout and owner is not predisposed to follow our way of doing things it requires pressure from us to get it done - we can’t just replace the mahout and keep going - so we cajole, shame, fine where necessary to make it happen. At a certain point, as they sometimes do, the mahout told us he was bored of all the nagging, he didn’t get into mahouting to have to exercise, to have to watch his elephant socialising in the grassland (we won’t go into why he did go into being a mahout) and he was leaving with his elephant. The allotted day arrived, the ele left, I didn’t attend because I never do.  Marriages yes, funerals no; welcome parties yes, farewells no - just a ‘me’ thing. Three months later the elephant turns up on Facebook, I won’t share the quotes to protect the innocent but let's just say ‘telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty’ doesn’t touch it - and all piled on ‘the last camp’.  Now, technically, we weren’t the last camp, the elephant was elsewhere for three months - it so happens because we have a network we [...]

A Chance to Avoid a Disaster in Slow-Motion

Tue, 11 Jul 2017 00:24:00 GMT

Myanmar’s an exciting place: so exciting that when it was called Burma and the British thought they owned it Rudyard Kipling stopped there long enough to refill his pipe and was able to turn out enough prose from that one visit that people thought him the expert.  George Orwell spent more time there, regretted shooting an elephant, turned the experience into one of the best essays on late imperialism you’ll read and somehow managed to predict the country’s future; something about ’84 & ’88. Myanmar’s an exciting place because they have so many elephants in captivity and haven’t yet made Thailand’s mistakes (they’ve made a few of their own, mind you, just not as many as Thailand) so those of us who worry about more than just the elephants under our direct control feel we have a chance to help the something over 6,000 held over there. Myanmar’s an exciting place because it is the link between South Asia and South East Asia and, thanks to the stuff that Orwell foresaw, it still hasn’t destroyed all of its elephant territory yet so it, as a country, has a chance to follow South Asia’s example or - somewhat ironically for folks that have studied the history of these things - Yunnan, China’s rather than follow that of South East Asia - where wild elephants are largely confined to protected areas that are too small to hold them. Myanmar’s an exciting place because, in places, wild elephants still can come down to visit beautiful beaches.   I was recently in Chaung Tha the ‘closest’ beach to Yangon and favourite weekending spot for the growing middle class of that city, the drive there is six hours minimum and there’s no civilian airport, but the drive - having now done it four times - is beautiful, a landscape that can now afford rice harvesting machinery but still thinks shade is important for villages and homesteads, for people who, yes, make an income from growing rice but still get most of what they need from a kitchen garden or a pond or river rather than from 7-11 and drop the plastic wrapper into the river. A population that still protects the local habitats possibly largely because they know they still rely on them.   On that drive you cross the Pathein river and shortly leave the rice paddies behind, you enter what the Myanmar folks call a yoma, which may also mean mountain range but here means a once-forested hilly area.  In the case of Myanmar where I have seen it and Laos the ‘once forested’ could also mean ‘recently forested’ or ‘deforested recently enough that other cultivation hasn’t taken root’ and, sad though this is for trees and all the things (including us by the way) that depend on the things they provide - natural habitat, fruits and nuts, shade, water regulation and, you know, oxygen - it is not so bad for elephants. As we see in Kui Buri and the great grassland parks of the terai: Asian elephants, given a choice, are not great thick-forest animals, they like grassland swamps best but, least ‘round here, all of that is under rice so the next best thing they like is verdant ‘secondary growth’ the thick bamboo-and-other-grasses mix with young, palatable trees found on the forest edge and, traditionally, in recovering slash-and-burn agriculture - from the days where there was room to move the village every two or three years. Now, it turns out, thanks to the previous Government’s love of logs (money) almost the whole yoma is a vast ex-slash and burn plot.  Bad for biodiversity but, for the heroes of this story - elephants, something like heaven. Unfortunately the story doesn’t end there. Much like the rest of the rice growing world the days where, if the land was flat it would be cultivated, if it was hilly it might be left to small scale[...]

Why Don’t We Know How Many Elephants We Have?

Thu, 18 May 2017 03:16:00 GMT

One of the questions I am most often asked is “How Many Elephants Do You Have?” to which I reply, “Somewhere over 20, err… they come and go… mostly come…. we’ve got some new ones… ask Mutsa”.  But that’s because I’m an old man and I move around too much - anyway however many elephants we have on site is not really important (correct answer 23) except to the accountants who want to know why we spend so much on bananas. Of far more importance is how many elephants we have in captivity, in Thailand, in South East Asia or, in fact, globally.  This is important because only once we know how many we have, factoring in how many are being busy being born and how many are dying, can we begin to realistically answer the question whether any are being taken from the wild or being smuggled in from neighboring countries (possibly having been taken from the wild there). A couple of weeks ago we hosted the first meeting of Thai delegates of the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group for decades - the group has, of course, been working during those decades but only recently have they decided that meeting for a gossip would be a good idea every now and then.  Plus there are some new members, young blood to go alongside the old matriarchs and tuskers, so good that everyone knows what everyone looks like and can all be on the same Line group or whatever passes for a page nowadays. The catalyst for the meeting was the visit of the Specialist Group’s new(ish) Chairman and Coordinator, the Wildlife Trust of India’s Dr’s Vivek & Sandeep - powerful people of deep knowledge and gravitas people who, when they ask you a question, you want to have an answer. They asked, not having been to Thailand for a few years, “How many elephants do you have?”. My schoolmates always hated me but I survived, so, being a swat I jumped up & said, 3,471 sir, because that’s the official Government figure, as outlined below with “99% of the elephants counted”. Well unfortunately for me an actual Government Official stood up and said, with greater gravitas and the benefit of actual papers and things, around 4,200. So, how to reconcile that 1% of 3,471 is actually around 729? Well, firstly the 3,471 is the official number, that’s the number of elephants whose blood was taken to check DNA, who have a new ‘pink book’ registration card and who were counted in the recent joint operation by the Department of National Parks (in charge of wild elephants), Department of Livestock Development (in charge of captive elephants) & Departments of Provincial Administration (in charge of people and businesses) and, theoretically (theoretically), without being on that list you would not be able to get permission to move your elephant between provinces and any business, tourism or otherwise (but there is only tourism) would be very foolish to employ you. Theoretically (theoretically) without being on that list you are no longer a Thai elephant. But I think the big difference lies in the fact that the 4,200 number is gathered by vets who, as they pointed out, have visited & got hands on with all of those elephants, have been doing for years and know where the elephants are ‘cause they haven’t just collected blood, they’ve treated their wounds, they’ve drunk whisky with their mahouts and, yes, they’ve taken blood. Therein lies the discrepancy I think.  When the vets come to town all elephants come in, even those with slightly dodgy histories, even, as I heard from some very high sources, from across the border in Myanmar and the vets, being good vets, microchip and record them so they don’t double dose, can check for recurring conditions, weight loss and all the other things a good med[...]

Catching Elephants Before They Fall (The Power of Partnerships)

Tue, 14 Feb 2017 00:42:00 GMT

For someone who does what I do it might come as a surprise to hear me say that I haven’t had a connection with an elephant for quite some time.   If we think of elephants the way we want to think of them, with something approaching (if not surpassing) human complexity and if we look at my life in human terms then my decision to keep my distance makes sense.  It might be OK to have favourites, to have some bonds when managing a situation but, as with humans, it is not sensible to have friendships or deeper if you have to manage with a clear heart and for the benefit of all. Look back through the archives - if they go back that far - and you can probably guess the last ele I allowed myself to develop a relationship with. The other day I met an ele, though, with whom I felt affinity.  I am not narcissist enough to believe it was reciprocated; elephants are complex, you don’t get their attention on an emotional level on a first or second meeting, as with humans, friendships take months, years to develop. But this guy turned out to be exactly my age, well nearly, born in 2516, same year as me.   Plai Nin, like me, has been a working man damn near all his life - well that’s not true, despite my father’s best efforts I wasn’t sent out to do hard labour at the age of four but I have done my fair share of physically challenging stuff to make cash.  I doubt he really started at four either - in Myanmar elephants don’t enter the workforce until 17, in the less regulated Thai timber industry it might have been earlier but 6 or 7 would be the earliest - six is when my son will be off down the salt mines if he’s not careful. Like me he’s recently come into a more sedentary role, though unfortunately not the management one that keeps my brain active, having joined the Zoological Parks Organisation under the Royal Patronage of His Majesty the King’s project for elephants to live in Ban Ta Klang he no longer has to work for a living, his wage & lifestyle are covered. Like me he is beginning to feel his age, unlike me - whose diseases, syndromes & tics that follow me into old age will be largely the accumulation of lifestyle choices down the years - he was never given the choice of lifestyle, his mahout & owners did this for him. Like me, though generally polite, he had that grumpy demeanour that made it clear he wasn’t in the mood to speak to strangers - perhaps especially ones that were inclined to imagine they had something more than birth year in common. Unlike me he was lying on his side and had been down there for two days, his legs having given way beneath him for reasons his mahouts put down to overwork in early life and the vets thought long term malnutrition.  To be fair, for an elephant that had been lying on his side for two days he was remarkably cheerful, not in a mood to talk with strangers - as I have mentioned - but eyes alive and eating well, alert to food and the approach of people he knew. There was life and fight in him, even in adversity. This wasn’t a random meeting, Plai Nin & myself.  I was visiting him for a reason: you may remember I visited Ban Ta Klang about this time last year and was somewhat disquieted, in fact I promised to find ways to help. When we say help, we mean long term, sustainable help; such help as only comes of building partnerships and designing projects based on experience and some best practices.  Which is a long winded way of saying that, since my promise to help, I’ve had precisely: one lunch, two Skype calls and been photographed with a large cheque. So bugger all then?  Plenty of words but no graft?  Well, you might think that, and the visit to Ban Ta Klang this time was still largely ‘needs assessment’ but this time with ve[...]

Broadening Horizons (Conservation Education Trip for Mahout Kids to Khao Yai)

Sun, 22 Jan 2017 03:47:00 GMT

It’s been an eventful 3 days for Changboon Wittaya School! The students have just finished a field trip to Khao Yai National Park: a World Heritage Site, and for many of our students, a first-time visit.  The first day began early on a Tuesday morning, with students arriving to the school at 5AM. You might think that the early hour and dark skies would make for a sleepy ride to the park, but not so! The students were too excited to sleep, and instead took turns giving lively renditions of karaoke songs the whole ride there. Upon arrival outside the park, the group switched from buses to songthaews (local 'two bench' covered pick-ups) for the windy trek up the mountain to our campsite.  Upon arrival at the Visitor Center, we were greeted by two park rangers who gave everyone an introduction to the park, what activities we could expect to participate in, and the conservation efforts that would be the focal point of the trip. The students watched a video detailing the various wildlife of the park, and squealed with excitement at a few of the more unfamiliar creatures.   We were then taken to our accommodations further up the hill. We could see that there was a small brook down a short path behind the students’ housing, so they got into adventure mode right away by going down for a closer look. The rest of the day was spent doing to team-building games and discussing the park’s wildlife in the context of games, led by the park rangers.  After sundown, they had the chance to go on a night safari! We loaded into open-backed trucks and used high beam flashlights to look out into the park for any creatures that may be out and about under the cover of night. As an American, I was hoping for elephants or tigers (we did not see any)…but much to the students’ delight, there were ample deer about! It is interesting to think that just as elephants are a rarity to me although but a common sight in Ban Ta Klang, deer are a rarity for them although I am used to seeing them!  The next morning, the students were taken on a bird-watching walk at sunrise. The park provided a guide and some binocular equipment for the students to share, and they got some great up-close views of varying birds (and squirrels!). Many of them were glad to just take in the sights of the forest; very different from their daily norm of rice fields and flat land. After bird-watching, students had breakfast and another nature talk before being broken into groups for a 7 kilometer (4.5 mile!) hike.  The hike was guided by park rangers, who stopped often to point out interesting plants, insects, or signs of wildlife. The students particularly enjoyed seeing a tall tree with bear prints on it—the park bears are known to climb it for the honey at the top! Luckily, we did not see any bears (though the students might’ve loved that). I was surprised that, as older teenagers, not one of them ever complained while spending hours hiking through the woods on a hot day. They said they had never been on such a hike before! They are very grateful to the foundation for giving them the opportunity to experience something so new.  After a long day of hiking, the evening was spent going over what they learned out on the trails, and playing more games.  On the last morning, the students enjoyed another bird-watching session before having breakfast and settling in for the closing program. They sang songs and discussed the wildlife they had become familiar with, and wrote their favorite takeaways from the program on green hearts that they later stuck on cut-out trees. They were given final opportunities to flex their conservation knowledge with a trivia game, where those who answered correctly were given Khao Yai gear like backpacks, T-shi[...]

Building a Wall for the Mexicans!

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 00:44:00 GMT

Finally, in the new world order, we can say it loud & proud - we’ve been building walls for years AND we’ve been building them for Mexicans and guess who has paid for them?  Well we have actually, but we’ve had Mexican support for the work in terms of time, skills and expertise - so we did kind of make them pay. I’m talking, of course, about our longest running project (apart from the basic 'get eles off streets' mandate), our greatest chance to change the lives for the greatest number of elephants, our chance to change the world - our Target Training Positive Reinforcement Workshops. The Mexicans in question have been several but all revolving around Dr Gerardo Martinez (this time backed up by Dr Rodrigo Salas - who was just plain Rodrigo when he first came to volunteer but who is still donating his time even after his DVM and high powered new job). The latest installment of our project, the one I was lucky enough to go along on, was our second in Myanmar - last year Gerardo & Rodrigo donated their Christmases to go and live in the jungle to teach some 40 elephant camp managers the benefits of Target Training Positive Reinforcement, as much as I’d have loved to join I don’t get to travel at Christmas, there’s some stuff back home needs doing. Myanmar is important (to this project) for three reasons: 1, It is home to the largest population of captive elephants in the world, some 6,000 in Gov.t hands alone. 2, They were mostly employed in the logging industry until a 2 year moratorium on logging came in and now they have no source of income and (mostly) no forest to put them back into (hence the logging moratorium). 3, It is the haunt of Dr Khyne U Mar and her amazing team of organisers: Khin, Mumu & Thuzar - so we can get stuff done. While number three gives us cause for hope numbers one & two should give us cause for worry. Worry because we’ve seen this situation before and there are many who’ll argue that it didn’t end well - I’d argue it ain’t over yet but at least we have a path that we must not follow. I’m talking, of course, about Thailand’s elephants who went down this route in 1989.  A route that saw them starving, then begging on the street until ‘kindly’ tourism businesses took them over & gave them some direction.  Tourism dropped & they ended on the streets again until today’s very efficient forms of tourism showed a way that makes sense for business but ain’t much good for elephants - hopefully WE show a way that it is good for eles AND good for business, but we’ve never been accused of efficiency! So part of our mission over there is to help ensure that, five or ten years from now, Myanmar elephants don’t find themselves in a place where they never see forest and are faced with a choice of working 10 - 12 hours a day or finding themselves front-leg hobbled on a short chain 24hrs a day.   Luckily everyone I met involved with eles in Myanmar could not conceive of an ele without a forest - but I wasn’t in Thailand in 1989, I suspect the same sentiment prevailed here in those days too and then it only took one businessman to start the rot.  The urgency in Myanmar is that while they can’t currently conceive of it their neighbours have already shown it possible and, should a businessman appear before rules are put in place, Thailand has provided a blue print for lucrative but abusive elephant tourism. Our programme has now held workshops in four countries with 166 participants from eight range states trained by us, countless more by those original 166 (notably in Myanmar and from the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre).  It has ensured scientific Pos[...]

You’ve got slugs & you think you’ve got problems?

Thu, 27 Oct 2016 12:13:00 GMT

We haven’t said it for a long time so you could be forgiven for forgetting that we have two goals in life, both are about finding sustainable numbers.  The first for captive elephants (where we think, at least for now they should come down) and the second is for wild elephants (where we’d love for them to come up). The key to both our goals is the word sustainable, I think I lumped in a comfortable there too.  Just as, in my opinion, there’s no point in having as many captive elephants as we do now if we have to keep them in manners not ideal, then there’s no point in working just to bring the number of wild elephants up without considering how much room we have for them, how those elephants will survive and what effect they might have on the areas in which they live. Elephants may sit at the very top but, where they live in the wild, they are part of an ecosystem - an ecosystem they largely control and they, by turns, have evolved to be controlled by; inefficient digestion means that not only do they fart a lot they need to eat 10% of their bodyweight per day mean they need more space to exist than we can imagine, particularly in areas where rainfall (& therefore green stuff) is seasonal. This system seems to have worked well for millennia and, while no-one knows why the extinct species went that way, we do know that when too many elephants are confined to too small an area the results are devastating first for that area and then, through famine, for the elephants themselves.   When too few are there, well, we don’t know yet as this school of study is relatively new in Asia but we’ve seen studies in Africa where their absence from an area appears to have changed savannah into forest as the tree species they’d normally control by eating when saplings take over. So when we humans come along and start playing around with the places they live either in the name of (oxymoronic) Wilderness Management or just plain trying to eat, pay off debts & raise a family we can have far reaching consequences that can manifest themselves many kilometres from where we work, sometimes even in other countries. These ain’t slugs or rabbits we are dealing with.  When you cause a problem with elephants you can guarantee it will be commensurate with their size & appetite: Big. This is why when we seek to help wild elephants we not only work on direct habitat protection, trying to ensure their current home is as pristine as possible (and, by the way, advising against measures to ‘improve’ it for them, these actions have a funny way of backfiring) we also work with the communities that surround them and have to live with them. We do this because, unlike slugs, which may come upon your lettuce patch gradually and eat a few leaves before you notice them and take corrective action (& we don’t, by the way, advocate the poisoning of elephants but communities who feel uncared for when the elephants invade often resort to such measures) elephants can come and destroy your entire crop in one night. Also slugs or rabbits are quite unlikely to squash you should you decide to shoo them away. The other week I was able to visit one of the projects we help support, coordinated by Freeland Foundation, in villages along the edge of Khao Yai National Park (the project extends around several National Parks in the same area of Thailand, on the edge of the Isaan Plateau and protecting the watershed for the agricultural lands below - see, something else elephants do!). It would perhaps be inaccurate to say that the village of Ban Wang Mee have always lived in harmony with the forest, they have at times been known for (ahem, let’s say) their unsustainable u[...]

Trunked Up Trickle Down? (An Elephant Welfare State)

Tue, 04 Oct 2016 00:06:00 GMT

I was having dinner with a friend the other night. I’ll pause there to allow you to get over the shock that, given my ascetic lifestyle and acerbic manner, I have time & inclination for dinner let alone friends. Right, as I was saying, dinner with a friend who is looking to set up a business in the mahouts’ home village, currently holding 200 or so eles it doesn’t have the food to feed, the space (or will) to exercise, and a massive diaspora out in the tourist towns making livings the only way they know how. It has long been one of my mantras that anything that helps the elephant owners make money without over-working or otherwise abusing, confusing, accusing, misusing (stringing out & worse) their eles is a good thing and ought to be encouraged so encourage I did. But by the end of the evening though I seemed to have veered even further to the right than a politician who is losing debates but craves the cheers of a crowd he knows love him.  I have spent the best part of the last thirteen years dedicated to making mahouts richer, not so rich that they could buy another elephant, but rich enough that they can look after the one their culture tells them they have to have better. The trouble is, I have come to believe that it isn’t occurring to the mahouts to invest extra cash they raise on the care of their elephants.  Why would that be? I hit upon one of the best rabble rousing bogeymen in the politicians’ arsenal - the Welfare State.  This idea that if you help out the poorer in the community with direct financial contributions you’ll encourage everyone to relax and live the highlife off those taxes your accountants haven’t found creative ways for you to dodge.   A rich man’s worry - not something I have need to be troubled by personally. In some of the world’s less developed countries people even frown on the idea that the state should help those less well off have access to basic health care. So, despite the direct and unhappy protestations of my liberal, green tea drinking (literally as I type), muesli eating (check my, wait, no take my word for it) self I’m going to tell you I think one reason we are failing elephants is that we have created a welfare state for them and, worse still, that it started with basic health care. One of the reasons Thailand has produced some of the world’s best elephant vets, undoubtedly the reason it has some of the world’s most healthy elephants is that it has provided health care free of charge to any elephant, for any condition, no questions asked for as long as I can remember but probably for a lot longer - I have only been here 13 years. This is great as any vet will tell you the reason they got into being a vet was that they wanted to help animals (they’ll also usually tell you that they first thought of being a human doctor but the thought of working on a single species that could actually tell you what was wrong would have been way too easy) so the ability to do this on an iconic, intelligent, endangered-in-the-wild species that is part of your country’s heritage is a dream come true. It is also worthy.  Even as recently as when I arrived in Thailand, mahouts and elephants were in a hard way, they were struggling in sometimes deadly illegal jobs in logging; tourism was failing them, they were begging on the streets - there was no money in the system. A mahout with a sick wife had trouble looking after her, let alone a sick elephant, there were no margins. In those days, when we asked a mahout to return home from street begging, or to retire his elephant - in the days before well meaning foreigners would effectively buy him a new el[...]

What’d take to become a Saint?

Sun, 24 Jul 2016 04:27:00 GMT

Nobody (except politicians it seems) like to be disliked, no-one likes to be criticised, it’s a human trait and, well, with more and more people seemingly expert in looking after elephants it seems my ideas for trying to help elephants by looking after mahouts have recently opened my colleagues and myself to some criticism. So, I decided to look into what it would take to become a saint. I think it would be OK, I think it could be done with a little money (& money for this sort of canonisation can be raised).   We have, according to Google Earth, 137ha of good forest land, a perimeter of 6.4 km. We could, with some engineering difficulty, throw up an electric fence and just let the elephants roam free, throw them food from a different place each day at random times, guest experience would be viewing them from the Restaurants (as they do now during the day when the eles get their free roaming time) or taking driving ‘safaris’ to go and see them, as is done on our wild elephant projects at Kui Buri in Thailand or on Randilen in Tanzania (our other wild elephant projects are a long way from tourism centres). I could sit back and polish my halo, done what we’ve always done so well, taken other folks’ ideas and improved on them.  I imagine the plaudits would be thick, the awards fast. What would it take? Money, a whole lot of spendin’ money.  But as I said, this can be raised for a canonisation and as I’d now be a saint perhaps our donors would forgive us spending a bit of the money we raised on ourselves for a change instead of the ‘bigger picture’ projects we currently fund to help wild and other people’s captive eles. What then?  Well, of the 22 elephants we have on site three are comfortable free roaming without supervision, two more mahouts are comfortable with loose supervision and three more eles are comfortable with the idea themselves but are aggressive with other elephants (don’t forget none of our elephants is related and all are from places where they have had problems in the past, logging camps or street begging and such - many have the scars, mental & physical, to prove it.  Plus anyone who has spent time watching wild herds meet will tell you that aggression between elephants is part of the game, pecking orders maintained and herds broken up and occasionally reformed - in the wild there’s room to escape, we don’t have that, we’d have to have ‘no agression’ rules).  The rest?  Free roaming can be achieved but the mahouts insist on very close supervision. In order to ensure we’re not encouraging the trade in wild elephants we keep mahouts and elephants together (this also better as it keeps a steady relationship for an elephant when everything else changes) when we bring the eles from less than ideal circumstances so, quite apart from elephant suitability, what the mahouts think and believe is very important. Realistically I could probably persuade five elephants to go along with this.   No matter!  There are back ups nowadays, the eles can always go back to Ban Ta Klang or to a Pattaya Trekking Camp, it’s not always necessary to go back to street begging for the mahouts to make a living. But we’d need more than five elephants to make it work (don’t forget, we’d be no longer a camp designed to help out-of-work elephants help themselves but a camp with a grand design and a marketing plan) so I’d get to do one of my favourite things - drive around Thailand and look at elephants. Perhaps I’d go to Mae Salieng close to the Burmese border where, for some reason, the el[...]

The ASEAN Captive Elephant Working Group Statement on Elephants in Tourism in ASEAN Countries

Sat, 02 Apr 2016 04:01:00 GMT

Elephants in Tourism in ASEAN Countries Addressing a Giant Problem in Southeast Asia The welfare of captive elephants is a topic of intense debate among animal managers, conservationists, scientists, the general public, animal welfare/rights groups and the media. Common concerns, especially on welfare, raised about elephant tourism in particular are complex in their nature and impact, and call for urgent scientific evaluation as well as for realistic solutions to ensure the sustainable and ethical management of captive elephants in the future. The interaction between elephants and people has a long-standing cultural and commercial history and elephants continue to play a role in the economy. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) there are approximately 13,000 Asian elephants in captivity used for tourism, logging and transport throughout the Asian elephant range countries (AsERSM, 2006). The use of elephants in tourism camps is increasing; an estimated 2,700 elephants from an estimated total captive population of 4,500 are used for such purposes in Thailand (Pintawong et al., 2014). For the tourist camps in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, there are currently no acknowledged and/or widely used guidelines for best practices for the management and care of elephants. This has resulted in a large number of facilities operating with an insufficient capacity to manage captive elephants. Such facilities are extremely vulnerable to criticism, creating false assumptions about proper captive elephant management and undermining the reputation of good facilities. Recognizing the urgent need to create more awareness about both the problems and the possible solutions as well as provide recommendations to improve health care and management practices for captive elephants in the ASEAN countries, a group of regional elephant specialists, veterinarians, researchers and conservationists formed an ASEAN Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) in June 2015. The ACEWG acknowledges: Closing all elephant tourism camps is not a realistic option for a variety of reasons, including the lack of alternative livelihoods for both people and elephants. Releasing captive elephants back into the wild should be explored, but is currently not a realistic option for a large majority of captive elephants due to a lack of suitable habitat within elephant range countries, the high levels of human-elephant conflict (HEC) across Asia, and the risks – real or perceived – that releases will result in increased HEC. There are a variety of opportunities or uses for elephants in tourism facilities including, but not limited to activities such as riding, bathing, interaction with tourists, shows, mahout “experiences” and zoo style viewing of elephants in a landscaped area. In addition, these facilities have the potential to provide favourable conditions for studying and offering education about elephants. The relationship between humans and elephants has existed for thousands of years. The elephant tourism industry provides an opportunity to maintain the knowledge and historic cultural value of elephants in ASEAN range countries, and showcases the deep human-elephant bond that encourages an understanding and appreciation for elephants. With limited possibilities for raising the significant income required for elephant food and care, an increasing number of captive elephants now depend on employment in the tourism industry. Elephants are intelligent and mobile animals with a highly developed social structure. They have complex needs and in captivity require professional management and care[...]

Where do Unemployed Elephants End Up? (& can you change mahouts?)

Wed, 09 Mar 2016 11:39:00 GMT

I’ve said it many times: here and in the pub, in meetings and to myself in those quiet moments when I need to fill the silence “our greatest task in trying to help captive elephants is to try and change mahouts”. It always seems disloyal to say this as they are, after all, the people without whom the business side of what we do couldn’t exist and who has the last word in whether we’re able to help their elephants through the Foundation.  Mahouts have been part of my life since 1999 at least and, since 2003, I’ve had a mini-village of them living at Anantara variously doing as asked & avoiding what I’ve asked them to do. I’ve been there for the births of their children & they were there for mine, I’ve been guests in their houses & we’ve put them up in our hotels (we've only one room at home so having them stay would be awkward), I am quite proud to have seen generations go from street beggars to land owners under our tutelage and with money we’ve diverted from our guests - by way of business and foundation - into their pockets. When we first started I always referred to them as the cowboys of the East, the last heirs to a dying culture that the world has no space for anymore, proud of their ways, their history and their idiosyncrasies; they’re not easy to love & harder to hold, they’d rather give you a song than diamonds or gold. Without them we’d be nothing and without us they’d be worse off, it is surely a symbiotic relationship, however I always talk of them as heirs to a 4,000 year tradition as though it was immutable. But it is slowly dawning on us that not only are circumstances changing, after all in recent memory they’ve lived through a logging ban that saw them street begging, several tourism declines that again saw them on the street and now a vast upswing in 12hrs a day lucrative but destructive trekking opportunities.  When elephants are unemployed they’re sometimes paid to do nothing; allowing mahouts to make the living everyone deserves while keeping elephants fed and watered.  This is great, it is something we practice at Anantara and perhaps even started. However, a change in behaviour is beginning to manifest itself, mahouts who once, even when they had no work to do with their elephants, would spend time with them, even if ‘short chained’ sitting in hammocks and occasionally taking them for a walk, giving them exercise and enrichment; are now learning that this is not absolutely essential for an elephant’s survival. Nowadays it is not uncommon for a non-working elephant to be left alone almost all day on a short chain with some food passed to it from time to time and dung cleared away while the mahout goes off to do something else - at Anantara we have got to the point of inventing activities in order to persuade them to take the elephants out and let them socialise, enrich their lives, incentivising free roaming time. This mahout behaviour, not unexpectedly, also seems to be leading to a breakdown in mahout/elephant relationships.  In the past, however unhealthy our current feelings about elephants & men might make this seem, a mahout was an elephant’s constant companion, the person who provided food, care, nice words and emotional attachment. A study in India (where each elephant can have up to three mahouts) showed that the relationships, as defined by the elephant doing what the mahout asked without coercion, between mahout and elephant was significantly better for the ‘junior’ guy who spent the day with the elephant, cutt[...]

How to Pick a Good Trekking Camp? (Science begins to help)

Mon, 30 Nov 2015 09:43:00 GMT

It is a question we often get: How do we know you’re looking after your elephants properly? ….or, equally commonly & less easy to answer: I’m not staying with you and cannot visit your camp, can you recommend a place to visit that looks after their elephants well? The answer to the first question is long and complex, involves our ethics and our determination to work to improve the situation for the species in general, wild and captive, our recognition of the need to work with ancient communities with hard-held beliefs, as well as all the other factors that, well, you need to be a guest to have time to hear.  Even then we generally need to point to the wealth of experience ourselves and our advisors (paid & otherwise) have as well as our track record to point out that we have a model here that might provide an answer for captive elephants while we struggle with the trickier questions of how to have fewer or no elephants in captivity at all. But not everyone can come to us, that’s the downside of the business model, to pay for an expensive operation (& eles are expensive, by their very appetites and that of their mahouts) using low impact tourism you need to charge a lot and have few guests. This cannot be the answer for all of Thailand’s elephants, those of us trying this sort of business model currently look after a maximum of 200 of Thailand’s officially registered 4,614 elephants. We need some kind of mass tourism (or some other way of finding the staggering 1.1M tonnes of fodder a day these other elephants need (not to mention the 13,242 cans of Beer Leo the mahouts need - and, of course, the livelihood of 4,000 odd families, send kids to school etc.)). The advocacy group, World Animal Protection recently stated that “3,000 elephants are suffering in captivity” after their survey of all the elephant facilities they could find across Asia & Africa.  If we're going to say we need trekking camps it is up to us to help you avoid supporting those causing suffering and steer you towards the, by W.A.P.s estimates, 18 - 20,000 elephants that are not suffering (I’d probably be less generous than them & say there are more than that in less than ideal conditions, but I haven’t done a systematic survey, just visited a lot of camps). Of course the easy answer would be “we’re the only people doing it right, come to us” - which would probably please my bosses - who, after all, pay for all of this - but would smack of a certain sort of narcism and, well, that’s just not me.  But, well, if in doubt, please visit us! (Good enough, you can go back to the story now. Ed) Luckily science is beginning to show the way with two papers published over the past month or so that will help you answer the questions for yourselves, both by sets of people with no dog in the fight - though also both peer reviewed so that shouldn’t matter anyway, peer review being the process when your paper is looked at by people with varying sized dogs in varying fights and your methodology pulled apart in order to, among other things, guarantee that you didn’t just set things up to get the answers you wanted when you woke up and decided to do the study. The first paper “Risk Factors for Saddle-Related Skin Lesions on Elephants used in the Tourism Industry in Thailand” published in Bio Med Central and I think it is important for two reasons. Firstly because I’ve been banging on for years in these pages that there is no evidence that trekking in the saddle is inherently harmful, in thi[...]

The Selfishness of the Rifle Sight (On Hunting for Conservation)

Mon, 12 Oct 2015 01:04:00 GMT

Given my job you might assume that I’m some sort of bleeding heart animal lover.  Funnily: the internet world is split between those that assume that I am and those that like to assume I’m an evil animal torturer but that’s another story. Thinking about it, I probably am an animal lover; nowadays to the extent that I felt sorry recently when the spider that had taken up residence on my car wing mirror got blown away and that I feel guilty for stepping on snails.  But it may surprise you to know that, at certain times in my life, I’ve killed & butchered my own meat, I’ve put both mammal & bird road kill out of it’s misery and I’ve shot at (& probably missed, but not intentionally) feral cats and dogs. I also grew up in rural England where fox and stag hunting were part of the community and, thinking back, my major gripe with the hunts was that their followers seemed to think it was their right to block those narrow Devon lanes and not, incredibly enough, that they were chasing what remained of my country’s wildlife to exhaustion and then hoping to shoot them before the dogs ripped them apart. I cut my teeth in conservation in Nepal where it was abundantly clear that without the Prime Minister, Royal Family and Colonial, ahem, Guests’ historical lust for shooting tiger and rhino, which gave rise to the feudal need to protect them (so they could later be shot), there would be fewer, less pristine, National Parks and little wildlife. Indeed it can be argued that the lack of blood lust among historical Thai rulers is one reason why we have so little wildlife left. Ironic maybe, but arguable. So I have always been less likely than most, it seems, of my Facebook friends to start building the gallows for those people who are posted from time to time as the embodiment of evil, people who pay vast amounts of money to go and shoot an African animal.   No I don’t understand the urge but if all the money is going back to protect that one animal’s cousins and the habitat it lives on - and as I’ve said many times, the point of conservation is not individual animals or species, it is keeping ecosystems intact - then, well, there’s a lot of evil out there to worry about, if that’s how you get your kicks & you can show it helps off you go, just don’t block the roads. Recently though I was lucky enough to spend a month in East Africa with our partners, the Cheli & Peacock Community Trust and Elewana Safaris.  Kenya doesn’t allow hunting but in Tanzania, by area, a majority area of ‘protected’ land is administered by hunting companies so they can shoot limited numbers of stuff on it. On paper there are some great laws that ensure that this works & these laws are often pointed to to justify hunting.  Now you can tell by the fact that I have put inverted commas around the word protected above and used the phrase ‘on paper’ (& there are those inverted commas again) that, having travelled through some of the hunting blocks, I have some skepticism that what is written into law is always followed.   However, I didn’t do a proper investigation and I often castigate people who go off half cocked (if you’ll pardon the shooting derived idiom) on an assumption about captive Asian elephants based on something they read on a blog written by someone who once visited an elephant camp.  So I’ll refrain and tell you that I do think there is a chance that hunting, when properly controlled, can be a force [...]

Ban Ta Klang - The Beginning (an English Teacher's first week in Elephant Town)

Thu, 28 May 2015 04:55:00 GMT

I arrived in Ban Ta Klang, renowned Thai elephant village in the province of Surin, on the eve of the 13th of May, 2015.  Or, sister to Oh at the Learning Link, the wonderful, kind, and intelligent woman who had brought me to the village, stayed in town until Saturday assisting me with settling in at my accommodation and getting acquainted with my schools.  It goes without saying that such an experience, living and teaching English in this community for the next two terms, will have an everlasting and profound effect on my life.  But as I began to explore the town, meet the people, and finally meet and interact with the teachers, staff, and students at my schools, a more important realization dawned on me.  I began to grasp perhaps, really, what kind of an impact my presence in this community will potentially, hopefully, have on the lives of the people here, and how equally so, surely, their lives will also never be the same.  Thursday and Friday Or and I met with the other English teachers at both of the schools I’d be teaching at; Chang Bun and Ban Ta Klang.  I was able to get a feel of where things were situated in the community, see the actual schools, and get an idea of the teachers’ expectations of me.  This was also a great opportunity to offer a first impression of myself to the teachers, and gather my own impressions of what to expect when teaching, beginning the following Monday.  At Chang Bun, there were quite a few students hanging out.  I made my first attempts at interacting with several groups of them on Thursday; we took some pictures as well because God knows that Thais like taking selfies.  At Ban Ta Klang we met a bunch of the students, took some more pictures with them, saw the facilities I’d be teaching in, and again got a general gist of their expectations of me.  The students at Chang Bun were extremely shy.  The girl students went into a state of silent, emotionless stillness when I approached them, and when engaged in conversation would look fleetingly at each other and bury their heads in each other’s shoulders and chests.  They seemed petrified of me.  The boys smiled, looked at each other, giggled and scattered when I approached them.  The children at Ban Ta Klang, however, seemed excited to meet me from the get-go.  They were not nearly as shy, but rather more curious and enthusiastic about their new farang English teacher.  The teachers at both schools exhibited their enthusiasm to have me on board as a teacher and generally speaking to have me in their community.  I felt very welcomed, with the famous Thai hospitality living up to its name.   There were definitely immediate challenges as well as little leaps of progress.  For example, initially after arriving in town, no one seemed to know when school was set to start at Ban Ta Klang, and considering that the main structure currently has no roof (it is being replaced), we were naturally curious about the state of affairs at the school.  Eventually after speaking with the school staff we learned that they would be using the adjacent smaller classroom buildings for school until the roof is finished on the primary building.  Indeed, substantial progress has already been made.  There was some confusion as well among myself and the teachers of Chang Bun in regards to the curriculum and what content was to be taught, and to which levels, and which language skills were to be focused on.  But understanding was eventua[...]

Walking With Giants (or seeing eles from the business end)

Mon, 06 Apr 2015 03:36:00 GMT

You may not have noticed, because we didn’t make a big song and dance about it, but two years ago we decided to phase elephant ‘trekking’ (sitting in the saddle when someone else drives) from our activities list. First of all, let me say that (despite what you may have heard on the ill informed side of the internet and as I have said and will continue to say until I’m blue in the face) there is nothing inherently harmful in sitting in the saddle on an elephant, there are a several ways to make it harmful but, at a camp that understands elephants, it is not inherently so. If it was inherently harmful don’t you think someone would have noticed at some point in the 4,000 year history of elephants and people living together? That said I have a personal distaste for sitting in the saddle and going around in a circle on an elephant - firstly it is uncomfortable (for you) and secondly you learn nothing about your elephant or your mahout.  Maybe because I grew up in the jungle where sitting in the saddle was still uncomfortable but you were on an elephant because that was the only safe way to get where you were going that I cannot see the attraction of sitting on the saddle and going somewhere where you could have walked. Either way, we took the decision to phase out the sitting in the saddle part of our activities because we want all our guests to come away knowing more about elephants and having had an emotional connection.  We found that was not possible if a guest was sitting six inches above their elephant (plus it has so far proven impossible to design a saddle that was actually comfortable).   We also discovered that, if our guests come away with an emotional connection, they might go on to come back. It didn’t work - I guess riding in the saddle has never been our core business but by the end of last year we still had 10% of our guests refusing all other options, even after upgrading them to another, more exciting, more comfortable experience they had said to us “No, actually, I’d prefer the saddle”. I won’t disclose our guest profile but we do cater to a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities, our guests tend to be educated to a high level and be worldly folks and, contrary to our expectation, even when the differences in experience (& comfort) were explained one tenth of them were choosing the saddle - of course, had I lied and said it was harmful to the ele I’m sure they’d have relented, but it’s not and we don’t lie. Still, looking back, the only so-so reviews we were getting about the elephant activities came from guys who’d sat in the saddle and we’re not allowed to turn around to our guests and say “we told you so”. So, how do we fix it?  As of March this year we tried a new approach, we still don’t actually refuse to put the saddle on for our guests - refusing guest requests (as long as they are not harmful to the eles) is not something we do - but we do include them in our groups doing the mahout activity, everyone together, we ensure they listen to our safety briefing and hear what we have to say and do about elephant welfare and conservation, we give them a demo on what the mahout experience is actually about. …& then we say “would you like to take your trek now?”.  Maybe it’s peer pressure, maybe it’s having met our super friendly mahouts and elephants, maybe it's something else but in March not one person turned away fr[...]

The Land-mine and the Damage Done

Mon, 12 Jan 2015 05:17:00 GMT

Have you ever negotiated with a mahout? If you have a feel for it you know from the first stanza whether you’re going to win or lose.  You know because they’ll sit down in all seriousness and the first reason they give you that they cannot do as you ask that will be so easily rebuffed that a rookie negotiator will think they are winning. But the rookie negotiator would be wrong.   What that means is that the mahout has a very big reason why he doesn’t want to do what you ask but he doesn’t want to tell you what it is because, very politely, he doesn’t want to make you lose face by losing a debate you’re going to lose anyway. What that also means is that, even though you know you’ve lost, you know you’re going to have to spend the next half hour rebuffing lots of other minor reasons why what you’ve asked is unacceptable so that neither of you loses face. From that first rebuff the best you can really hope for - though this takes a very good negotiator - is to find out the real reason they don’t want to do what you want them to do. If, however, they start out with a sensible reason why what you’re asking is unacceptable then you know you’re onto a winner and you can both work to solve one another's issues, if reason number one is a good one then there’s generally room for compromise. Unfortunately I knew we’d lost yesterday’s debate from the moment we drove out to the front gate of the TECC to save our fellow negotiators the bother of walking in from the road. They didn’t seem happy to see us, they knew they’d spend the next half hour talking in circles trying not to tell us what we needed to know and so, rather than a smiling Wai and happy chatter we got a nervous Wai and silence. None of the above is negative, it is just how it is, the Thai way of saying no thank you - just good manners. Plai Pooja is a handsome young bull who stepped on a land-mine while clearing a dam site up in Burma, it took them four days to get to a road and several more to get him to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre where, good people that the TECC are, they’ll give him free treatment as long as he needs it despite the fact that he was illegally in a foreign country when the accident happened. We felt sorry not only for him but for the family who had presumably lost an income, we’re in a position to help so an offer was made - we’d more than cover all the costs for the time that he is in hospital and then look after him up here once he is able to leave. Our Foundation model doesn’t depend on having elephants on site, we run a separate business and Foundation so we can afford to be purely altruistic, the business already looks after enough elephants to keep guests happy, there’s no ulterior motive in making the offer - we want to help the ele and to do this we recognise we have to help the mahout. The only string attached was that, on leaving hospital, Plai Pooja must stay with us for at least one year, this was added at the suggestion of Dr Sittidet, Chief Vet. of the TECC, on the logic that if you pay a mahout only to have his elephant in hospital there’s less disincentive to him sending an elephant to do dangerous work - Dr Sittidet also (unnecessarily as it is against our policy for the very reasons he outlines) urged us not to buy the elephant. All this had been done over the phone so, when we set off yesterday, we thought we’d be taking the owners t[...]

Why make stuff up? (your argument is solid enough already)

Mon, 12 Jan 2015 00:40:00 GMT

Note before we start - after I wrote this Beyoncé went on to tamper with a tiger and I'm aware that somewhat undermines the attempts at humour below but I don't think it undermines the argument so I'll let it flow.   One day (if enough of you ask) I'll write a blog on why there's a difference between petting an ele in Thailand and petting a tiger.  But it boils down to two things, firstly, there is not a large and complex community of people who have been dependent on keeping tigers in Thailand for 4,000 years - Thais are not generally daft enough for that, keeping tigers at home is a farang thing - and secondly, but linked, tigers come under the Native Wildlife laws not the Draft Animal Act (see previous blogs on efforts to bring eles into their rightful place as, after all, Native Wildlife) so, theoretically, their breeding is (ahem) strictly Government controlled. In short the removal of tigers from captivity would require the shutting down of five or six businesses - all but two of which have sprung up in the last five years or so - with no loss to Thai culture rather than forcing 4,500 families to change their way of life and losing a part of Thai culture that most Thai folks will tell you they are rather proud of. Even shorter: not a procedure with wide ranging ramifications, now, on with the fun! _______________________________ Right, that does it, I’ll take all sorts of abuse from you (“you” in the broadest sense, of course, not “you” that inspired this little rant), I don’t react when they print lies about me, I don’t fight back when they make up stories about my friends - as I always say, when they’re writing blogs I’m out there saving the planet, why’d I waste my time? But when you attack poor old Beyoncé, who was, after all, one of Destiny’s Children then I’m going to have something to say, never heard anything she sang but Knowles is a good Devonian name so she must come from good stock. Surely you know I’m joking, I’m not a self appointed defender of celebrities, it is New Year’s Day, everyone I could be saving the planet with is still in bed or in party mode (even planet savers party) so I’ll just take exception, as I have done privately many times this year, to the repeating of lies and getting away with it. Not just the publication I just read but an increasing number, flood, of pieces we see - so much so that my friends tell me I’m getting a persecution complex. First of all I’ll dissect my own argument - yes, I do wish all these celebs would do some research, I have no idea which camp she went to but it is more than possible that it is not run on a sustainable basis for the primary good of the elephants. Secondly, as you’ll see from where this blog is posted, I work for a ‘tourism agency’, an Hotel group in fact, but that doesn’t mean that what I’m saying is not the truth.  Thirdly, I acknowledge there is a need for activism to try push the traditional elephant owning community into changing its ways because, like it or not, when we’re gone they’re still going to in charge of the elephants - but repeating abject falsehoods gives the worst elephant operators the chance to dismiss all the good arguments that are made. In my humble (but somewhat informed having lived among them for 16 years now) opinion, the truth about captive elephants is bad enough that [...]

Chemical Communication: The Language of Love

Sun, 19 Oct 2014 00:48:00 GMT

This is a story about smelling your friends.  Friday night is on the horizon. You can’t see it, hear it, or touch it, but you can smell it. You’ve had a hectic week burdened with traveling to and fro, paired with the daily stresses of being a nomad. It’s finally time to relax and share some quality communication with individuals of your own species. You’re mid-stride, maybe ten minutes from the local watering hole, when you begin picking up some low frequency vibrations. It sounds like a fiesta of sorts and the DJ is playing your favorite tunes. You naturally get excited and return a signal or two back towards the party to let them know you’re on the way. Fortunate for some, and unfortunate for others, you’ve been experiencing a constant, concentrated urine drip, similar to a leaky faucet, dispersing odorous compounds every which way. Even more flattering, a dense liquid is oozing from your face. The ooze source is an almost unnoticeable crater above the eye, coming from an area known as the temporal gland, symmetrically located on both sides. For you, it’s just that time of the year when your urine, dung, breath and parts of your face constantly emit chemical signals for a period of time ranging from a few weeks up to a few months. Chances are, and luckily for you, some females at the party will find you irresistible for reasons they can’t explain. And more often than not, they already got the cue that you’re in town for the night. This sounds like a typical Friday evening spent searching for potential mates, does it not? Did I mention you are a teenage male elephant in musth?  In this segment, I want to use this casual scenario as a model to introduce the ways in which Asian elephants rely on the signaling and reception of chemicals in reproductive settings. Take a step away from your computer screen and delve into the wrinkly skin of the teenage male so we can address some of the smells you’ve been emitting, and also those you’ve been receiving from potential companions. Science has been working to empirically support the claims that Asian elephants depend on their ability to recognize, distinguish, process, and react to different chemicals signals. We’ve learned that the main uses of chemical signals have roots in reproduction and societal integration. To communicate from male-to-female, female-to-male, male-to-male, and female-to-female, both directly and indirectly, pheromones are emitted to reach the senses of another individual. Coming from the Greek words pherein (to carry) and hormone (to stimulate), pheromones are an extremely efficient way to communicate without the potential ambiguity seen in vocal, or body communication.  Not only seen in the elephant, pheromones are utilized throughout the animal kingdom. First appearing in 1959, bombykol was discovered in silkworms to act as a female-to-male attractive chemosignal. Since then, scientists have been discovering several different compounds used for different messages. It’s also not only used for sexual memos. Did you ever wonder how ants travel in synchrony to and from their home? Hint: They are not watching the feet of the guy in front. With scent producing glands all over their body, ants emit from 10 to 20 chemical odors with high hopes of reaching their fellow comrades. Their method of chemical detection is just as important to receive and process that information. That&rsq[...]

Right, who can handle an off-roader? (A day with Laos' Mobile Elephant Clinic)

Mon, 13 Oct 2014 03:33:00 GMT

Ever since the very beginning of this camp when we had two rented elephants from the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, before we’d even thought how we’d welcome our first guest, I’ve been amazed by the idea that if an elephant is sick I can get on the phone and, usually within a day, in an emergency within four hours, a vet can be on site with a pre-stocked, well designed car that can treat most ills or diagnose a hospital stay. Indeed, when we first got into a position to give back, one of the first things I thought to do was to set up our own Mobile Clinic - but to this I was dissuaded by the vets themselves, the professionals are already doing it and we're not yet overrun, why emulate without proven need? We did the next best thing, I think, we hired a vet so we didn’t have to tie up the mobile ones and keep them from other elephants, and sent our vets to the TECC two weeks every month to give coverage at ‘home base’ and allow the mobile guys to be more mobile - as time passed our vets also became more mobile (to the point where we’re now between vets and have to think of the mobile clinic again, but that’s another story for another time!). Now Thailand has at least three active mobile elephant clinics, the TECC have one and the Surin elephant clinic have another - the old guys on the block!  The latest, sponsored by Beer Chang, operates out of Chiang Mai University. The Asian Elephant Foundation, funded by the colourful Elephant Parade, now sponsor two more - one in Myanmar & one in Laos. I get how the Thai ones work, we have tarmac everywhere and I’d think there were very few elephants that are at the end of seasonally impassable roads - though I know that, in the border areas, elephants flood out of Burma for treatment when they hear the vet’s in town. Always wondered, though, about the Lao one - a country with a rapidly developing infrastructure but one which has large chunks that are charmingly off limits to all but eles and helis during the wet season. It just so happened that we were in Laos with Dr Gerardo, working on our Target Training project with Elefantasia and the Laos Elephant Conservation Centre when the phone rang, an elephant in need, can you come tomorrow?  Well, tomorrow the driver’s not in town can anyone handle a 4X4?   Pick me!  Pick me! …& so it was that I got to experience how the Lao do their mobile clinics, just what mobile means in a country where the Mekong river remains perhaps the most efficient form of personal transport for many people and you can still bump into 25 year olds that have spent their entire lives in the same valley. The day started the way the best days should, in low box 4WD - the Laos Elephant Conservation Centre itself is sometimes only accessible by a VERY slow boat - the Mobile Clinic here is, in fact, that most amazing of workhorses, an old body-shape Toyota Land Cruiser, under powered for tarmac but almost unmatchable for doing practical things off road. My passengers were Mr Kan who looks after the logistics at the Laos Elephant Conservation Centre and is a pretty handy Vet Tech. in his own right, as well has having great connections and friendships within the Laos elephant owning community and Karin Sjostrand, an ex-volunteer with us and now the LECC’s standing vet. We got off the mud and onto local roads, disengaged 4WD and headed to our f[...]

Three Days Under the Gaze of a Burmese Giraffe

Sun, 20 Apr 2014 01:11:00 GMT

Remember the old days?   Not the old, old days when George Orwell scribbled down his feelings of regret in shooting an elephant, nor the old days when Elephant Bill let his elephants go and lead people over the mountains into India to escape the advancing Japanese army, not even the old days when, once you landed in Yangon (renamed to give you an idea that these are recent old days) your mobile phone didn’t work and you were having a laugh if you thought you wanted internet. But the old days when we used to go to elephant conferences, spend a week in airconditioned rooms learning about elephants and I, partially to help me remember what I learned, would write down synopses of what was said? Nowadays, wrestling the Conservation Activities of an entire company, it is rare that I can concentrate purely on eles for even just one day - and that’s a good thing. So when the invitation came through for the Rufford Grantee’s Conference on Environmental Awareness & Conservation I was in two minds whether I could justify it - of course, the chance to go to Myanmar again swayed me one way, but can I afford the time to spend a week in a foreign country just discussing elephant problems? Several things swayed me, not least that it turns out it was not just an elephant conference, several speakers were working in Marine Biology fields in Thailand, places where my Conservation Activities hat for Anantara is often worn, of course that two papers we’d had a hand in were being presented as well as some scientists who have worked here on other papers and even one young lady who came as a Veterinary Intern way back (in the old days) and blames us for getting her into elephants in the first place helped push me closer to the airline office. But the most important reason that had me looking up the new Visa on Arrival regulations was this: Myanmar’s a very important place nowadays for elephant planners for three reasons: 1, Logging has been the primary source of income for their 4,000 odd captive elephants since time immemorial BUT recently, in a bid to slow deforestation and to keep as much money in country as possible, the Government implemented a ban on the export of uncut timber - any timber to be sold overseas must first be processed which will, undoubtedly, drive the processing industry but also may see timber merchants sourcing elsewhere. 2, Unofficially officials are bandying about a target of reducing logging by as much as 40% over the next few years. Even coupled with the creation of ‘elephant protected forests’ both these measures will see a lot of elephants out of work creating a situation similar to the one that had Thailand moving her elephants onto the streets or into illegal logging in 1989 - more importantly from our perspective (though of course we’ll try to help Myanmar’s elephant people not repeat the mistakes of Thai elephant people) can you think of anywhere in the area that shares a long porous border with Myanmar, where an elephant is worth a stupid amount of money or where money can be earned in (often) mind numbing tourist duties away from natural forest? Of course you can! Thailand.  I think there’s a very good chance that we’ll start to see (even more) Burmese elephants sneaking across the border, picking up a registration and working, bought and sold, as Thai elephants. The third reason is the [...]

On the arrival of our bundle of joy (being a curmudgeon is a lonely business)

Thu, 27 Mar 2014 04:53:00 GMT

OK, it’s time to do this, 20 something days into the life of a young elephant, the celebrations are not over but everyone’s calming down a little, he - like human kids as they grow up - seems to develop new character traits by the day, learn new things, persevere with errant body parts that just won’t seem to go where he’d want them. In short: he could possibly be the cutest thing on planet earth right now.  Every video or picture of him that goes onto the information superhighway gets a thousand likes, shares, follows or whatever it means that people are watching it. We’ve never been so popular in these times when the world has so much else to be looking at. But every time I post something of him with a happy comment, every time I cheerily receive congratulations for another baby born in camp (birth number four, sixth under one year old taken in & taken care of - seventh if you count one we’re helping with in Indonesia), even every time I sit & watch him grow up I feel a pang of guilt. You see, how to put this? I’m kind of opposed to his existence. I strongly believe, persuaded by the facts on the ground (where I still live) that, whatever we do, we cannot guarantee to protect him for the seventy years he will live and while there’s no real plan to make the lives better for the captive elephants we have now, let alone those in the future, what the world really does not need is another captive elephant. While still, for reasons unclear even to me who has done more than most to try to understand this business, a hot commodity this baby will always be a (hopefully loved) burden on his owner, he’ll have to work to make a living for the next sixty years. Much like a human, the vast majority of whom still work to live in dull, unrewarding jobs that are taken on just to keep the family fed, the chances of him finding that job that allows him freedom of thought and movement are very low - OK, he started out lucky being born here, but we don’t own him and can’t guarantee his existence beyond the end of his current contract. Of course a smart owner will want to keep him with us at least until he’s strong and healthy (& his owner, an old time Garieng elephant man from the mountains above Chiang Mai, was down in Bangkok rescuing baby elephants from the streets BEFORE we even knew it was a problem, so we have hope) but who knows what the whims of fate that effect us all over the course of our lifetimes will do to him? The difference between elephants and humans is, of course, for the most part we are not owned and we choose to procreate based on an informed knowledge of our situation and our future. Being the property of an enlightened owner his Mum, Boon Jan, was not ‘bred’ or forced to mate (many are) but even our partners Think Elephants have yet to prove to me that elephants make informed decisions based on perceptions of their long term future (for that matter, when it comes to breeding perhaps I give humanity in general too much credit too).  She was also, I hasten to point out, secretly pregnant when she arrived - the conception didn’t occur here. So what’s the point of captive elephants?  If we don’t like the idea (as I don't) that they’re here only to make a living for their owners (funnily enough I have less of a problem[...]

It's a Boy!

Thu, 13 Mar 2014 01:55:00 GMT

We are so excited to share that on March 3rd the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation welcomed their newest elephant into the world!  Nong Sam, a few hours oldPhoto: Rebecca Shoer Nicknamed Nong Sam (Thai for “three” since he was born on the third day of the third month), the healthy baby boy was estimated to weigh in at a hefty 187 lbs (85 kg), on the larger end of the normal range of 70-100 kgs for newborns. Though elephants typically give birth during the night, Sam was born at approximately 11:15 AM and within a few hours was walking about and attempting to nurse (it took him a few tries to get it right). Like most ungulates, a baby elephant is called a calf and Sam will probably continue to nurse from his mother for another 2-3 years, though in the wild some calves aren’t weaned until age 5.     Mother Boonjan arrived pregnant to GTAEF in 2013 and has been on maternity leave since last fall, spending the last six months of her almost 2 years of pregnancy relaxing in the grasslands. Nong Sam is her fifth calf and also fifth son. Females usually only give birth to 4-5 calves throughout their lifetime, almost always one at a time, though there have been rare cases of twins.    Sahm, a week old, and mother BoonjanPhoto: Rebecca Shoer Sam’s older brother Somjai also lives in the GTAEF camp, where he continues to excel at our research tasks, so we have high hopes for his new baby brother. Like most very intelligent species, elephant calves are born with only a fraction (about 35-50%) of their adult brain weight. Although Sam may be able to nurse by instinct, he still has a lot to learn about being an elephant by observing his mother and other elephants as well as his own trial and error throughout the first ten years of his life. Sam playing with his trunkPhoto: Rebecca Shoer At a week old, Sam is still a little shaky on his feet and hasn’t quite mastered stepping over, rather than on, his own trunk. His control improves every day, and by the end of the first month he should be able to pick up and hold objects with his tiny trunk. He won’t be able to use it to hold water, however, until a few months down the road. Sam is reluctant to stray far from the safety of his mother’s legs and Boonjan is even more hesitant to let him go, gently but firmly herding him close with her trunk. In the wild, calves are the center of herd attention and are taken care of not only by their mother, but also older sisters, cousins and aunts, a behavior known as alloparenting. Sophie Wasserman is a Research Assistant with Think Elephants International living full time in the Golden Triangle and conducting experiments into the intelligence of our (& therefore all) elephants.  To meet Sophie and spend time learning how they go about this sign up for Anantara Golden Triangle's Elephant Learning Experience.[...]

Guns & Guards for now... (on patrol in the Cambodian Cardamoms)

Sun, 02 Mar 2014 02:54:00 GMT

It was a Chinese botanist that once said to me “Without elephants a South East Asian forest does not make sense”.  We know other researchers working to discover the elephants’ effect on certain species of plants - it's pain staking poo picking work because one of elephants’ major roles in the forest is to keep seeds in their stomachs for 12 - 36 hours, move them away from the parent tree and deposit them in their own ball of fertiliser and the sunlight of a newly created mini-clearing. But not elephants alone; all the animals, bugs, slithery things & feathered friends that make up an ecosystem help keep the wider forest healthy when everything’s in balance - herbivores keep certain plants in check while propagating others, predators keep herbivores in check.  Bugs & slithery things keep the leaf litter recycled and the birds fed, birds move smaller seeds too & provide food for those darned carnivores again. I’m not sure of any long term studies but here in South East Asia where the vast majority of forest that you get to walk in has been hunted & trapped for so long that the warm, heart beating, furry & feathery things are gone, where the big trees have been taken down (which, again, is everywhere easily accessible) the regrowth must be missing the biological services provided by the mammals & seed dispersers, things are out of whack & this must affect the forest in ways we may not even be able to discern for 100 years. This may not be as scientific an argument as I’d like to make it but I’ve been blessed with a life that has allowed to get my boots on the ground, my hammock between trees, in many of South East Asia’s forests & so-called forested areas.  So, anecdotally, the eerie silence of a green place in Laos & Thailand - with old trees gone & no sound for birdsong or rustling of rodents - can haunt me perhaps because of the hours I’ve put in in places like Chitwan in Nepal, where I started this Asian journey, and still a truly natural ecosystem once you’re in the core area, where there’s not a second of silence and the jungle is always alive. So when an organisation as well known as Wildlife Alliance invites you to look around a corner of their world, walk you up and down the jungle and talk to their people, tell you of the great work they’re doing elsewhere but "here we need your help". When you see an ecosystem logged some time ago, benighted by hunting but not yet destroyed, yes, rhinos & tigers gone but other mammals in place, used by elephants as a corridor and predators at least with Asiatic Wild Dog to form an apex (& probably clouded and other leopards around). When you see an ecosystem that is the only remaining link between two immense, heavily protected by the Cambodian Ministry of the Environment, jungle eco-systems, where the other ‘old’ links are now rubber or sugar or cassava plantations.  An ecosystem that runs from the mountains, through some dry grassland plains, through the mangroves to the sea. But when, on your recce, you also see hunters, snares, nets, motorbike tracks, hunting dog tracks, evidence of non-timber forest product collection and timber forest product collection to boot.  You see, when the [...]

If it were obvious it would be, well, obvious (& anyway, what’s wrong with scientifically proving what we all think we know?)

Fri, 03 Jan 2014 04:01:00 GMT

I feel a bit like the geeky kid at school (perhaps because I WAS the geeky kid at school) who works hard on a science presentation or on a costume, something important and that has taken all his heart, only to be mocked, laughed at & booed by the self proclaimed (&, well, I guess actually) cool kids when we get up there on stage to soak up the expected applause (& secretly yearned for acceptance by the cool gang). But before I self destruct before your eyes, going down a self torturing list of ill-thought-out, (too) hard worked upon stunts-to-impress that turned into embarrassing moments I’ll get to the job in hand - writing about elephants. We had our own proudest moment of the year so far on the 1st of January, we finally made the big time: Phuki, our long suffering (thanks to a mystery car or logging accident in his distant past) tusker made the front page of National Geographic’s website and, for those of us who live in an information age, more impressively, their Facebook feed. How did we get there?  Thanks to our partners in crime Think Elephants International’s study that has showed that elephants use their sense of smell as one of their primary senses when solving problems. But instead of taking the computers down to show the big fella his moment of glory we had to keep it away from him; for when we scrolled down to the comments section for the ‘cool kids’ were laughing - only one or two people thanking TEI & Phuki for increasing our understanding of the species and what drives them, most people seemed to think they already knew this and that the research had therefore been pointless. I’ve argued before (though not about our own work) that scientifically proving the seemingly obvious is worth doing because, when I look around and I see the major issues facing elephants today - poaching, human elephant conflict and, in captivity, welfare - I don’t see any of the approaches EXCEPT those backed by scientific research being overly effective and those based on ‘acting on the obvious’ being sometimes quite damaging (in the HEC field the old “cull the old” practices, current ‘drives’ or relocations of single animals, in the welfare field the mahouts' "she's not trying to escape so she must be happy" based attitudes). If we’re going to ask scientists to help us with our practical problems we need to provide them with the tools to design their grand experiments in helping elephants…  ….and scientists’ tools (aside from over developed brains) are carefully documented proven method and the scientific literature. What do you think happens when a scientist walks into the field and wants to know what an elephant’s primary sense in a particular situation may be? - well let’s just say it is incredibly difficult to ask detailed questions of wild (particularly Asian as they live in thick jungle so, even ten yards away, you can’t see what they are doing in detail) elephants.  Until now the scientist would have just had to guess, thanks to this study they can do a literature search and start building their experimental Human Elephant Conflict mitigation tool from one rung up the ladder. It is our duty as caretakers of captive el[...]

Denial is not (just) a river in Egypt

Wed, 25 Sep 2013 10:30:00 GMT

I spent most of yesterday in an over-airconditioned room listening to some passionate people scream into microphones in languages I barely understood, calm people explain some not-yet-thought-through plans while a group of people I have come to really respect stayed quite and observed with either a growing sense of doom or some detached mild amusement. I thought I had placed myself in the latter, but by the time it reached beer-O-Clock and I was back home with the family, the mental strain of the whole thing that seeped through my veins with the first sip of Chang Draft lead me to conclude that some of the former had snuck in too. Good news: I put myself somewhere into the category of people I respect. What has happened to put me in this place?  Well, in one way our dream has come true, we may be getting what we asked for which just goes to prove that the old adage to be careful what you ask for has become an old adage for a reason. It is good advice. What has happened? (& I’m going to answer this on face value, I’m well aware there are deeper issues and the angels on both sides in the debate have some devils standing behind them and that not everyone who has a microphone actually believes what they are saying.  Some would (in fact some did) say, that by not acknowledging this I am also in denial but the issue is complex enough that while my mind digs around in the messy stuff behind the scenes my reporting will stick with the faces – hell, we’re all ugly enough anyway). What has happened?  Weeeeelllll, you’ll remember that at the Conference of Parties to the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species in March this year our Prime Minister, Ms. Yingluck, stood up before the world and said something along the lines of “we will put a stop to Thailand’s internal ivory trade” in a move to help CITES better protect Africa’s elephants.  You’ll also remember a furore over the continued discovery of dead or illegally captured wild elephants in Thailand’s national parks – and that we’re reasonably sure that these are being caught to replace elephants that someone has bought to bring into the tourist industry. A mahout who has just had his elephant bought has no elephant and lots of money, he buys another elephant (& in one of yesterday’s lucid moments an elephant guy addressed the panel & said “if an elephant was worth 100,000 baht there’d be no problem but now an elephant is worth up to 2,000,000 baht, of course we’re tempted to catch them”). You’ll also remember from previous missives that elephant law in Thailand is complex and somewhat outdated. So, these three things came to a head and, possibly because they were agency sitting in CITES when the speech was made and they are the ones getting shouted at for losing wild elephants (and possibly because they wanted the job anyway for reasons we won’t go into until we have more information), the job fell to the Department of National Parks to do something about it. They have concluded that it is the people who work with captive elephants that are causing the at least some of problems for wild elephants (something you may have heard me say here before) a[...]

Conservation: Complexity, Constraint, and Community

Fri, 20 Sep 2013 02:51:00 GMT

In January of 2012 I boarded a plane headed to Turks and Caicos, a small island chain in the Caribbean. I would be spending a semester studying marine conservation and resource management with the School for Field Studies. Among lectures, SCUBA diving, and field research, I saw firsthand how humans are devastating our world’s oceans. In fact, I was directly involved in measuring how the community I lived in was stripping its reefs and surrounding water of the resources it depended on.   But the question that plagued me was: How do we solve this worldwide problem? How can I help solve this local problem? Should I strut into town with presentations, facts, and figures proving that the people were rapidly damaging the environment? Should I offer this struggling community some of my “Western” knowledge and show them a “better way”? Should I yell and shake them by the shoulders, explaining that if they continue removing seafood at an unsustainable rate, their ecosystems are bound to collapse? How do I show them that what they are doing is wrong?     Let’s rewind my story for a moment a so I can describe to you the other ways that I spent my semester. Once a week I went to the local primary school to tutor a young girl named Cassandra.Cassandra was struggling to keep pace with her other classmates in math and reading, so during our hour together, we worked through her assigned problem sets. If she remained focused for the full hour, and we completed the lesson early, we would get to play a game together. I then spent weekends with my friends enjoying the low-key nightlife the town offered. I shared many jokes in Darryl’s restaurant and learned the skill and flare necessary to play dominoes on a rickety table from a group of fishermen in Chicken Bar. In retrospect, I spent half of my semester methodically studying the long-time degradation of a marine ecosystem and the other half enjoying experiences with newly-gained friends in the village.   Now let’s revisit my question of how to show the community that the surrounding ecosystem was collapsing. Should I go into town and tell the guys at the fishing docks that they should not fish anymore and therefore not support their families? Or, should I go to the school and explain to Cassandra that her father is destroying the coral reefs? This struggle taught me the most important lesson I gained in college: Conservation is not just about collecting and presenting hard scientific facts, but it is a complex issue that must include consideration of the local community, especially if you seek to develop long-lasting management plans.            Interestingly, this is not a new idea. In the 1980s and 90s the conservation movement saw a shift from ”fortress conservation” to a strategy that more actively involved the community. Fortress conservationists believed that creating protected areas to keep human disturbance to a minimum was the best way to safeguard wildlife. This shift in philosophies led conservationists to involve surrounding communities in decision-making and implementation of management plans. Community-base[...]

Brave New World (or why you should support your local trekking camp)

Thu, 12 Sep 2013 04:25:00 GMT

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe have seen a future for captive elephants in Thailand, at least the foreseeable future (I reckon that to be about 5 years) and I’m here to tell you that, unless we do something constructive, it is bleak. The future, I believe, of the captive Thai elephant is to spend ten/twelve hours a day walking in a circle with three people on her back, without rest, without good fodder, without jungle time.  The future is to emulate a machine. The reason for this is not, I believe, cruelty, the reason is ignorance.  Ignorance on the part of some new camp owners who have no idea about elephants, ignorance on the part of the guests who know nothing about elephants but want the experience of sitting on one as, as yet, they have no idea there are other ways to get close and, yes, ever forgiving no matter how many times they prove me wrong, ignorance on the part of the mahouts who have never actually worked, & I mean really worked, liked the old days in the forest or in the logging yards, their elephants so really don’t have an idea how much, or how little, elephants can stand. The old style trekking camps are not, were never, like this. So what has changed?  Well, exactly what we said would change.  Thailand has suddenly been discovered as a tourist destination by our very large, very populous neighbour to the North: China. Every tourism operator worth the title businessman is configuring his business to welcome Chinese guests.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a great thing for Thailand and for the globe, for wildlife in general – “the Chinese” are so often demonised as the cause of all wildlife and ecological ills, I’ve pointed out in these pages and on the web how I’ve not found this to be true in travels to my little part of that massive country, that the chance to actually engage guests that have traveled down the river to join us and explain our points of view have been enlightening and have fallen on fertile ground – despite what many would have you believe wildlife conservation is not an unknown concept in China and most of the folks I’ve had the pleasure of talking to have been keen to learn more, the wild elephants in Xishuangbanna & Pu’er are far more tolerated when they visit a village than they are in some other parts of Asia. What does every guest, from wherever in the world, want to do when they come to Thailand? (well, yes, that too, oh, yes, and that as well – Thailand is popular for many reasons) but also ride an elephant.  It is kind of one of our trademarks. I’ve told you before that riding an elephant, an elephant trek in the saddle, is not an inherently bad thing – anyone who tells you it is is either projecting their dislike (which I share) of having captive beasts onto your decision making (while ignoring the history involved and the fact that, until a month ago, an unridden elephant was an unfed elephant) or trying to push their own business agenda. My point is that, when you welcome even .0001% of the Chinese traveling population to Thailand you are welcoming a lot of people, I’m not sure of the figures but as I travel around Bang[...]

Might makes right (unless you're in musth)

Thu, 22 Aug 2013 05:31:00 GMT

I’ve heard a lot of excuses for not showing up to an experiment, but today has to be the first time “I’m in a hormonal rage” has ever made the list. Somjai, one of the newest and largest members of the GTAEF family, is a magnificent bull elephant in his early twenties. He’s currently a research superstar: easy to train, quick to understand the task, and delicate with our equipment, leaving behind only copious amounts of snot where other elephants have laid down a trail of broken hinges and battered bars. This mild-mannered gentleman makes it easy to forget that bull elephants can be extremely dangerous to work with, especially when they enter their annual state of musth. Somjai Photo credit: Elise Gilchrist Pronounced with a silent h (and a healthy amount of respect), musth is a periodic condition unique to male elephants, lasting anywhere from a few weeks to several months and characterized by aggressive behavior and a spike in reproductive hormones. Physical signs of musth include drastic swelling of the temporal glands (small holes located between the ear and the eye on the elephant’s head) which begin to leak a pungent, oily liquid. Some hypothesize that this free-flowing ooze, containing temporin, travels all the way to the elephant’s mouth and that the taste of their secretions is part of what drives the bulls’ heightened sense of agitation. Even more attractively, a bull’s genitals begin to leak urine almost constantly, eventually giving the penis a greenish tinge. Though not exclusive to musth, anorexia, dehydration and drowsiness can also commonly occur during this time. Leaking temporal gland of a bull in musthvia Wikimedia Commons Behaviorally, a bull in musth is unpredictable, irritable, and highly aggressive, posing a danger to any human, elephant, or unfortunately placed object they come into contact with. Testosterone production skyrockets, and some estimates place hormone levels at 60 times their normal amount! Males in musth also produce special musth rumbles, which are louder, lower, and much more guttural than a typical greeting rumble. Though males show increased signs of virility during this state, as well as increased investigation of females’ reproductive state, musth is not necessary for conception; males successfully impregnate females when not in musth, casting some doubt on the theory that the condition is entirely sexual in nature. Scientists are still unsure of what triggers musth, though some evidence exists that the presence of females can encourage its manifestation. Older males have also been shown to inhibit musth in males who are just maturing, or at least curb some of their more aggressive impulses. The onset of musth is typically earlier in captive males than those in the wild. A teenage bull’s first musth is usually his shortest, and the temporal gland secretions smell sweet like honey, which is thought to signify their status as non-threatening to older, larger males. As the male matures, his periods of musth lengthen and become more regular, so that by the time a bull is in his thirties, his musth is occurring around the same time each y[...]

The Advice They Seem To Take

Thu, 22 Aug 2013 05:23:00 GMT

Brothers (and sisters, for I know it is you who control the purse strings)!   Remember the old days when an elephant, having served you well, been a friend, companion and your means of income, reached that age when she could no longer work?  The bitter sweet moment when you turned and let her into the forest, knowing perhaps that you’d rarely see her again but that she’d be happy there fending for herself. Remember the old days when we had forest, before we carried it all away and sold to Buddha-knows-who? An old elephant was not a thing for profit, but not a financial burden. Remember when times changed, when the forest was no longer there, it was a lucky  one of us (& yes, by that time I was one of us) had access to forest for our elephants to live in, retirement became a burden - an elephant must be fed, housed and watered long past the time she could help fill the purses. But then the Government was there for us, they’d take in your elephant, even give you a Government job as her mahout to care for her as she lived out her days, not wild, but in their forests and plantations. True, sustainable help, Brothers, when she finally did pass away the Government job was still there and there were other elephants to care for, your elephant knowledge made use of to help all the elephant communities. But some of us were proud, some of us stayed at home, our aging elephant living in a rice field, perhaps undernourished but living off household scraps - it is our tradition, we don’t abandon our Grandparents and put them in some Government home, there is no-one to help us in this but it is who we are and our sons are earning the money now, in tourist operations and begging on the streets.   We all deserve a retirement. I’m here to tell you now our worries are over!  If she has any strength left at all sign her up for a tourist trekking camp, yes it will hurt you if you care for your elephant, but times aren’t what they were, we all have debts to pay now - our cars, our bikes, our mobile phones, that land that your Uncle bought to grow rubber, foolish bloody Uncle, money in seven years time, we need money now, a mahout can’t eat elephant shit as they used to say - bring her out of retirement! Wait, listen, hear me out, it doesn’t need to be one of those 10hr a day straight work camps - though, if she can do it why not? the money’s good - if you choose the right camp it will be one or two hours a day at most.  The owner will pay you, he doesn’t know an old elephant from a young one, a fit from an ill one, you may have to lie about her age but I doubt it. What’s that?  Sounds like hell?  We both deserve a retirement, we’ve both put in our time, how will she handle it? - well there’s a risk, I grant you, it’s tough and it may take time to work, but think of the household income, how much you could use that, and yes, if it takes too long your elephant may die but wait for me to finish my story, on balance I think it’s worth the risk. If you follow my instructions above (and I give you this advice for free, I get nothing[...]

Introducing the Think Elephants International new Research Assistant (rather, getting them to introduce themselves)

Sun, 30 Jun 2013 01:13:00 GMT

...the Research Assistants at Think Elephants International play an important role in helping our sister charity push forward global understanding of elephant character and intelligence in a manner that is publishable and acceptable to international peer reviewed Scientific journal - our motto here becomes: if they won't publish it you didn't see it. First Elise: Elephant "Tails" vs. Truths            When I was offered a position as a research assistant for Think Elephants International I was an elephant newbie. I had never seen an elephant in person and certainly had never thought that I would be qualified to study such a high profile, charismatic species. This seeded a number of preconceived notions in my mind about what elephants were like. I can say that after being in the Golden Triangle working with the elephants for over a week, everything I expected about these animals was wrong.            The first of these preconceived misconceptions stems from my background with horses and hoof-induced broken toes. I was very concerned when I first came in contact with the elephants that they would step on my feet and that it was really a poor choice by my colleagues to sport flip flops around. As it turns out elephants are incredibly self-aware and have very thoughtful control over their body parts. I watched over and over as one carefully placed her foot within inches of an exposed set of toes but never delivering what could be a crushing blow.            To put my next preconceived notion bluntly, I expected the elephants to smell horrific. I have experience in horse barns and zoos and often times have been confronted by foul animal odors. Again I was proven wrong! Now I am not suggesting that anyone get up close and personal with elephant dung but I was amazed by the pleasant earthy smell that accompanies these creatures. Because elephants only absorb about 40% of what they eat most of what comes out the other end is the same plant matter that went in. Regardless this was one of the most pleasant surprises I had in my first week here.            When I arrived I had a very firm belief that there was no way that a full-grown elephant would ever be able to sneak up on me. These animals are huge and in my mind that equated to huge sounds warning me of their arrival. As it turns out elephants have a thick padding of fat around their feet that makes them almost silent (when they aren’t busy pulling down trees or trumpeting to one another). On one of my first days watching the elephants bathe in the river, I was busy snapping photos of the joyful aquatic play when I felt a hot breeze across my head. I turn around shocked to find a full-grown female standing inches away from me questioning why I was acting as a barrier between her and her afternoon swim. This was a startling but still fascinating lesson to learn about elephants.            I also assumed that the el[...]

Failing the Cycads (John’s simplistic theory on global warming)

Sun, 19 May 2013 04:38:00 GMT

Last year sometime in the spring I had something to do in Lampang, this often happens, there are a lot of elephants there.  On the way home the road climbs out of the Lampang valley and passes through the mountains before dropping down through Pang La & Ngao.  Travelling through the rice valleys separated by mountains of Northern Thailand it is easy to see how these places evolved to be city states in the days before modern transportation. Right before the pass there’s a stand of old teak trees on the edge of a forested area, stalls by the side of the road selling jungle plants - and bear in mind, Dr Richard, this was before I’d spent time at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens and worked out I’d committed a sin - so, having just built a house and missing my family, I bought a palm and some jungle bananas as a gift. You’d think, given the amount of time I spend thinking about not buying wild animals caught from the forest I wouldn’t have done this, but, well, I did - sorry - please don't do it yourselves, forest plants are happier in the forest where they belong, being part of a complex ecosystem rather than a garden. We bought him home, called him Percy and planted him, whereupon he promptly died - being a cycad not a palm and not liking unshaded sun one bit. Imagine our joy when, a couple of months into the rainy season, he sprouted again and provided a perfect circle of green frondy things, we looked forward to living with him outside our door, each year growing a tad taller and providing, therefore, a larger cylinder of shade. Percy helped me coalesce this theory, something that has been sitting in the back of my brain for years, ever since people started talking about global warming - now, I understand carbon sequestration and all the remote stuff that happens in the atmosphere a little (but not too much) but at a ground level, how can the world not be getting warmer?  There are more of us generating heat, burning stuff to get around or to keep warm, even the tricks we’ve learned to keep cool - air conditioning, fridges, ice in beer etc. - are only really about taking heat energy and moving it somewhere as far away from us as we can manage (generating still more heat in the process). With all this extra heat around, how can it not be getting hotter? Heat’s a lot on our minds at the moment, despite the odd sprinkle I think it’s fair to say the wet season’s two months late and the hot season has extended - it’s hot - luckily for the eles it’s raining in China so the dams are open and the Mekong’s higher than our own rain would allow - this backs up into the Ruak and we have water to play with. This theory, though pertinent now, has been bubbling around for longer than that.  I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time in and around Asia’s larger forests, Chitwan, Kui Buri, Keang Krachan and the Cardamoms and, while it’s fair to say that I’ve sweated horribly in all of them, sometimes cursed & sometimes relished (cold winter, afternoon Land Rover safari[...]

Dwelling on the Downsides of Dogmatism (part two where we ponder a true downside)

Thu, 09 May 2013 01:16:00 GMT

This week two of our success stories took another, decidedly (from our point of view) less successful, turn.  Two of your favourite elephants, Jenny & Meena, have left us -  the decision of their owner and mahout Lung Lun. Meena I met on Soi Cowboy, one year old and begging in the heart of Bangkok’s red light district (I was there looking for eles - honest) and Jenny, well I’ve outlined her remarkable story before in these pages - back in 2007 I called it a long story with a happy ending.   Given that they were such successes & successful elephants (a slip or two aside) we are of course unhappy to see them go. Personal feelings aside we need to know what would cause a mahouting family to leave and take their elephants with them.  In part one we explored the non-buying dogma and found it good, but that only means that if we want to help elephants we have to ensure mahouts and owners get what they need from being here, it is easy for a monied up camp to buy an elephant and have complete control but, as we have seen, buying an elephant only makes life worse for at least one other elephant. If you want to make life better for elephants in general NEVER take part in the purchase of an elephant in the singular. Why do we think Lung Lun left?  At first he told us he was off to Pattaya because you can earn 60,000 baht a month down there.  Diligent as we are we went and had a look, we came back and admitted to him, yes, he could make that down there because there’s a new tourist market, as yet un-touched by the niceties of elephant welfare (or the extreme screams of the animal rights lobby), that is bigger than any of us can imagine and suddenly wants to ride elephants. We did our sums, yes, we said, you can make 60,000 baht a month but you & your elephant have to work 10 hours a day (we saw mahouts eating lunch on their elephants!) and find all the other life’s expenses for you and your elephant that we provide here free of charge.  Still, he argued, even with the ‘extras’ we offer 60,000 is better than he currently gets.  10 hours a day constant work?  That’s not good for human or elephant, you factor in that if you fall behind and can’t make it then well, you don’t get paid more than 9,000 baht a month from which you still have to find food, fodder, accommodation ๆลๆ, &c, etc. “Never mind, my elephants are young and fit, they won’t get ill” says Lun & our hearts break a little (& we’re a little stunned, even permit ourselves a smile at the idea of his son, Dechduang, for so long the camp’s lovable rogue - well, if Lun was not the camp’s lovable rogue - putting in a ten hour day himself; let’s say lazier, lovable rogue) but we’re conservationists, scientists even, cold hearted and looking at the bigger picture, we cannot be about one or two elephants, we have to be about the 25 who stay behind and trust us and all the others out there that need us. No-one can predict the future bu[...]

Understanding Our Point: Can we convince middle school students of the positive impact they can have on elephant conservation?

Fri, 26 Apr 2013 00:42:00 GMT

Just four days ago, PLOS ONE published Think Elephants International’s most recent study entitled “Visual Cues Given by Humans Are Not Sufficient for Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) to Find Hidden Food.”For humans and elephants alike, there is more to this study than meets the eye. Let’s start first with the elephants and take a look at what the task entailed for these enormous research subjects. The experimental design is straightforward. Present two buckets—one baited and one empty—to an elephant. Give the elephant a visual cue as to which of the two buckets is baited by pointing at it. Then, simply let the elephant make a choice between the two. If she chooses the baited bucket, then she gets to eat the food reward within. Study drawings by A. Hennessy Dogs excel at this task.One likely explanation for this is that dogs have been domesticated. In short, over thousands of years, we have selectively bred dogs that can read human social cues. In each generation, dogs exhibiting preferable behavior were bred while dogs that didn't exhibit such behavior were not. Thus, the dog population has been artificially shaped through domestication. The domestication hypothesis stands as a potential explanation for why dogs are so good at understanding our arbitrary pointing cue. This hypothesis fails to explain why certain non-domesticated animals (dolphins, South African fur seals, and several bird species) have also succeeded in following the pointing cue. A factor to consider here is that, while they have not been domesticated, many of these animals have had daily experience with humans. Captive elephants are exposed to humans on a daily basis too—indeed, they live in near constant contact with their mahouts—but surprisingly, the elephants did not succeed in this task. While the results underline the elephant’s inability to understand our pointing gesture, it remains unclear whether this inability is a product of the elephant never having been domesticated or whether the results remark more strongly on the elephant’s sensory perception and perhaps secondary sense of sight. In order to interpret what a cue means you must first and foremost be able to see it. So, how exactly does this research impact conservation? Dr. Plotnik, TEI founder and CEO, explains, “If elephants are not primarily using sight to navigate their natural environment, human-elephant conflict mitigation techniques must consider what elephants' main sensory modalities are and how elephants think so that they might be attracted or deterred effectively as a situation requires.” Conflict between humans and Asian elephants over land is a huge problem. We need to know which senses elephants use to receive different information so that we can relay information to them effectively. By delivering appropriate signals, we can contain these incredibly powerful and intelligent animals within predetermined spaces, where they will be safe from humans and humans will be safe[...]

Dwelling on the Downsides of Dogmatism (blog one of three where we find an upside)

Wed, 20 Mar 2013 08:36:00 GMT

I’m a bit of a traditionalist, may even have considered myself a conservative if that were not now a political label and a club requiring vast riches to enter; I tend to believe that if things have been one way for a long while then there must be a good reason for it and that they’re probably better off being left alone. I guess that could just be an excuse for being lazy.  ...and anyway, as my more worldly-wise friends back in University replied, if everyone thought like that we’d still have slavery and there’d be no women or poor people voting (& you wouldn’t be allowed into University). In the following twenty odd years I may have matured a little, I like to think that one thing that sets our little camp and charity apart from the others is our ability to learn from our mistakes, stray from any initial dogma and admit where we went wrong. However, I’m still a traditionalist in as much as, I feel that if we’re going to stray from the way things have always been done not only ought we have a good reason but we also ought to sit down first with everyone involved and work out the pro’s and con’s with our new idea - mostly we already have dreamt of the pro’s as that’s what we do, are there to be con’s and what are they?  Can we live with them? This has come into focus over the last month or so and I’ll give a few examples that blundered into our lives to welcome 2013, being a hazy sort of chap I cannot remember the exact chronological order and since they don’t involve our camp, just our moral judgement, I won’t name names so a little chronological haziness may be a good thing.   This is supposed to be an (elephant) management training session and not a message to anyone in particular. Firstly, speeding down the superhighway in Chiang Rai town, I spotted an elephant begging by the side of the road - a double-take ensued as we haven’t seen that for a long while - but the anchors were firmly pressed and the big blue mahout mobile came to a screeching halt on the hard shoulder. I got talking to the mahout, my persona as an innocent stranger, and eventually gave him my card and he said ‘Ahhh Mister John’ - for indeed I am famous - in fact, it turns out that the six year old bull elephant standing before me belonged to the same guy we bought Tawan and Puang Phet off errrr.... six years ago. Now I’ve already told you how we learned from that mistake, ad nauseam, in these pages so I won’t go there again.  Turns out the owner and his cabal are back in the area, travelling around Thailand in their truck, with four or five young elephants, out on the streets and begging - in the old style we thought we’d seen beaten by the Government crackdown of a couple of years ago. Worse still (as we found out in our very own Golden Triangle village) they have at least three babies under one year old with them - the very worst of worst practice - hopefully captive bred but no way[...]

A message from the Elephant Tooth Fairies.

Sat, 09 Feb 2013 01:15:00 GMT

Dear President and board members of the Tooth Fairy & Mouse Corporation, (Inc.) [1] We, the Asian and African Elephant Tooth Fairies - along with our colleagues the Asian and African Elephant Tooth Mice - hereby notify the president and members of the board of the Tooth Fairy & Mouse Corporation (Inc.) of our desire to get better working conditions.  Indeed, work hours, hourly salaries and benefits are currently based on the Human Tooth Fairy and Mouse duties and responsibilities. We will expose hereafter why we believe this situation is unfair.  The Human Tooth Fairy & Mouse claim they have the most important job of all since children have 28 teeth that need collecting. However, please consider that while humans have only two sets of teeth during their lifetimes, elephants have six of them.  Consequently, we have to preside to the teeth replacement five times in one elephant's life. You may therefore understand how important our workload is - not to mention how much money we have to spend.  Some of our colleagues in the Human department have argued that our claims are pointless since elephants only have six teeth at any given time:two tusks and four molars, one on each side of each jaw. This is actually true, but incomplete, given the six sets situation (six sets of 4 teeth, plus the tusks, equals 26 teeth that we have to look after). Also, four molars maybe, but what molars!! The size of a brick and let's not even mention the weight. Actually let’s talk about it: up to 11 pounds for the African elephant! Imagine how ill prepared we are, with our little wings and our little legs, to transport such massive chewing instruments!  Our friends and colleagues the Elephant Tooth Mice wanted to address a crucial point. As you are well aware, their ultimate goal is to please their Queen by building her a palace entirely made of shiny, sparkling teeth collected all over the world. Teeth are therefore a serious matter for them as they represent their basic construction material.  Unfortunately, elephants have been proven to be a poor source of quality supply. In children and many other mammals, the new tooth grows vertically, which means the old one falls intact. In pachyderms, teeth grow horizontally: they emerge at the back of the mouth and then slowly make their way up to the front, similar to a conveyor belt. [2] In the process the old tooth is pushed out and destroyed by its young rival. It often breaks down in many pieces and sometimes is swallowed by the elephant. In these conditions, we hope you realize what a loss it represents for the Tooth Mice and how hard it is for them to reach their monthly quota of goods to deliver to the Queen's Palace.We would like to highlight the emotional and moral distress we have to go through during our lives with our gentle jumbos. For our colleagues dealing with human beings, swapping the milk tooth for a coin is a joyful moment, a rite of passage[...]

Why Four Hours is a Long Time to spend in a Thai Tree.

Sat, 09 Feb 2013 00:52:00 GMT

Did you spot it?  Were you paying attention? I’ve bored you before on our use of words and verbose attempts at accuracy in these missives, my mission to leave no hanging questions, no matter how trivial and how damaging to the flow of the (so called) story. The last missive about the fantastic Elephant Count 7 in Kui Buri National Park and our small projects there aiming to help the Wild Elephant Lover’s Club, the Royal Project and the National Parks Department keep elephants in the forest and keep them comfortable there was fairly peppered with ‘should have been’s, ‘at least xxxx-wise’s.   There’s a reason for this: during our four hours in a tree with poor, long suffering, other-John I got up to more than conversing with friendly miniature bees, I got to pondering and that’s always dangerous. I got to pondering why four hours was a long time in a tree, when ten years ago I remember (fondly) it not being - the first thought was age, ten years does a lot to a body, joints creak and muscles tighten where once they didn’t a belly distends and rumbles where once it didn’t.  But part of our contribution to the count went toward building five star platforms (& though the ‘in platform travelling bar’ cooked up the previous night was unceremoniously cancelled by cooler, more serious, heads - how can you count when seeing double?) and it was, indeed, a comfortable tree to sit in - just the right amount of spring in the boards. Ten years ago I was somewhere else, ten years ago I was in a bit of forest that, although being encroached in recent years, had never been farmland, had never been exploited by humans on even a cottage, let alone industrial farming, scale.   Ten years ago my trees were in the then Royal (but still Regal) Chitwan National Park, Nepal.   So what was the difference?  If we rule out the body and accept that, with the onset of dementia, my attention span decreases and my mind wonders more easily, why did I find myself waiting for something to happen when I don’t recall waiting for something to happen back then? The answer dawned on me: ornithology. I’m not a twitcher, I’m not even a very good or dedicated bird spotter, I just find them interesting and often beautiful to watch.  What does an egret get up to when it thinks no-one is watching? It dawned on me that, in Chitwan, instead of waiting for something to happen I’d just focus my binoculars on one of the 800-something species of birds, four species of deer (at least two of which were always in view) or one of the thousand odd rhinos that lived with us. We never seemed to be waiting for something to happen because, well, if you’re interested in the little stuff there was always something happening. ...and that’s when I got to pondering, a similar question that hit me on the Cambodian recce, I got to pondering why?  The charismatic megafa[...]

Err... One (My meagre participation in the Elephant Counting Week 7 - Kui Buri Royal Project & National Park).

Mon, 24 Dec 2012 05:55:00 GMT

Four hours is a long time to spend up a tree with a person named John, ask the other John that stayed in the tree with me he’ll tell you the same - actually, that’s an unfair statement (to the other John & other Johns in general) four hours is a long time to spend up a tree with anyone when conversation needs to be kept to a minimum and the thing you are waiting for is late arriving. For the other John & I were taking part in the 7th Annual version of the Wild Elephant Count in Kui Buri Royal Project Area and silence was of the essence if were to count an ele or two.  Though it seems to be at the lower wavelengths eles have famously good hearing (at the briefing we were also told not to wear overpowering perfume (at which point I snuck quietly to the shower) or wear garish clothes - jungle behaviour 101 (whatever that means?  Where I come from 101 is either a room where unspeakable things happen or a particularly cool sort of Land Rover)). I’ve mentioned before my love for this project and what a great place it is to see wild elephants, my count this time was not as good as my last glorious afternoon but seeing seven elephants and one gaur over the stretch of two afternoons in relative comfort is still far better, charismatic megafauna wise at least, than anything else you’ll count anywhere else in Thailand. Several were sighted from my car so, had I chosen, they could have been air-conditioned sightings: observing eles while relaxing to the strains of Mozart, but they weren’t because I drive with my windows down & my stereo off when in the jungle (&, if I’m honest, the stereo very rarely strains to Mozart but you get the picture). But the object of the exercise was not to increase my personal tally of wild elephants it was to, one way or another, come up with an estimate of how many elephants there are in the area - done by spreading volunteers from all walks of life (but mostly Thai University teachers and their students, all studying a variety of conservation or veterinary degrees, a few National Park and NGO workers on a busman’s holiday) with an amazing variety of cameras and lenses at strategic points throughout the area and take photographs of every elephant they see over a seven day period. Being a busy business man I only got to stay for one official counting day & we counted one official elephant who turned up at our tree in the last five minutes of our afternoon’s stretch, just as the sun was setting and everything should have been going quiet, as with all wildlife sightings when they’re hard to come by (& harder to hold) the elation of seeing our handsome musth bull (named กั่นกาน and in the database since 2006) was all the greater for having spent four hours in a tree and having had the ignominy drawing a blank hanging over us. We saw him a mile off, moving through the scrub, wending his way up an old farming[...]

What Is Dr. Seuss Teaching Our Kids About Elephants? Revisiting the classic children’s book: Horton Hatches the Egg

Tue, 18 Dec 2012 00:59:00 GMT

If you remember anything from this story, it’s the line:“I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful 100%.” If that doesn’t even ring a bell, then watch this Merrie Melodies cartoon adaptation as a refresher: Apart from the unnecessarily suicidal fish that is undoubtedly a Warner Brothers’ contribution, the video is (fairly) faithful to the book 93%. Where HHTE fails: The idea that an elephant and a bird could produce a hybrid offspring simply by the former brooding the latter’s egg (even if for an exorbitantly long 51 week incubation period), is absolutely ludicrous. This is nearly grounds for revoking Dr. Seuss’ PhD entirely and referring to him instead as Mr. Geisel. But, apart from simply pointing out the scientific blunder, I won’t touch this issue with a thirty-nine and a half foot pole. HHTE is, first and foremost, a wildly imaginative children’s book, so the aforementioned pole is of far greater utility suspending my disbelief.(Luckily, the world’s disbelief that elephants can suspend themselves in mid-air would not again require suspension for almost an entire year. Three hundred and sixty days later, a contemporary of Dr. Seuss’ named Walt Disney would reinforce this image of flying elephants being delivered by birds.) Where HHTE succeeds: The topic of elephants in the circus deserves its own post entirely, so I won’t delve into that here, but certainly the general idea of wild elephant capture is worth expanding.  The depiction of humans in HHTE does not reflect favorably upon our species. Driven by a monetary greed, the only thing that stops the hunters from killing Horton is the realization that they might be able to turn a larger profit with Horton alive. In this fictional case, because the humans realize that there is a market for elephants hatching eggs, all of a sudden the value they place in Horton’s life skyrockets. When the use of captive elephants as beasts of burden for the logging industry came to an abrupt halt with a ban in 1990, elephant tourism filled the void and gave the captive population a new job. In this factual case, because elephant traders realized that the market for captive elephants had changed, all of a sudden the baby elephant that was incapable of carrying a log yesterday is more valuable than the strongest bull elephant today. In Thailand, elephants have lived in captivity for thousands of years; this reality is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Authorities on the matter speculate that the captive population is roughly equivalent to the wild population remaining within the country, with both figures floating in the 2,000 range. If you want to make a genuine contribution to elephant conservation, you have to try and see the big picture. You have to th[...]

Interview with an (ex)-Elephant Hunter (Not a Holiday in Cambodia)

Fri, 30 Nov 2012 01:20:00 GMT

It was, as these things often are, a secret mission: Travel to a foreign country for an un-named hand, take a bit of a look around, see the lay of the land. As you can guess, the mission, for them to send me, was of a nature base and may involve conservation and elephants (it may even involve me asking you for money), you also know that my days of muddy boots and parasites have been hiding in my past as I pilot this desk from 6-4 everyday before riding home via 7-11 to decide which hotel restaurant to dine in on any given evening, which vintage of Champagne to have the butler open.   So when the jungle telegraph delivered the self destructing message and it became clear I’d actually have to walk some distance carrying my own gear and camp in the jungle (without the normal retinue) I became quite worried. Not since tiger days, way back in Nepal, waking up, breathless, to the sounds of rhinos grazing between the tents; chick-pea curry and burning my fingers on handle-less coffee glasses for breakfast; breathtaking cold-current river ablutions and all the rest have I done some serious jungle camping (& then, in truth, it wasn’t really - as here, there were guys who knew how to sharpen khukris and light fires to take care of me), a tough-walking mission with some tiger PhD’s in Keang Krachan 10 years ago - running from equally startled elephant herds - and a small amble in Laos with elephants, a nascent tourist activity so pre-softened at the edges, and that’s about it since I landed in the Land of Smiles. Still, the boy still likes to think he’s tough and the mission is important, the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia are among the (if not the) largest area of uninhabited, standing forest left in Asia, flying over them in a helicopter (see what I mean about travelling soft nowadays?) you fly over a carpet of green imagined only in the Amazon or in Africa but, incredibly enough, standing right on our doorstep.  The forest itself is protected by various agencies and the area I was to look at is looked after by the Cambodian Ministry of Environment with help from an heroic N.G.O. - Wildlife Alliance. It is fair to say that Cambodia’s been through some stuff, of all the people in South East Asia (& this is saying something) the people there may well have been the most knocked about in the past five decades and most grew up in an era when survival meant just that, surviving, often while hiding in the jungle to avoid the idealists on both sides, taking what you can.  A time when making a buck where you can by selling some meat could mean the difference between your family eating or starving.   Once the political need to hide disappears village life can resume, a tree here & there has always been taken for housing and done no harm, a rich man will always pay for someone else to cut down another few trees & buil[...]

A day at Think Elephants International.

Wed, 21 Nov 2012 00:04:00 GMT

My name is Elsa and I’m the most recent addition to the TEI research team. When I bragged about told my friends I would come to Thailand to do research cognition/conservation work on elephants, their first question was “but what would you do exactly?” [1]   I tried to hide the fact I didn’t have much of a clue myself by speaking about “doing experiments with the elephants, you know, like the ones with chimpanzees, but also educating the kids about how much these animals are endangered, hmmm, you see?” And so, they kept asking. After a month and a half of being stationed in Golden Triangle, Thailand and working with three amazing people, I feel I can now give a better answer to this question. For any of you flirting with the idea of becoming a research assistant one day, here is a glimpse of how a “typical day” looks at Think Elephants International. If you ever thought this job would entail being a sort of Indiana-Jones-style scientist, fighting in the jungle by day and kissing slender creatures by night, stand still while I give you a dose of reality. 6.30am-7.10am: We wake up, sometimes with deep astonishment regarding one’s ability to sleep through a level 5 alarm clock ringtone.  Sometime around 7.30am: We go to the research site, about 2-3km away. While Lydia has a motorbike, Rachel and I cycle. See “tropical rain” but also “breathtaking scenery” and “yay, exercise”. 8am: After having set up the apparatuses, we start testing our first elephant of the day. We generally test about 2 or 3 every morning, for about 30min each. Since they are also involved in tourist activities later in the morning, we have limited access to them.  If you want to have an idea of how cognitive experiments with animals work, have a look here or here. Basically, researchers come up with a Big Question such as: do Eurasian Jays understand the physics behind water displacement? Big Questions are always fascinating, but very hard to test. What you need is a Testable Question, for example: would a Eurasian Jays choose stones rather than pieces of cork to make the water rise in a tube? Slightly less sexy, I know. The point though, is that we can record the answers to this question.  We then have an idea – after many painful statistical tests – of how well the animals did on this particular task, which hopefully give you some clues about how to answer the Big Question. It’s not that simple though. Two principles are really important in science: control tests - tests you run to be sure the results you obtain are not due to trivial biases - and repetition. Don’t trust BBC documentaries: doing an experiment actually requires running (many) control tests (many ti[...]

What do you mean by that? (Elephant Communication Part II)

Mon, 05 Nov 2012 03:12:00 GMT

Last time I considered the vast distances over which elephants communicate and the incredible means by which they achieve this. This time I want to think about more close range communication which is a different, but equally important, mode of maintaining an elaborate hierarchical society.  Humans use an extensive array of facial expressions during face-to-face interactions which elephants obviously can’t do (although sometimes I like to imagine them rolling their eyes at us when we present them with yet another impossible control test!). But the lack of expressive facial muscles doesn’t mean they can’t convey as much emotion. Close range behaviors include vocalizations, body postures and trunk movements. So along with the infra-sonic rumbles, elephants produce a number of sounds audible to us. To name a few, these include roars, trumpets, and cries and only in Asian elephants; chirps and trunk bounces. Different vocalization-gesture combinations can mean different things depending on the context.      Gestures can also be tactile between two elephants For example, an erect tail, ears straight out and a roar indicate a very upset or angry elephant, whereas these same gestures in combination with a baby squeal suggest an excited elephant looking to play.  This is not only interesting from the perspective of how elephants communicate and what they’re going on about when they do, but it raises points on the evolution of language. It is rare in the animal kingdom for communicative messages to be generalized to more than one context. Most animals just have one vocalization or gestures for one meaning. For example, in tandem running ants an experienced ant will show a novice ant where to find food. The inexperienced ant communicates to the other that he is ready to move onto the next part of the journey by tapping on the back its companion with its antennae. This ‘I’m ready’ message is only conveyed in one specific context and so it is unlikely any complex cognition is necessary. However when the same behavior has more than one meaning then the animal must consider its environment, audience and which combinations of behaviors are required to convey the desired message in a given situation.    A lot of trunk behaviors and vocalizations are used during greetings So communication may be yet another example of elephants overlapping with primates in their intelligence. As well as showing amazing feats of organization over long distances, elephants show an extensive and elaborate display of communication during face-to-face (or more importantly for elephants; body-to-body) interactions. From an evolutionary perspective, this further justifies why they are extremely interesting to study.   Rachale Dale is a Research Assis[...]

‎Standards (Schmandards?)

Sun, 21 Oct 2012 03:00:00 GMT

It is tempting to sit back in my gilded office, now with en suite veterinary (errr…. not quite yet) lab, and to know we are the best at what we do. We were the first to offer the ele easy activity of mahout training to a wider audience, no-one else operating as a business employs two vets and no-one else in the world has gathered an on site range of elephant experts: people who have made careers analysing behaviour, analysing mahout traditions, analysing… …well (& in the case of the cortisol stress research and seed dispersal work literally) just being anal about elephants. So we KNOW not only that our elephants and mahouts are cared for in the best manner, we win prizes so we know that we operate well within the tourism industry and our guest comments are the best you can ever hope to receive but, also importantly, mahouts are happy to work with us and there’s a waiting list to join our camp so we know that what we’re doing is seen as sustainable with the traditional crowd who have looked after elephants forever and, whether you like it or not, will look after elephants long after we’re gone. So when the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports set about defining a set of standards for elephant camps (what would be called an ISO in the UK) we were naturally happy to be on the advisory board. But when it comes to actually becoming certified, why would we bother? After all we KNOW we’re on the side of the angels, the standards (because we weren’t the only people invited to join the process) are realistically easier to pass for a ‘traditional’ trekking camp than for us (for instance we lose points for not having a breeding programme, for not having a show ground etc.), so why would we bother? There are also funny things in there, we get fewer points for employing a vet (probably the single most important person in an elephant camp – aside, of course, from the padded bum of the Director of Elephants when he deigns to roll out of bed) than we do for having a Security Guard, we even gain points for ensuring the security guard has a yearly health check but get nothing for ensuring our vets do (even though you’d think the risk of ill health to a vet would be higher – mind you, as you know, our vets are angels and you should see what the guards get up to on a Saturday night). So, of course, it doesn’t apply to us, does it?  Standards are for people who don’t know they’re good. Well apart from that the abject hypocrisy of being on a drafting board and then not succumbing to the process (much like calling for laws to be enforced and then becoming outraged when they are enforced on ourselves) would be too much for my (semi) honest soul to bear there’s a much bigger game at stake. While there [...]

Having a chat from 10km away? Not a problem for an elephant.

Sat, 20 Oct 2012 02:16:00 GMT

Elephants are extremely social and as such spend a lot of time communicating with one another, much like we humans do as a social species. Human communication is mainly verbal although we also use gestures and this very modern thing of writing down our messages to others, even sending them across the world. Elephants may not be able to email or skype across the world (although the YouTube clip below suggests it won’t be long!) but their complexity in communication is quite astounding. Not only do they use a variety of vocalizations, but they also convey information through gestures, touch, chemicals and even seismic vibrations. This time I will focus on how they communicate over long distances. Elephants produce an array of vocalizations with different meanings depending on the context. While elephants can be extremely loud, perhaps the most interesting sounds are the very low frequency rumbles that are below the range of human hearing. These low sounds travel further, allowing elephants to communicate over distances of a number of miles. This YouTube clip is an example of one of these rumbles; it’s barely audible to us so listen carefully. Incredibly, these sounds travel seismically as well as acoustically. It’s not understood exactly how they do it yet but elephants do use this seismic energy to receive and deliver information. This long distance communication often results in mass coordination in the movements of many elephant groups so that they converge in one place or move parallel to each other, but a few miles apart. Before the discovery of these infrasonic calls this incredible coordination was a total mystery to scientists who could not understand how elephants suddenly converged in a place from huge distances, without producing an audible vocalization.  For a far-ranging, but social, animal like an elephant long distance communication is vital. As an elephant you need to know where your family or closely bonded companions are, whether other groups have found water or food and males need to know where to find that rare resource of females that are ready to mate. So it’s not surprising that they rely on more than vocalizations to achieve all this. Elephants have been found to use chemicals and hormones to communicate. By taking some urine into their trunk and transferring it to an organ called the vomeronasal organ above the roof of their mouth they can find out which elephant it came from and what reproductive state they are in by sensing chemicals. Elephants can in fact discriminate between over 100 individuals based on their urine alone. We might be able to use facebook but we sure can’t tell our friends apart from the taste of their pee!    E[...]

Now that's what I call a coffee grinder (Black Ivory coffee helping elephants)

Sun, 02 Sep 2012 03:55:00 GMT

Some years ago, up in North-East India, the harried coffee planters noticed that elephants had started to come out of the ever-decreasing forest, well, they’d been noticing that for many years (elephants outside a forest can be hard to miss) but they noticed something else, the elephants had begun to eat the coffee plants. Originally this was thought to be a pain, damaged crops are what leads to the majority of Human Elephant Conflict around the world, however, these were well informed coffee planters and knew of a gourmet coffee sold from the jungles of Indonesia that has passed through the gut of a civet and fetches a pretty penny. So, before they ran to scold the elephants they took to following them around and picking the beans out of the dung; dreaming of the fortunes that had inadvertently fallen into their laps (or onto their boots) they roasted then brewed the beans. Lo and behold, the coffee tasted exactly as you’d expect something that has passed through an elephant to, it tasted of elephant dung and smelt pretty much the same. While legend has it that the civets eat ONLY the choicest beans elephants, of course eat the choicest beans but they also eat the whole coffee tree and the tree next to that and, you guessed it, the tree next to that one too. The coffee planters reported their findings and went back to trying to keep the elephants in the forest. The idea would have been lost but for a young Canadian coffee wallah working, at the time, in Ethiopia with a community that traditionally kept civets and was researching ways in which the village might work it’s way out of poverty (&, being an animal lover, improve the conditions for their civets) by producing an Ethiopian version of what was then known as the world’s best coffee. However, being an expert on coffee production (in the end, the Ethiopian village didn’t cotton to coffee) he figured that the enzymes in an elephant’s stomach would do the same thing to the coffee that the enzymes in a civet’s stomach (something to do with breaking down proteins that gives the civet coffee a unique smooth taste) and, unlike civets, he knew that there were places in the world where traditional communities of people lived with captive elephants and needed to work themselves out of poverty without working their elephants into the ground. Blake set about becoming an elephant expert. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘cause I thought it too.  What on earth are we going to do with 26 wired elephants (or, on the flip side, like me before the old ristretto each morning, what are we going to do with 26 extremely bad tempered elephants who haven’t had their coffee on the days when there is none).  Well, I learne[...]

Searching for the elephants of Dailand (yes, with a D)

Sat, 11 Aug 2012 06:12:00 GMT

You know you’ve been in a place too long when you start to regret tarmac. When your journey, the one you took ten years ago and have been boring people with ever since, the intrepid four wheel drive trek through kilometers of endless mud, the interminable border crossings with guards who’d never seen a foreign car before, the sections of the trek where the army sought to escort, rocket launchers at the ready, the fear of bandits in the hills, yes, THAT journey. You know you’ve been in one place too long when that journey (or at least the first half of it) can now be done in a day and without getting your tyres muddy and, worse still, there are now direct flights so you don’t even have to talk your cars through the border. But once you accept that part of growing old is to have your stories trumped and finding yourself the boring old hand in the back of the bar grumbling about progress then you have to sneakingly admit that easy access can be a boon.  When just getting to the place alive in time to flop down under an (incongruously pink as I recall) mosquito net, awaking before dawn to check the oil & move on is the mission then there’s no time to discover the place itself. I still have photos of that trip, travelling through Chinese forests (by this time on, albeit tortuous, tarmac) that promise elephants in the hills, “Surely there are no wild elephants in China?” we thought then. As time moved on, of course, I learned otherwise, that there are pockets of eles living in the bits of China close to the Burmese and Laos border - & some surprisingly far into the country - in the far South of Yunnan Province (a place that stretches from Laos to Tibet) in the area the Thais call the land of twelve thousand rice fields. Sipsongpanna. Most famously there is the Wild Elephant Valley, a large tourist attraction where thousands of people a day can come and share an area with wild elephants.  Somewhat skeptical, my heroic guide Robin and I joined the throng, elephants use the area, we saw one captive elephant on a drag chain, grazing freely & hoping (or her owners, or both) to be impregnated.  Lots of other elephant sign but, perhaps unsurprisingly given the tour-group megaphones and the middle-of-the-day, no elephants.  Still there’s good forest and an area flooded with hopeful people may provide attention, money and protection for the adjacent valleys - not necessarily my type of elephant tourism but if 1% of the throng visit and take in the Elephant Museum (explaining elephants, China and elephants in China) at the end of the trek then education will have been achieved. Robin & I used the museum for something quite differen[...]