Thursday, August 2, 2012

Finally the Elephants

Ten days of my trip to Thailand were spent working with elephants.  I was volunteering (through Earthwatch) to help do cognitive research on captive Asian Elephants.  A group called Think Elephants International is trying to figure out how elephants think and how they view their world in an effort to find more effective ways of protecting wild elephants and managing human-elephant conflict (you can image that a herd of elephants can do massive damage to a farmer's crop).

As if those weren't enough the elephants used in the research are retired (most were used, illegally, to beg on the streets) and their care (and a wage and home for their mahout's) is provided by yet another non-profit, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.

Our first morning we were introduced to four elephants that interact with the tourists at two local, high end, resorts.  These elephants were staying at the mahout village (a mahout is the person who owns and/or manages the elephant, they usually spend most of their day with their elephant, whether it is working or not, they provide the food, make sure the animal has good vet care and monitor the interactions of other people with their elephant.  It's a very one-on-one relationship) during the morning.  During the afternoon they were interacting with tourists and at night they would stay in a large (massive) field near the river.

When we interacted with the elephants we generally had some sort of treat for them.  Usually this was sunflower seeds.  Elephants love sunflower seeds.

After meeting the big girls we got to go meet the baby, Am.  She's only 3 but she's already figuring out how to charm the tourists for treats.

The adults would generally sucks the seeds out of your hand with their trunk but Am does not have great trunk-mouth coordination and preferred us to put the seeds straight in her mouth.  I got elephant slobber all over me.  It was a sacrifice, having to feed the baby like that, but I made it just so I could get good photos to post.  You're welcome.

After meeting elephants we walked with Meena (pronounced like Mina) up to the pond for her afternoon bath.  It was kind of surreal walking along a road with an elephant.  Meena used to beg on the streets of Bangkok before she came to live with the Golden Triangle.  Her Mahout is a people person who loves to interact with the tourists.  Fortunately so does Meena.  He can get her to give kisses, put her trunk on someone's skin and make rude noises or give a strong handshake (she doesn't let go and her Mahout just laughs as the tourists find their hands stuck in the grip of an elephant.  Some of the time I'd swear Meena is laughing, too.).

I can't discuss the research we did until it gets published.  Our normal day consisted of some time doing research with the elephants, some time entered data in the computer, some time doing behavioral observations (those I CAN and WILL talk about.  Soon), and, if we were lucky, some time watching the elephants bath in the pond.  The elephants LOVE bath time and they will play.