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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Citizen scientists complete survey on semi wild elephant herd in Northern Thailand

From 4 -12 Nov 2019 Biosphere Expeditions & Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) ran their third Asian elephant conservation expedition within a Karen hilltribe community in Mae Chaem region in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Six citizen scientists from Australia, Germany, UK and the Netherlands helped gather data of five elephants roaming freely in the forest around the village, but are still under the watchful eye of their mahouts.

After the citizen scientists were trained up in elephant identification & association pattern and behaviour recording, as well as plant identification, they spent a total of 111 hours in the forest following an individual elephant each. The team of six citizen scientists covered an average of 10 km per day to follow and observe the elephants roaming in different terrain.

The overall long-term goal of the research is to contribute to welfare initiatives in Thailand by collecting data on elephant behaviour in a natural setting. More than 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 Alex Johncola says: ”It was great to have citizen scientists from all over the world help us collect much-needed research data in order to help elephant conservation & welfare. A huge thank you to all.”

Preliminary results were:

  • 80 hours spent recording activity & behaviour
  • 16 hours looking at social relationships and closeness
  • 15 hours looking at foraging preferences
  • The elephants spent the 52% of their time foraging, followed by exploring (12%), socialising (9%) and walking (8%)
  • During six survey days they consumed 15 species from 7 different families of plants with the majority of their diet being from a currently unidentified herb (73%) as well as bamboo (15%)

Some pictures and videos from the expedition:

Thailand: Wrapping up

We still had another early day of data surveying to get under our belt, and Sunday was that day with alarm clocks sounding off from 04:30.

After some strong coffee and toast, at we set off at 06:00 into the dark once more with our headlamps, data sheets, permanent markers, thermometers, stopwatches, cameras and packed lunches.

We met the elephants in the cooling mist at the top of a hilly field around 07:15. We had some time to kill before our surveys was to start at 08:00, so we just enjoyed watching them move around and socialise with each other. We also heard the whine of mopeds and pickup trucks getting farmers to their daily working in the rice paddys, all of them slowing down to get a glimpse of the magnificent beasts.

Not long after starting our work, Dodo, who had Anna surveying him for the morning, was standing over by a bamboo gate. His mahout had closed it to allow all the traffic get by earlier on, but now Dodo seemed keen to be out, gently using his trunk to touch various things on the other side, like some bushes and one of the mahouts mopeds. But when Dodo knocked a moped over with just a tickle of his trunk, the message was heard and he, Anna and his mahout were off, not to be seen until lunch time.

Boon Rott, who didn’t seem to be in the the mood for socialising, kept himself busy with Henning in the top corner of the field foraging away. Getting as close as Henning would allow, sniffing his boots and the breeze.

Down in the bottom corner the rest of us watched Too Meh, Mae Doom and Gen Thong, as they foraged in the grass and bushes for tasty things to eat. The point of which is to see how many different types of plant they like to consume, and make a database. This all goes toward evidence that shows that elephants in captivity need a varied diet, and not just a few different types of leaves and bananas. The database currently shows over 200 different plants.

As we were done with our work by midday, we all stole an afternoon to ourselves to enjoy. Between us we wove scarfs, weaved baskets, sewed up worn-out dungarees and had every muscle in the human body pummelled, flattened, elbowed and squeezed by a local man, who does a mean Thai massage.

All good things come to an end, and Monday was our last chance to survey the herd. With a far more agreeable observation start time today of 10:00, we had a leisurely breakfast and set off on our way.

Not long into our survey, a tractor made its way along a track, smoothing it over after the rain had churned it up a couple of days ago. The sound of clanking metal and the low rumbling of the diesel engine caused Mae Doom, Too Meh, Boon Rott and Gen Thong to act skittish. Mae Doom started trumpeting, the sound was incredible and filled the valley to the brim. The three of them made their way to the river at the bottom of the hill, where they spent the next couple of hours mud bathing next to the water. We could hear their communication using a deep guttural rumbling sound. Gen Thong was looking restless, and keen to play, but had to content himself with his own company, and join in the foraging.

We finished up our final day surveying sitting there watching them. It seemed to be the hottest day of the whole expedition.

Alex collated all our data into a presentation showing us what all our hard work has been about. We then had our final evening meal together, followed by a lovely surprise. That evening ‘Loy Krathong’, or the festival of light, was happening. All the children in the village (and our very own Nick, who’s on first name terms with nearly everyone) had made floats to send down the river after dark. They were made from halved cucumbers, hollowed out, and adorned with banana leaf sails, held in place with bamboo skewers, then a finishing decoration of pretty flowers, candles and incense. The children then made their way down to the river, where, with the help of a few adults, they lit the candles and incense and let them float away into the night. We watched them from the rope bridge leading to out base, as they sailed underneath us, gently meandering down the river and out of sight.

Malika and I like to thank everyone who was involved making this whole expedition possible. Kerri for smoothly organising base and activities in the village, Talia and Alex for staying on top of the science. The amazing cooks who’ve kept us happy with the most delicious Thai cooking. Our delightful homestay hosts who welcomed us in their homes and all the villagers of Naklang who have been incredibly warm to throughout. The mahouts, who spend their time, day in, day out, with the elephants, keeping them out of harm’s way and us safe during our surveys. And last but not least our great thanks go out to this year’s expeditioners for putting time and sweat and money into a unique project that wouldn’t happen without people like you. We both hope that you’ve enjoyed your time here with the elephants as much as we did.

Safe travels back home or enjoy your onwards travelling. We hope to see some of you again some time somewhere on this beautiful planet earth.

Anthony & Malika

Thailand: Elephant antics

On Friday we had a later start to our surveying at noon, this is to allow us, over the time of all our surveys, to observe the elephants throughout a whole day. We set off at 10:00, just as the torrential rain started. Within a couple of minutes the paths through the village and to the elephants morphed into a grade 1 kayak rapid. But we did make it to the elephants.

When we arrived, it was clear that the behaviour we had observed yesterday with Mae Doom and Boon Rott was probably due to Mae Doom coming into estrous (heat). The elephants made their way on to the steep slopes of the forest and began the daily task of pulling down bamboo sprouts and chomping between 200-400 kg of leaves, bark, branches, wild flowers and herbs. There was a bit of excitement when a woman herding buffalo panicked at the sight of the elephants and ran away, leaving the buffalos to work it out for themselves, which, it turns out spooked the elephants a little. Thankfully one of the mahouts, Leo, took care of the buffaloes and another mahout took Gen Thong and Mae Doom down the steep-sloped forest to the river, out of harm’s way. Kerri, Anna, Anneke and myself followed them as they eventually made their way back to Too Meh, the faithful matriarch of the herd, who had missed all the excitement, and was taking advantage of some peace and quiet and had been foraging, blissfully unaware.

Nick had been with Dodo, who once again was heading along a track toward a village way off in the distance and Henning was with Boon Rott, who was contented with foraging in the forest until his mahout led him to the river for a long drink.

When we all met up to head back to camp, Malika and Bianca told us that they had seen the woman who fled, leaving her buffalo. She was still anxiously looking down into the wood and wondering if the elephants were still there…

Saturday morning, part of the group (Anna, Anneke, Alex, Bianca and Anthony) left straight after breakfast to do a biodiversity trail.  Our task was to space ourselves 1 m apart and face in alternating directions on a 200 m transect and count all arthropods you can see within a 30 sec period before moving along, until you reach the end of the run.

Then our group reformed for elephant surveying. Anneke was watching Boon Rott bathing in a muddy puddle up in the hills. Mae Doom and Too Meh were foraging in a large sloping field, joined by young Gen Thong, who seemed to forever be in the middle of them both, acting restlessly and having a few comedy stroppy moments, rolling around on the floor looking for attention. For those of us watching them, Anna, Gesa, Henning and Malika, it was  interesting and amusing at the same time. Alex and Nick, meanwhile, were not in the jungle following the elephants through thick and thin, but were observing from the comfort and shade of a farmer’s hut perched in a perfect viewpoint at the top off the hill… 😉


Thailand: Elephants in the morning mist

With our training sessions complete, our team of citizen scientists set forth into the mountains to have their first encounter with the elephants and put faces and trunks to the names. After a 90 minutes walk from the base we found all five elephants socialising together in a large hilly clearing in the forest. We have two females, Too Meh (59 yo) and her daughter Mae Doom (25), and three males, Too-Meh’s grandsons Dodo (15) & Gen Thong (8), as well as Boon Rott (15), who is not related with the others. We had heard that over the last few month the elephants have been separating themselves into male and female groups, so it was a was a nice surprise to see them all together.

We spent the rest of the morning practicing our theory and learning how to identify each individual whilst taking down all the data correctly. After a picnic lunch in the forest, we walked back to the village. Back at base we practiced data entry into the computer.

In the afternoon the team was introduced to the biodiversity trail activity. In her presentation Alex explained the background of the science, the methodology and the species we are supposed to look out for and record on the datasheets.

On Thursday we went out to do our first full day survey, followed by an early morning on Friday to survey the elephants at first light. `In order to get a full picture of what our study objects are doing between 8:00 in the morning and 16:00 in the afternoon the survey hours change every day. Our goal is to complete two full data sets of every hour within. For the early morning survey, we set off in the dark with torch light and found the heard in the morning mist. Dodo led Anneke off into the forrest away from there rest of the group, never to be seen again – well, not until lunchtime. Henning was observing Too Meh, who led him down to the river and out of sight. Malika, Anna, Nick, Bianca, Anthony and Gesa, along with Kerri and Alex, all watched the story of the ever flirtatious Mae Doom and the ever ready Boon Rott having all their plans dashed by the constant interruptions of adolescent Gen Thong, who made sure to kill the mood by reversing into the middle of the couple. We’ll keep you posted if there’s any developments…


Thailand: Training

It seems the drought that we mentioned in the last entry has taken short hiatus today as we were awaiting the arrival of the team in the bus.

They arrived at the base (only an hour or so late, due to a heavy downpour) all ready for action. Our team of citizen scientists this year come from Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. They’ve all been made welcome by their homestay hosts and moved into their new lodgings,  dropped off their bags and had the first of many amazing Thai meals made by our lovely local cooks.

After lunch we all sat down and talked through the philosophy of Biosphere Expeditions (Safety, Science and Satisfaction), leading in to an in-depth risk assessment. We then spent the rest of the day learning about the history of the project, our local partner KSES, and how record data out in the field. We carried on our classes after dinner, learning what to look for whilst surveying the elephants. With this all in mind, the team is ready to get up into the hills tomorrow morning and the meet the elephants for the first time…

Thailand: Opener

Hello everyone, my name is Malika and I will be leading this year’s Thailand elephant expedition. It’s my third time here in the remote Karen hill tribe village, working together with Kerri from our local partners organisation KSES and Talia, the expedition scientist. This year we also have with us Anthony, expedition leader in training and Alex, KSES’s project assistant.

Anthony and I flew into Chiang Mai a couple of days ago and proceeded straight to the village on Saturday morning. We found the village nestling between lush green vegetation, although apparently the past rainy season has been too dry. Since we are now in the middle of the dry season, it has not been raining for weeks, they say. The air is still humid, especially in the evening hours outside on our meeting, eating and working platform. Please don’t forget to bring long sleeves not only to keep you cosy & warm, but also to protect you from mosquitoes that are most active during sunset.

The four of us have spent the last couple of days sorting out equipment, preparing datasheets, printing and laminating picture sheets, talking through activities and work schedules. We are looking forward to you, our citizen scienitsts, to join us here and complete the team. Our study subjects, the elephants are currently roaming an area about 90 min away from base. Some good hikes are waiting for us! 😉

Not much more to report for now. Talia will meet the team tomorrow morning in the Lobby of the Mercure Hotel in Chiang Mai.

The hills are alive with elephants, they are calling you and I will see you there tomorrow.


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