Author: Matthew Rudolph

Sleeping in the Sanctuary

Blog post by Sasha Montero

During winter break, I was able to spend 18 days in the amazing country of Thailand with 15 other students and Dr. Josh Plotnik! The whole trip was filled with culture, history, science, and A LOT of food. Although there were many favorite parts of this amazing experience, there was one day, out of the whole trip, that resonated with me the most.

As Sarah has mentioned in a previous blog post, Dr. Plotnik’s research sites are located within the Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary. The specific site we ventured to was Khao Seau which is 10 km into the forest. This is where we would be staying for a night, in tents, to immerse ourselves in nature. We all separated ourselves in pick-up trucks and were ready to enter the forest. On our way to the campsite we were graced by a bull elephant, just off the side of the road, munching on some greens. This was my first encounter with a wild elephant and I could not believe how fortunate we were to see one in broad daylight!

When we arrived at the campsite, everyone had to pitch their own tent for the night! I have not camped in so long (4 years now) and I was a bit rusty at pitching a tent. Although I don’t do it often, it was exciting to think that we will be sleeping amongst all the wildlife found in this sanctuary.

Once we were all done, we ventured out into the sanctuary to look at the CCC Lab research site! This was definitely an amazing experience for me. I (and many of us in the lab) have been looking through thousands of video clips and here we were standing where the elephants have been recorded so many months before. We were able to see a couple of watering holes we had seen in the videos as well! Some of us in the lab kept going back and forth to see which videos we have coded that matched the cameras we were passing by. I have to say, I got goosebumps when we were walking around. I have been in zoos and walked where elephants have been, but walking in areas wild elephants have been is just unreal! Definitely, something that is so humbling.

After looking at a couple of spots where there were camera traps, we stopped where a secret study is currently taking place! It was amazing to see this in the park because I have seen something similar in a zoo setting. When we were all done walking around and exploring the small part of the sanctuary, we walked back to the campsite to wait for dinner. We all sat around talking about how cool all this was. We also spoke to Jack, one of our amazing guides throughout this trip, about how we spell our names in Thai. It was such a pleasure to learn a lot about Thai culture from Jack as he was previously a Buddist monk and worked at an elephant camp!

Dinner was made by the park rangers that stay up in that part of the park while they are working. It was a staple Holy Basil meal with pork and it was just so flavorful (like ALL the food in this country). I also really enjoyed all the watermelon all along this trip! It has been so refreshing, especially with this heat.

After we ate, we chatted and sat around the big table while waiting for the rangers to give a presentation. They presented about the park and what projects are being conducted here. It was very interesting to hear how the rangers became rangers and what systems they are using to prevent Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC). For example, the SMART patrol seems really interesting. This is an automated patrolling system that informs rangers where an elephant is located and which crop field they have gotten into.

When it was ready to call it a night, we all went to sleep in tents and we were not ready for what we would hear as we layed in our tents. During the night, I could hear how active the animals were. I could hear monkeys calling to each other! Elephants trumpeting in the distance! I still had no problem sleeping, but it was amazing to listen to the wildlife surrounding — a surreal experience.

The next morning, everyone discussed what they heard the night before. It was so fun! I wish we had more time in the sanctuary, but nonetheless I feel so grateful to have been given an opportunity like this. It is sad to leave so quickly, but I will always be reminded of this experience, in the forest, while I code videos back in New York City.

Covid, Coding, and Quarantine

Blog post by Ekaterina Balsan

My first days in the CCC lab felt like an escape from the bustling traffic of the city, from the sirens and trains; a small oasis in the midst of the concrete jungle. As of late, there is no bustling New York City.  Live streams from Times Square show empty sidewalks.  Once the hum of rush hour traffic, now the empty silence of isolation.

The past few weeks have brought so many memories of my summer work. I recall arriving at the zoo early in the mornings, before the crowds of visitors come.  I remember the bright green trees swaying in the wind, with the leaves spreading shade across the ground. Setting up my camera, the Thick Billed parrots would look at me with curiosity, their eyes searching mine for a clue as to what I was doing.  The vultures, equally curious, would look right at me as if asking who I was.  I often miss my days there and the company of the birds. Completing my field work involved long days at my local zoo, observing and recording the Thick Billed parrots.  While my time there has ended for my project, the work most definitely has not.

Analyzing the videos and extracting my raw data means coding.  Recording certain behaviors to later calculate their frequencies and trends.  As this is my first attempt at coding, I have spent a large portion of my quarantine time exploring the software and understanding the technological side of our research.  I find myself repeating these videos again and again, to precisely register the time and behavior the parrots are carrying out. This new experience has allowed me to be meticulous, careful to process the information, but at the same time given me a new mission in this stay at home life.

Coding has provided an escape. While I am not at the lab, or at my school, I am no longer in my room. I am back at the zoo, outside in the warm weather surrounded by my feathered friends.  The thick billed parrots are an imaginative reality show, open to your own interpretation.  Their curious expressions are now the same as mine, as I record their behaviors, my mind is racing with possible implications and explanations. Observing them again makes me feel as though I am back in the summer, before these recent events turned our world upside down.  I can not help but smile as I watch them.

If anything, I have learned that research never stops.  Inquiry and discovery are all constant, perhaps one could contend the only constant in our lives today. The ability for me to continue my research at home is something I am truly thankful for.

CCC in the time of Covid

Blog post by Leah Wersebe

As a Master’s student in Dr. Plotnik’s lab, I am one of several students who are spending the pandemic of 2020 in their homes and apartments, and analyzing videos of wild Asian elephants in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex (WEFCOM).

 

In the CCC lab, Dr. Plotnik is conducting a long-term study focused on a population of wild Asian elephants in WEFCOM. It’s not typical to be conducting such a large experiment on wild elephants with video camera traps. Usually, scientists aren’t looking at the behavior of wild populations on this scale. They typically use camera traps that gather still pictures and are focused on population numbers, range, foraging territory, etc so it is a unique opportunity to be a part of this kind of experiment.

 

Students in the lab are analyzing the footage for data on behavior, demographics, elephant body/health condition, location and proximity to conspecifics and humans, and individual identification. Several students in the lab analyze the videos, code for all of the data mentioned, and then share our data with each other so we all have larger data sets when writing papers on our own topic.

 

My Master’s thesis topic is focused on the population’s demographics. We want to determine if there are demographic differences between the elephants that spend their time in a protected area and those that spend their time in crop fields outside the protected area. When I first started looking into Asian elephant demographics and how scientists determine the age and sex of an elephant, I learned that there was very little formal research done on the topic. Any guidelines that are used to age and sex an Asian elephant are based on one of three things: anectodal evidence from experts who consistently work with Asian elephants; research on African elephants; or general aging protocol used for all ungulates. This presented an opportunity for us in the lab. We can develop protocol, based on research, on how to sex and age Asian elephants.

 

As I write this, a global pandemic is causing some disruption to plans that were put into place to further pursue the topics mentioned above. I was planning to travel to Thailand to take pictures of 50-100 captive elephants and measure footprint circumferences of wild elephants in WEFCOM. An Asian elephant foot circumference is approximately equivalent to half the shoulder height of an individual. This research would have been used in my Master’s thesis and possible even future journal articles. For now, travel plans are indefinitely on hold. The good news is that even if we are unable to gather this research in the near future, there is still copious amounts of data to analyze from the video camera traps. So you can find many CCC lab members at home with their laptops looking at elephants for the next few months!

Riiap raawy for elephant research

Blog Post by Sarah Jacobson

For three weeks in January, I escaped the New York winter and traveled to hot and humid Thailand to start our project observing wild elephants in and around Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary. Through a mixture of hours in the forest, drives through agricultural areas, and visits to shopping malls, I learned a lot about the logistics involved in setting up a new field site. After this trip it feels like our project is really ready to begin, or using one of my new favorite words in Thai, it is riiap raawy!

Our team for this trip consisted of me, Dr. Plotnik, our two Thai research assistants Ju and Wow, and a researcher we were consulting who had experience in Salakpra and the surrounding agricultural areas, Alex Godfrey. The five of us piled into our (somewhat) trusty research vehicle, which we named E’ Som (Thai for her bright orange color), to travel to different areas in Kanchanaburi. We met with government officials to retrieve our research permits, the chief of Salakpra to discuss the details of our plans, and local collaborators to determine which areas we would investigate as potential observation sites. After viewing many rentals with questionable décor, we found a house to serve as our research station and gathered all the supplies necessary for the nights we would stay in the forest.

Our first trip into Salakpra was to Khao Seau, a ranger station 10 km into the forest where we planned to investigate the nearby artificial watering holes as potential observation locations. Trips through the forest consisted of our team and several rangers crowded into a pickup truck, bouncing past thick bamboo and avoiding branches across the road. It was exhilarating to listen to the sounds of the forest and snippets of conversation in Thai that blew past me as we headed to each destination. At the largest watering hole near the ranger station, we checked out the view from a permanent observation tower that had been constructed by the sanctuary officials.  As we were looking out on the water, a bull elephant ambled into sight at the edge of the watering hole. I was very excited to see my first wild Asian elephant and watch him drink, wade into the water, and eat some of the mineral-rich clay at the bottom of the pond. I was granted the honor of naming the first identified elephant of our project and decided to dub him after the wise wizard he resembled, Albus. That night we staked out the observation tower again to test out our low light and night vision camera equipment for spotting elephants. Everyone’s ears were perked to the sounds of breaking bamboo and the intermittent chirps and trumpets of elephants in the distance. We were lucky enough to see two more lone bulls that night, illuminated by the half moon and our infrared flashlights. However, the family groups we could hear in the distance didn’t grace us with their presence.

      

 

In total we traveled to four different ranger stations over the course of a week and met rangers who all had stories of the elephants that came near to their stations – one elephant had even broken into a refrigerator for jackfruit! We also explored the edges of the protected area in the agricultural communities where farmers described fending off elephants who come to snack on their sugar cane, corn and cassava. We saw many of their deterrent strategies including electric fences, trip wires for fireworks, trenches, electric lights, and firecrackers to throw and scare elephants away. We also observed some of the destruction these farmers were trying to avoid, both of their crops and of some buildings. A few of the communities had already built bamboo watchtowers where people were stationed all night so they could drive any marauding elephants away. We spent one night in a tower like this waiting in anticipation of elephants, scanning the sugarcane field for signs of disturbance and listening for breaking branches. All we ended up listening to that night was the crackling of the nearby harvested crops burning, a technique farmers use in the area to recycle nutrients for the next planting. The tall sugarcane around us ready to be harvested remained unscathed for the night.

 

    

In addition to laying the groundwork for our behavioral observation research, we also prepared the first aspect of our cognition research by designing the puzzle boxes that we would set up in Salakpra for the elephants. Our team of biologists and psychologists spent several days in the office flexing our latent engineering skills, attempting to build a model of the box from my initial brainstorms and drawings. After many discussions and revisions of its mechanics, we completed a partially functional 3D model out of plastic board, which I thought was pretty impressive. The next step was to show a local metal engineer our handiwork and see if they would be able to build it to be elephant-proof. Unfortunately, I had to depart before we could complete this challenge, but I look forward to seeing the final product in the weeks to come!

 

Our tour of areas in and around Salakpra provided us with information about where we wanted to build new observation towers, connected our team with the communities we would be working with, and helped us develop protocols for observing the elephants. The only injury our team suffered was E’ Som’s bamboo skewered flat tire, a pretty good start overall for a field project! The project’s scope and methodology really took form, making it very hard for me to leave the team in Thailand and return to the US to start my next semester of classes. Nonetheless, I feel fortunate to have been there to get everything riiap raawy and I’m excited for my next return to the field in June!

Dr. Joshua Plotnik
Department of Psychology
Hunter College, the City University of New York

695 Park Avenue, Room HN 611
New York, NY 10065
(212) 396-6442

Visit the Comparative Cognition for Conservation Lab on Facebook and Twitter

Copyright © 2018, Joshua Plotnik