From 12 – 20 Nov 2018 Biosphere Expeditions & Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) ran their second Asian elephant conservation expedition within a Karen hilltribe community in Mae Chaem region in the mountains of northern Thailand. Eight citizen scientists from Canada, Germany, UK and the US helped gather data and spent a total of 107 hours in the forest following the elephants.
The overall long-term goal of the research is to contribute to welfare initiatives in Thailand by collecting data on elephant behavior in a natural setting. Almost 3,500 elephants are currently kept in captivity working for their survival in tourist camps. The goal of the study is to create an official guideline regulating daily practice and management of captive elephants to ensure the highest degree of welfare standards. Expedition scientist Talia Gale explains that “this year we were thrilled to gather complete datasets on activity budgeting, association and foraging, thanks to the hard working citizen scientists.”
Preliminary results are: 80 hours were spent on recording activity & behaviour, 16 hours looking at social relationships and closeness, and 11 hours on foraging preferences. The elephants spent their time on foraging (64%), followed by walking (12%), standing (7%), scratching and dusting (6%). During six survey days they consumed 32 plant species from 18 different families, with the majority of their diet consisting of two species of bamboo (40%). The data gathered by the expedition by and large corroborate previous studies on wild Asian elephants.
KSES is a non-profit foundation founded in 2016 working together with local communities to bring elephants home to the forest. Kerri McCrea, co-founder of KSES: “What makes our program unique is the very close relationship we have with our local community. The whole village works together to run this project, everyone with their own role whether it’s homestays, driving or looking after us and the elephants in the field, it literally takes a village to get it all done. Thank you to Biosphere Expeditions for bringing us motivated citizen scientists to progress our science projects. Working together is the only way to work towards creating a more promising future for the elephants in Thailand.”
Some pictures and videos of the expedition are below.
The team completed the last survey day on Monday. After the final data input and a refreshing shower in the afternoon, we sat around the dinner table for a final review. Absorbing everyone’s reports, I noticed that it all sounded as if we were talking about good old friends, commenting on their mood and behaviour amongst other things. The elephants have become much more than study objects and we all felt a bit sad when we had to say good-bye. On the very bright side, the team met this year’s goal of two full day datadsets for each individual and set the basis for further data collection – well done everyone!
Preliminary results after 107 survey hours between 08:00 and 16:00 on six survey days are:
- 80 hours were spent on recording activity & behaviour
- 16 hours looking at social relationships and closeness were recorded
- 11 hours were spent on looking at their foraging preferences.
- The majority of the elephant’s time was spent foraging (64%) followed by walking (12%), standing (7%), scratching and dusting (6%).
- During the six survey days, they consumed 32 species from 18 different families with the majority of their diet being two species of bamboo (40%).
- These preliminary data corroborate and resemble previous studies on wild Asian elephants.
More on all this will follow in the full expedition report, which we will tell you when it’s out (in a few months).
It was well before bedtime (around 20:00) when most of the team dinner to do some packing up or going straight to bed. It has been a tiring, but satisfying week. Thank you, everyone on the team, for your time, hard work, sweat for science and the enthusiasm you have put into the project. I very much enjoyed the time with you out in the forest and also watching you making yourselves at home within the local community. Your help and input is much appreciated and without you the project would simply not happen. Thanks to KSES, Kerri & Sombat, for organising everything on the ground, together with the local people and mahouts. Thanks, Talia, for sharing your knowledge and never getting tired of answering questions on the science or elephant anatomy 😉
Best wishes, I hope to see some of you again some day and I leave you with a collection of pictures from your time here.
The weather is hot during the day now. We like the sun, but we are sweating for science also. In the early mornings we walk by the local families huddled around their fireplaces. For most of us a long sleeve shirt is plenty.
We spent Friday & Saturday surveying in the afternoon, when all elephants have been very active. The two females and the toddler stuck together most of the time as usual and were followed by quite a few of us watching their every movement and recording activities and social behaviour every five minutes. Every elephant has their personal data logger and two more citizen scientists record association data of the herd. Until Saturday the males stayed away, roaming on their own but still followed by us citizen scientists.
We’ve been walking a lot up and down hills, along the main path, to the river, back into dense undergrowth, etc., etc.. With elephant toddler Gen Thong around it never gets boring, anyway. He likes testing the boundaries and is always up for game.
On Saturday & Sunday we found Boon Rott and Dodo together for the first time since we started our surveys. It was great to see them getting along well, Dodo following Boon Rott. He is the newest member of the herd and in the process of slowly settling in. It will take some more time for him to get his bearings and there is a lot to learn from his mate about his new environment. We saw them mud-bathing together and displaying social behaviour – they must like each other.
Apart from surveying elephants, some of the team took the chance to participate in community activities in the afternoon of our early survey days on Thursday and Sunday. Kunsang learnt some traditional weaving skills and her scarf should be finished by the time we leave. Others went for a Thai massage to the lower village to experience a blind man’s magic hands. He is said to be unique in what he is doing – I can certainly attest to this.
We have one survey day left tomorrow (Monday). Keep your fingers crossed that all five elephants will decide to spend some time in one group. That’s our hope at least, but they have their own minds 😉
The team has completed the second elephant survey day. Introductions, presentations and lectures on the science, the history of the elephants to be surveyed, the equipment, safety and living with the local people were followed by a half day of practical training in the field on Tuesday. Data collection started on Wednesday and will continue until Monday, working towards the goal of completing two full sets of survey hours between 08:00 and 16:00. That means that the schedule will change from day to day, some days starting at 06:00 others at 08:00.
We left base at 08:00 on Wednesday for the 4.5 km hike to find the elephants. Too-Meh, the herd’s grandmother (57 years), her daughter Mae-Doom (23 years) and Gentong, Too-Meh’s grandson (6 years) were together near the river. They foraged most of the time and took a bath in the river later on. Right at lunchtime, one of the male elephants, Boon-Rott (13 years) joined them, so that almost the whole team was reunited for lunch. The third male elephant, Dodo (Gentong’s brother, 13 years) decided to roam around solitary. A team of two citizen scientists followed him up and down steep hills and even further away from where the rest of the herd enjoyed each other’s company. It was a very good first survey day – easy for some, more challenging for others, though.
Today (Thursday) we went for the first out of two early shifts. Leaving base before sunrise, we very much enjoyed the 90 min walk along the river watching the sun come up and slowly dissolving the mist. For the first time during this week the sky was clear blue and the sun pushed the temperature up and over thirty degrees. Keep your fingers crossed that we won’t get any more rain!
We celebrated Neil’s birthday on Wednesday evening. Talia prepared a delicious homemade cake, which was presented after dinner. Thank you, Talia, for doing so, and thank you, Neil, for sharing it with us!
I arrived at our base camp village of Ban Naklang on Saturday. Kerri, the founder of our partner organisation, and I had a meal at one of the homestay houses and continued to work on preparations, finalising the day-to-day schedule. Sunny weather was interrupted by heavy rain showers on Saturday and Sunday, but the weather forecast in predicting improving wheather conditions.
You will be picked up by Talia, our expedition scientist, tomorrow morning (Monday) at 8:00 at the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel, and Kerri and I look forward to meeting you at base.
I leave you with a few impressions from base and our jungle office, now all ready for your arrival…
I arrived in Chiang Mai on Thursday morning welcomed by sunny weather and temperatures around 30 C. I spent the day running around the old town doing some last minute shopping, passing food and other markets, enjoying the smells of Thai food prepared on the streets, as well as the cornucopia of strange-looking fruit, vegetables and flowers laid out on the tables.
The weather forecast says that the temperatures won’t change much over the next week or so, but there is a 50% chance of rain on the first couple of days of the expedition.
Kerri & Thalia, founders of Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (our partner organisation on the ground) and I are also finalising the work schedule. Each day will include a walk of about 60 – 90 min to get to where the elephants are , as well as three hours of observation and data recording, interrupted by a one hour break. Please be prepared that the walk will include river crossings, some of them waist-high as Kerri told me this morning. So please make yourselves comfortable with the tought that you won’t be able to keep your shoes & trousers dry throughout the surveys. You might also want to consider bringing walking poles if you’re not comfortable enough with using the bamboo sticks that will be provided at base.
I will leave Chiang Mai tomorrow morning. You’ll hear from me again once I have arrived at the village. I shall then also let you have my local (emergency) phone number. Until then please e-mail the office in case of emergency or if need to get in touch.
I’ll leave you with some impressions of Chiang Mai…
Hello everyone, my name is Malika and I am going to be your expedition leader on this year’s elephant conservation project in Thailand. It’ll be our second year of collecting activity, social behaviour and other data by following the study objects around in the forest – and I can’t wait to get started.
I was busy with packing and preparing the equipment, paperwork, etc. and will start my journey from Europe to Chiang Mai today. Not much more to say for now; I’ll let you have the latest infos once I’ve arrived on the ground as well as my local (emergency) phone number. I hope your preparations are going well and you are all as excited as I am to get going. I hope you have all read last year’s expedition report as part of your preparations. If not, I suggest you download this now for some light reading on your flight. It’ll help you with training and being an effective citizen scientist.
See you all soon…
P.S. I have also added some videos below so that you know what’s coming