Citizen science: Now more than ever

By Nick Rice

The curious snuffling of a foraging trunk and the distant muffled crunching of leaves and branches, the hum of busy insects and a cotton-white blanket of morning mist hugging the dense, muggy jungle… these are some of the sensorial memories that drift into my mind when locked inside a small apartment in Barcelona during the confinement that began in March.

Just a few months earlier, the strict lockdown of my four walls was instead a remote Karen Hill Tribe village in the north of Thailand, a 5-hour drive from Chiang Mai. For nine inspiring days I stayed in Naklang, a temporary new member of its population of 450, and worked as a ‘citizen scientist’ for an elephant welfare project established by Biosphere Expeditions – a non-profit and award-winning ethical conservation organisation that celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019.

Citizen science is a relatively new term that describes lay people working alongside scientists to conduct valuable field research with the aim of improving and protecting nature and wildlife around the world.

Biosphere Expeditions has partnered with the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) in Naklang, working together to rescue elephants from the often-punishing reality of elephant tourism camps in Thailand, and re-wilding as many elephants as possible.

Our team for the nine-day expedition is made up of ten people; six citizen scientists from around the globe, who are taught how to observe and collect data by the founder of KSES and their resident scientist, and guided in the field by two Biosphere Expeditions leaders.

We get to study and spend time observing KSES’s semi-wild herd of five elephants; 59-year old Too Meh and her 24-year old daughter Mae Doom, Too-Meh’s grandsons, 14-year old Dodo and the 8-year old tearaway Gen Thong, and their adopted family member, 14-year old Boon Rott.

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By studying semi-wild Asian elephants in safe and natural surroundings, Biosphere Expeditions and KSES can create a rigorous scientific report detailing diet and authentic wild behaviour – the report can then be referred to and presented as a benchmark for the proper treatment and welfare of elephants in Thailand.

Each morning, after an early breakfast and preparing our gear for the day – stopwatches, data sheets, lunch – we hike into the forest, past terraced rice paddies and water buffalo loping in the river, into the general area where the elephant herd is roaming, always within range of their respective mahouts.

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Every elephant has a close bond with their mahout – normally a local man who has known the elephant for years – and this relationship ensures that human/animal conflict is avoided and dangers such as ingesting pesticides from cornfields is mitigated. The elephants live as though they would in the wild, albeit for this human safeguard.

Once the elephants are located in the forest, the expedition team separates into smaller groups and each group collects a different set of data, covering activity, behavioural data and diet. This information will form the basis for scientific reports advising on the correct care of elephants. A concrete example of this is that the data shows that elephants consume up to 248 different types of foliage in the wild. Compare this to a tourist camp diet that may consist solely of bananas or sugar cane and the poor health implications are obvious.

In terms of behaviour, we observed over the course of the expedition how social the elephants are, spending hours of each day together, interacting in a variety of ways. In contrast, some tourist camps work the elephants for long hours and then keep them apart from each other, starving the animals of social attention and comfort.

The partnership between Biosphere Expeditions and KSES couldn’t be more vital as today there are more domestic elephants in Thailand than there are wild elephants, caused by the usual culprit of loss of habitat, combined with the cultural perception of elephants as property.

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Another aspect of the Biosphere Expeditions and KSES project is monitoring general biodiversity and fostering the participation of local people in the protection and conservation of elephants through education initiatives and community-based tourism, which prioritises the development of local communities.

The Karen people, our hosts for the expedition, are unfailingly warm and sociable, opening their homes and inviting us to join them in their daily lives. We learn about and buy examples of their traditional weaving, enjoy their food, absorb a few phrases from their ‘Pakinyaw’ language, and can understand first-hand their intimate relationship with elephants.

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Now the world has changed so dramatically, it throws into stark relief how delicate the balance between humans and nature is. The coronavirus crisis shocked the planet and triggered an unprecedented halt in ‘business as usual’ in the industrialised world. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been the brief respite given to the natural world and its wildlife, with ecosystems all over the world given a chance to recover, at least momentarily.

Biosphere Expeditions have 13 projects running worldwide, ranging from leatherback turtle conservation in Costa Rica to protecting the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan, and never has their work been more vital.

Travel itself will likely change in the aftermath of COVID-19, with many people wanting to contribute towards a more conscious form of tourism. The fragility of our existence and the degradation of the planet is inarguably evident for all to see. Hopefully there will be an increase in travellers supporting community-based tourism and embracing experiences that promote social and economic growth in marginalised regions and which protect and conserve wildlife and the natural environment.

Dr. Matthias Hammer, the Founder and Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions says, “We have spent the last twenty years helping to build the data that improves the chances for wildlife. And we will continue to do this essential work. Without the science underpinning our understanding of the world, we cannot make rational choices in support of its future.”

Taking part in a Biosphere Expeditions project is an unforgettable experience, but if it’s not possible just yet, there is always something you can do to contribute. Biosphere Expeditions have 20 tips on how to be (radically) green, and also a Do More campaign or tips on how to beat the volunteer charlatans. Also check out their 2020 Magazine, which mirrors this new development of more activism and campaigns for our planet.

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