From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

First scientific study completed on free-roaming Asian elephants in northern Thailand

In October 2017, Biosphere Expeditions & Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) ran their very first Asian elephant conservation expedition in collaboration with a Karen hill tribe community in Mae Chaem region in the mountains of northern Thailand. Seven citizen scientists from Canada, Germany, Russia and the US helped gather data, spending a total of 76 hours in the forest with elephants. The goal of the research is to contribute to welfare initiatives in Thailand by collecting data on elephant behaviour in the wild. Almost 3,500 elephants are currently kept in captivity in Thailand, working for their upkeep in tourist camps. “With so many captive elephants in the country, mostly living in inadequate conditions, more research is urgently needed on natural elephant behaviour to provide guidelines to improve their lives”, says Talia Gale, head scientists of KSES. “We were thrilled to be working with Biosphere Expeditions who provided us with the citizen scientists and equipment to study natural elephant behaviours and social relationships. There is much research to be done in order to understand the lives and needs of the Asian elephant better”, Gale continues.

Preliminary results show that the elephants spent over 55% of their time foraging. Between 08:00 to 09:00 and 13:00 to 15:00 their activities varied more, including bathing, drinking and socialising. 98 different plant species were recorded to have been eaten, 70 of which remain to be identified down to genus level. Related elephants spent most of their time together, whereas the unrelated male’s socialising behaviour appears to change seasonally. All results will be published in the expedition report, which is due in April 2018.

KSES is a non-profit organisation, founded in 2016, which works together with local communities to bring elephants home to the forest. Kerri McCrea, co-founder of KSES says that “working together with other organisations is something that, unfortunately in this industry in Thailand, is greatly lacking. We at KSES are always searching for partners to help us with our goals of improving elephant welfare both in Thailand and abroad, and Biosphere Expeditions has been doing just that. Being such a small, new and remote NGO, we lacked the number of helpers needed to progress our research aims, but by having Biosphere Expeditions running an expedition with us, this is the first time that we have been able us to carry out all our surveys”.

A picture selection of the 2017 expedition is below:



From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Yesterday, (Monday) the team agreed that the “cold” season has finally begun, as  jumpers were worn in the morning for the very first time (please note that “cold” means that temperatures have dropped below 22 degrees C ;)). Except for one single morning, it has been sunny and dry, allowing us great surveys in the forest.

We spent five hours with the elephants on Sunday, so including today’s final forest excursion, we’ve managed to complete two full-day surveys of each elephant between 8:00 and 16:00. While each of us followed one elephant to record its behaviour, scientist Talia collected foraging data and collected five new plant samples the elephants fed on that have yet to be identified.

Maria & Kerri went to three of the village homestays in the morning to conduct interviews. Interviews is another activity of the expedition, but since we’ve been so busy with the elephant surveys thus far, we haven’t had the chance yet to include this activity into our schedule. It was good, though, to get the project started of writing up a profile of each homestay family. It’ll provide some basic socio-economic background information. Tawamoh, Jadee and LuJet, the three interviewees, each answered that their biggest concern was that visitors don’t like being at their house or getting sick. Little surprise, then, that we have been spoilt by such great hospitality and friendliness.

Marion and I walked the second biodiversity trail starting from base in the morning, completing our week’s to-do list. We’ve recorded twelve different species (mainly butterflies and dragonflies), took ID pictures, marked survey points in the GPS and logged the track before getting back to base for lunch and then heading off into the forest again.

This expedition’s last encounter with the elephants was quite special. After we found them bathing & drinking at a waterhole, they started wandering off uphill to where we came from leading us straight back to the main path to base. Together with the mahouts we enjoyed another half hour with them close-by but finally had to say good-bye.

As I write this, this year’s expedition is already over. The team left Ban Naklang this morning while Kerri, Thalia and have gone through our de-brief procedure, packed up the equipment and cleaned up our base. The three of us will go into Chiang Mai tomorrow morning.

I would like to say thank you to everyone involved in getting this project off the ground. Thanks to all team members for their contribution and hard work. Your input & help is much appreciated and we from Biosphere Expeditions and KSES will continue our work for the elephant’s welfare and future in Thailand. A big thank you also goes also to the mahouts who kept us safe and the Karen hilltribe village people who made their home ours. It’s been a very special experience and we look forward to returning next year.

Safe travels everyone and I hope we meet again.

All the best,

Expedition leader

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

On Friday our task was to collect data on the biodiversity trail. Maria, Marion, Talia & I enjoyed a beautiful walk along the river, past the village temple and through rice fields that will be harvested soon. The usually small & shallow stream we had to cross on our way was almost knee high with a strong current from heavy rainfall during the early morning hours. When we reached the start point of the transect ,we stopped, set up our GPSs, scanned the surrounding area for wildlife and did so every 50 m at marked points on the 500 m long transect. Findings were photographed and recorded in the datasheet. We arrived back at base in the early afternoon, where Maria enjoyed identifying butterly species from photographs and Marion went of to support the local community by having had a weaving lesson with Mae, on of our friends here in the hill tribe village.

Today (Saturday) it was back to elephant data collection.  We left base at 07:00 and Maria & Kerri had a comparatively easy day with their study objects who did not wander through the forest much. Marion and I, on the other hand, had to follow “our” elephants down to the river, then up into and through very dense vegetation. As if this wasn’t enough of a workout, the elephants foraged almost “on the run”, so we were kept very busy for the entire four survey hours.

While I am writing this Maria & Talia are busy with data entry, while Marion is supporting the community some more by getting a Thai massage from a blind man in the village.

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

We’ve had a few battles here on the inaugural Thailand elephant expedition – with the weather (unseasonal rain), terrain (try walking up a steep hillside after a foraging elephant, especially when it’s slippery from rain), the local language (Karen, which sounds very alien to Indo-European language speakers), guts (some people down with gastro problems; we’re not sure where this came from, but it’s here with a vengeance). So the team has shrunk, but those who could go out enjoyed up-close-and-personal encounters with our study elephants.

It’s Thursday and we’ve just finished our second elephant survey. We observed the elephants for four hours recording data every five minutes. The weather too has been kinder, with temperatures ranging between 24 and 29 degrees C and partly cloudy sky. Keep your fingers crossed that it stays that way!

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From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Everyone has arrived safely at base. Our expedition team consists of Margot & Greg from Canada, Amy and Bridgette from the U.S., Maria from Russia and Maria and Marion from Germany. We started the expedition training today after lunch, with introductions & safety briefings and then went for an orientation walk around the village together. After everyone had moved into their rooms, Kerri gave a presentation about the background of both the elephant & community project she has set up together with her partner Sombat whose family is related to people from the village of Ban Naklang. She told us about the history of the elephants we are going to study, how the homestays help the  community, and how it all fits together.

Before dinner the village elders, a man and a woman dressed in traditional clothes came over to welcome the new guests with a Geeju ceremony, designed to keep bad spirits away. Everyone has white bands around their wrists now. Freshly cooked vegetarian Thai food was then delivered by two (out of several) young local women we have employed for the duration of the expedition – a welcome opportunity & source of extra income for them.

It was Talia’s turn after dinner to explain the background of the research, why we are here, what we will be doing and for what reason. And also, very practically, what data we are supposed to be collecting and how they are to be recorded in the datasheets. This was followed by lots of pictures of elephant behaviour and some elephant ID training.

Tomorrow we’ll spend half the day outside on an orientation walk, followed by more training in the afternoon. We’ll then have to pass a test after dinner before we are allowed to collect data. Wish us luck 😉

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

I arrived at base on Thursday and was warmly welcomed by Kerri & Talia of KSES, our local partner on the ground. The small village of Ban Nakleng, where will be working from and living in over the next couple of weeks is about 180 km West of Chiang Mai, but the car journey takes around five hours. Please be prepared that about one third of the drive will be on narrow and windy mountain roads and the very last bit on gravel road is washed out from rain & bumpy.

Today, Friday, we went out together with the mahouts and some other people for a reccee survey walk. The terrain had to cover to get to the elephants was steep & muddy. Some of you might want to consider bringing rubber boots. You can these at very low cost in Chiang Mai if you wish. During this October it has been raining a lot more than usual at this time of the year (we observe these changes in weather patterns away from what people are used to on all our expeditions around the world) therefore the ground is wet and the forest is green – perfect feeding conditions for the elephants, but a bit more slippery and arduous than usual for us humans.

We have put a day-to-day plan together that includes four hours of staying with the elephants for the whole team each day. We can’t wait to get started and see how it all works out in the field. There are also other options of activities, of course, but it’s all very flexible and we’ll talk you through it all in detail on the ground.

Talia will meet & greet you at the meeting point in Chiang Mai, take over your luggage and put you on a minibus to base. She will do some food shopping on her way back, so your luggage will arrive about an hour or two after you at base, with Talia in another truck. Please make sure you pack accordingly.  Once you arrive at base, you won’t need much as we will have lunch and go straight into introductions & briefings, so you will be busy from the minute you arrive. Kerri & I will be waiting for you at base.

Safe travels & see you on Monday!

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Hello everyone and welcome to the expedition diary of our inaugural Thailand elephant expedition.

My name is Malika, I am an Operations Manager at Biosphere Expeditions and will be your expedition leader on our very first Thailand elephant expedition in collaboration with the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary & Foundation (KSES).

Malika Fettak

Over the last four weeks Kerri (KSES’s manager & co-founder), Talia (KSES’s project assistant and research coordinator), Matthias (Biosphere Expeditions’ founder & executive director) and I have prepared the ground for this expedition. Now the time has come for me to pack up and get ready for the long journey to Chiang Mai. I will be on site a few days ahead of you setting the scene and getting everything ready in the village for when you arrive.

Packing up

I hope your preparations are going well. Here are some important last minute instructions before I head off:

Please be aware that the first anniversary of the previous King of Thailand’s death, and therefore his funeral following local tradition, will be on 26 October. All of Thailand will be in mourning and the king was truly revered. This means that for the next few weeks, when in Chiang Mai or especially Bangkok, everyone should wear black or dark clothes and dress respectfully. It’s not a huge deal when on site, as the local villagers won’t be offended by the colour of clothes (but of course we still must always dress respectfully regardless, as per the dossier).

One of you asked us recently what present she could bring for the host family, if any. Gifts are not compulsory, but if you would like to bring something, then any kind of toys/games for the kids to enjoy will be appreciated, as will be snacks/chocolates or even souvenirs from your home country (which our local hosts enjoy seeing).

That’s it for now. I’ll be in touch again when I’ve arrived at base with pictures, wheather news, etc.

Safe travels and see you soon

Malika Fettak
Expedition leader

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