Hornbills, Gibbons, and Wild Elephants, oh my! A Visit Inside of Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Blog post by Summer Fiori

In January, I spent three jam packed weeks in Thailand alongside 15 other Hunter College undergraduate and graduate students. We were there for a course in Thailand Elephants Studies led by our lab’s Principal Investigator, Josh. We started in the northern most part of Thailand in the Chiang Rai Province and traveled by van over 500 miles to Bangkok in the southern part of the country, with many stops (and animal sightings!) along the way. In the north, we visited four captive elephant facilities as well as stopped at National Parks, farmland, and even pitched a tent one night in Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary.

As a group of young students, most who are studying animal behavior, we were very excited to learn about Thailand’s wildlife. For three days, we got to spend time in Khao Yai National Park. Khao Yai National Park was Thailand’s first National Park established in 1962. It encompasses 2,168 km2 and is the third largest National Park in Thailand. Khao Yai is located northeast of the city of Bangkok. As a World Heritage Site, Khao Yai is frequently visited for its beautiful landscape. The animals that we saw in the park include elephants, hornbills, gibbons, northern pig-tailed macaques, sambar deer, civet, and porcupine.

When we arrived at our accommodation in the park, we were greeted by a swarm of macaques. Other than stealing food out of a student’s hand, they did not bother us much. Although, we did have to be very mindful in remembering to shut and lock the door behind us. The group before us apparently was not as lucky and had their rooms and belongings torn apart by the monkeys.
As animal behavior students, we knew better than to intentionally feed the macaques but there is a 500 Baht or $15 penalty if you do. Our first night was spent getting to know our fellow housemates, Thai Conservation Biology students from Mahidol University.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to trek into the forest to learn about the biodiversity of the area and look for gibbons. There are 2 species of gibbon in Thailand: white-handed gibbons, and pileated gibbons. Our hike began and we had to be extra quiet to not disturb any of the wildlife. We were each given a different “forest flashcard” with a vocabulary word to learn and look for; mine was tree buttress, pictured to the left. Along our hike, we all started to smell something musky. About 20 steps later and we started to hear branches cracking and just like the scene in Jurassic Park, we stopped silent in our tracks. Somewhere close by there was a bull elephant, in musth. Musth is a heightened sexual period in male Asian elephants when they are prone to be more aggressive. An elephant in musth can be very dangerous, so we stopped and waited for an hour to see if the individual(s) would leave before we decided to turn around and try to find the gibbons the next day.


On our drive back to our accommodation, we drove up on a wild elephant crossing the road: the epitome of human elephant conflict in many Asian elephant home range countries. It is difficult to fully describe and put this surreal experience in words. I never pictured that I would see a wild elephant in person let alone in the actual way that the local people often experience elephants. It was humbling, shocking, and gave me a deeper appreciation for the conservation of wild things in wild places.

In the evening, we got to go spotlighting for wildlife in the park. For an entire hour we traversed the park looking for animals.
This is when we spotted a civet, several large porcupines, a fox, deer sparring with one another, and several individual elephants, again a surreal and incredible experience!


Some of the largest populations of hornbills in Thailand live in Khao Yai, so needless to say, we couldn’t leave the
park without doing some birdwatching.



The next day we hiked back into the forest to hear and see the gibbons. We stood in silence gawking up into the canopy of the trees while listening to the park without doing some birdwatching. The next day we hiked back into the forest to hear and see the gibbons. We stood in silence gawking up into the canopy of the trees while listening to the gibbons call back and forth.We were able to hear the sounds of 2 family groups of gibbons calling to one another. Gibbons move primarily through brachiation, which is the use of their arms to swing through the trees (see picture below).






Another excursion we took was walking to the Haew Narok Waterfall, the highest waterfall in Khao Yai. As it was dry season in January, there was not a lot of water flowing over the fall, however the walk to the overlook itself is an adventure. With many, many steep steps and beautiful scenery, the walk to the waterfall is half of the fun! Unfortunately, this waterfall gained news coverage last year when 11 elephants fell over the ledge.

In closing, if you’re travelling to Thailand, I highly recommend visiting Khao Yai National Park. This National Park has plenty to offer and see that will remind you why it is crucial to conserve wild places and the animals that inhabit them. If you end up going, remember to purchase leech socks before hiking and always be aware of your surroundings. 

This was only day one?

Blog post by Matthew Rudolph

For being a relatively small school nestled in the hustle and bustle of New York City, Hunter College has some unique benefits. Within the Psychology Department is the Animal Behavior and Conservation program. To be perfectly honest, I found the Comparative Cognition for Conservation lab when planning my graduate studies and then was exposed to Hunter College. The current “crown-jewel” of my degree was the rare ability to travel to Thailand and broaden my horizons on elephant conservation and welfare throughout the country. While overseas on this course, there is one experience that I will always remember.

On the second day of our field course, we awoke literally on the banks of the famous Mekong river. The economic, industrial, cultural, and political ramifications of this waterway were inundating my thoughts as we watched the boats get ready in their morning prep. We could tell that this was going to be an experience, unlike anything we were expecting.

That expectation came true when we arrived at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation’s site outside of town. This was the first-time many students had seen an Asian elephant in person, up close, or since arriving the day prior. We were greeted by Dr. Nissa, who gave us an excellent introduction to the site and immediately started educating us on their daily operation, animal husbandry, elephant health, and the vast diversity of what a single day may look like for her.

After experiencing vet checkups, husbandry training, elephant baths, and behavioral observations, we strolled past a free-standing covered area that the elephants could frequent as they pleased. Dr. Plotnik patiently explained that this was the site of some of his previous experiments. Casually mentioning, “Remember the elephant sized mirror for MSR? It’s right over there”. I was slightly starstruck, to say the least. With a quick turn of his step, he guides us up onto the platform where his team would run their cognitive experiments. Before long, one of the elephants (Bleum) is in front of us and quite interested in what is happening.

Dr. Plotnik picks up materials from an old currency exchange experiment and described how training an elephant in a currency exchange trial could be used to ask a wide range of cognitive questions. Having an elephant that knows it will get a treat if it gives you a particular item is a very powerful ability. From that point, one could ask if an elephant could differentiate between colors, textures, odors, or any variant of the token, Preferences in diet choice, or even relative quantity judgments. Researchers have even used this paradigm to analyze reciprocity and ‘fairness’ in other animals.

With the addition of some sunflower seeds, Bleum is more than eager to be put to the test. She immediately receives the token from Dr. Plotnik, moves to the other side of the room, and deposits it into my waiting hand. Dr. Nissa emphatically rewards Bleum with a handful of sunflower seeds, oddly reminiscent of Dr. Plotnik’s quantity study. Over the course of multiple trials, I was able to hand over different amounts of sunflower seeds to Bleum, I’m sure she was able to distinguish the quantity of seeds in my hand even though I couldn’t. After multiple successful trials, we unfortunately had to continue on to our next destination.

For the rest of the day, week, and course, I wasn’t able to stop thinking about that experience on the previous research site and what other possible questions we could ask the elephants. Could the setup be used to ask other cognitive questions? What comparative research questions could be adapted to this unique setup. I still find myself pondering different setups, questions, and apparatuses that could be rolled out for similar purposes. In this time of uncertainty, we may not be able to physically travel back to ask these questions, although I will be preparing for when we can. Rest assured that when we are able to close this chapter of social distancing, I will post here regarding what questions we’ll be actively asking of elephants.

Collaborative Issue: The Plight of Pangolins

This blog was produced in collaboration with RockEDU and Lizzie Krisch, an alumni of the CCC Lab. The original post can be viewed on RockEDU’s “The Incubator Blog“.

Blog post by Josh DiPaola

A few years ago, I was sitting inside a university classroom listening to a professor’s lecture on the endangered species of Southeast Asia. As he talked through the dozens of species that face the threat of extinction, I could have sworn he said that one was, “a critically endangered species of penguin that lived in the forests of Thailand, foraged on ants and termites, and had a prehensile tail”. I took a cautious inventory of the faces of my classmates, hoping that they would be as perplexed as I was. Unfortunately, most were nodding in agreement with the professor and attesting to the urgency of this animal’s conservation. At that point in my life, I had recently left an unrelated profession of eight years, and being new to the study of animal behavior, chalked this up as a humbling lesson of how little I actually knew about wildlife.

Once I returned home, I was eager to feel less naïve about these rare penguins that live in tropical forests and immediately launched an internet-search. I soon realized that indeed, there were no such penguins that fit that description. The animal that my professor was speaking of was the pang-o-lin! — not a pen-gu-in! In that moment, I wasn’t sure whether I should feel more embarrassed that: a) I actually contemplated the existence of tropical penguins or b) that I had never heard of pangolins before!

I share this embarrassing story simply to emphasize one point: Most people have never heard of pangolins.

Individuals such as my professor and classmates, who happen to be particularly well-read in conservation literature, represent a demographic exception of individuals that are attuned to niche conservation topics. Most non-specialists have likely never heard of pangolins. Perhaps evermore surprising is that those individuals that have studied them for years still consider the existing platform of pangolin knowledge to be…elementary.

One of the pangolins finishing a fresh dish of ants.

There are eight species of pangolins worldwide. Four species are endemic to Asia while the other four are endemic to Africa- all species are listed on the IUCN as threatened with extinction. Pangolins are the most heavily-poached mammals on the planet and may disappear from the wild before conservationists learn enough about them to save them.

To understand why this animal is so highly sought in the illegal wildlife trade, however, it is best to first explain what makes the pangolin so unique from a biological perspective.

Pangolins are placental mammals, and unlike any other mammals (to our knowledge!), are covered in true, keratinous scales. These scales are both essential to their survival and the driver of their current demise. While the pangolins’ scales are an effective morphological adaption that protects them from their natural predators, they are also highly-valued on the black market for their supposed health benefits within traditional medicine. When a pangolin feels threatened, it curls into a motionless ball and uses its “scaled-armor” to form a largely impenetrable defense. The strategy of the pangolin is to simply remain 

in this position and wait for frustrated predators to move on. In fact, the pangolin’s defense is so resilient that there are documented instances of lions being rendered incapable of by passing this protection!

A great look at Pluto’s scales while he enjoys a meal.

However, from the perspective of a poacher, once a pangolin is located and feels threatened, the job is done. Since pangolins remain still until the threat leaves, they are left completely vulnerable to humans who can easily pick them up, place them in a bag, and haul them off to market.

Approximately six months after I learned what pangolins actually were, I had the rare opportunity to see them for the first time on a university-led field course. The course led my classmates and I through Thailand and was intended to demonstrate several aspects of wildlife conservation. I vividly remember our pre-trip briefing, where the professor leading the trip mentioned that we would likely see elephants, clouded leopards, gibbons, and if we were lucky: pangolins. Though I now knew what a pangolin was, I did not quite understand why my classmates were considerably more excited to see them compared to the other animals mentioned.

Once I did see these animals in person, I found my brief encounter with them to be somewhat anti-climactic. I had expected to see a charismatic and captivating creature, though instead, my first impression of these animals was that they were rather boring.

When I returned back to the United States, it was time to begin planning for my master’s thesis project. For years, I had been set on studying the behavioral ecology of coyotes and was eager to get started. Much to my surprise, however, my advisor suggested that I return to Thailand to study the same pangolins that I had seen during our field course! I asked for some time to consider the option, but never had a true intention of committing. To be quite honest, I had not thought much about the pangolins since I left Thailand. Sure, they were intriguing animals, and I did feel very lucky to be among a select few in the world to actually see them, but they were one of the least memorable animals that I encountered on that trip.

After some personal deliberation, I had an improved understanding on why pangolins struck me as unappealing. Though they are mammals, they lack the behaviors and physiologies which are typically associated with most mammals. That’s when it hit me. My perspective on pangolins was being biased by a common psychological tendency—finding value in animals that most-closely resemble humans. In contrast to pangolins; elephants, leopards, gibbons, and coyotes have features that we are more familiar with. Their physiologies and social behaviors can more-easily be described as human-like and this provides us with an opportunity for attachment. Pangolins are scaly, with lack-luster coloration, and live most of their lives in solitude. Though I initially dismissed these animals for being so different, I became increasingly curious of how they evolved so differently from other mammals. The wavering taxonomic history of pangolins is testament to their oddity, having been reclassified several times before scientists eventually put them into their own taxonomic order- completely separate from any other extant mammals! Realizing just how evolutionarily unique these animals were heightened my concern for their impending extinction, eventually tipping the ‘scale’ towards pangolins for my master’s research.

In total, I spent six months studying the semi-arboreal species of Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica) at the Mahidol Livestock and Wildlife hospital in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The focus of my thesis was to improve scientific understanding of Sunda pangolin foraging behaviors. Since so little is known about pangolins in general, my hope was that improving our knowledge on how they forage could provide insight in the field to better locate and conserve them. Though Sunda pangolins are just one of eight species, with each likely having a unique ecology, it would be difficult to generalize our findings towards all pangolin taxon. However, given that Sunda pangolins are one of the most endangered species of pangolins, we felt that this would be a good place to start.

A week after I arrived at the pangolin facility in Thailand, I still found myself questioning my interest in this species and my commitment to their conservation. For anyone who hasn’t experienced this, it is an alarming feeling to have after having traveled halfway across the world! To make my trepidations worse, I was dealing with a species that is strictly nocturnal. This meant that I was on an  “early-graveyard shift” for my research— beginning at approximately 6 PM and finishing around 2 AM. By week two, I felt that I needed to fully immerse myself in the life of a pangolin to give them the opportunity they deserved to be fully appreciated. Desperate, determined, or possibly a mix of both, I decided to pull an old-fashioned college ‘all-nighter’ and watched the pangolins until the 6AM sunrise.

It was from this point that things began to change.

Upon waking, the pangolins would gently unfurl themselves from their ball-shaped sleeping position to visit a small water basin within their enclosure. After taking a drink, they would vigilantly deposit their feces directly into the water to prevent predators from exploiting their bodily odors. To retrieve their food – a dish of dead ants hung in a tree – they transformed from slow terrestrial pedestrians, into graceful arboreal acrobats, meticulously using their prehensile tails to shift up and down branches with confidence. Once satiated, they would spend the rest of the night curiously investigating all pockets of their enclosure with their hyperactive snouts.

Not only were these behaviors very different from those that I observed in other animals, but they also connected with me on a personal level. By patiently observing the pangolins that night, I was able to see them in their true form- peaceful, shy, and curious creatures. As an introvert myself, I related to these behaviors and began to feel a connection to these animals which thrived by simply being left to their peaceful faculties. Bert the pangolin, using his muscular and dexterous tail to climb.

I found it difficult to accept that such an innocuous animal could be treated so harshly by humans and were being pushed towards extinction for unfounded medicinal purposes. While their specialized adaptations are remarkable from an ecological perspective, they provide no defense whatsoever against humans. For this reason, I began to feel a personal obligation to protect these animals. Though I was initially tasked to study these animals for 3 months in Thailand, I eagerly extended my time of study to a total of 6 months.  Since then, I have done my best to spread awareness and raise enthusiasm for their conservation, including presenting my work at the 29th International Congress for Conservation Biology.

The pangolin itself is just one of many species whose existence is being compromised by negligent human behaviors. It would be biased and unjustified to say that the preservation of the pangolin should take precedence over elephants, leopards, or gibbons. However, the extinction of the pangolin is not exclusively about the pangolin. With the extinction of the pangolin also comes the disruption and disappearance of the ecosystems that they inhabit, alongside any unknown functions these animals provide to such ecosystems. Pangolins are also undeniably unique from an evolutionary perspective. They are the only extant species in their taxonomic order and scientists are still struggling to identify where they belong in the evolutionary history of mammals. In the very least, it would be a shame for these animals to go extinct before we even understand what they truly are!

If we begin to understand more about pangolin behaviors, conservationists can utilize this information to better locate the pangolins and the broader resources they value. Once they can be found, scientists will be better positioned to conserve them and their habitats. Currently, poachers are better at locating pangolins than conservationists. By improving our understanding of their behavior, it’s possible that we can bridge this gap in knowledge and develop action plans that protect both pangolins and their ecosystems. Looking back to the day where I clarified pangolins from penguins, I would have never thought that I would invest any further thought beyond this simple distinction. As my curiosity grew, however, I realized how evolutionarily unique these mammals are and how unfortunate it would be to watch them go extinct due to unfounded beliefs in traditional medicine. Without pursuing my curiosity on that classroom day, however, I would likely have remained entirely ignorant to the plight of the pangolin.

Whether you are a conservationist, scientist, nature-enthusiast, or somebody who simply is mindful of the health and future of our planet, you can be involved. Be curious. And, embrace your curiosity. Reading about an animal, plant, or habitat that you are curious about is the first step in expanding your knowledge. Sharing your curiosity helps to circulate such knowledge. This curiosity is not only what helps to clarify a penguin from a pangolin, but also creates a momentum of awareness which influences new ideas, activism, funding, and change.

*Josh’s publication “Investigating the use of sensory information to detect and track prey by the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) with conservation in mind” can be viewed on the CCC Lab’s publication page.

Being a High Schooler in Research

Blog post by Emma Nguyen

Like (hopefully) everyone else in this lab, every morning I wake up, brush my teeth, and eat breakfast. But, what’s different about my morning routine is that my final destination isn’t Hunter College, but instead the Bronx High School of Science. Being a high schooler makes the research experience kind of different than what’s expected.

I started in research the winter of my sophomore year. My school offers a course that introduces students to the research field. The end of this class is to do research and enter those findings into many different competitions, one being the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition. Because I was in the biology-focused research program, many of my peers were looking into labs that were cancer or immunology-based research. But, I wanted to do something a little different. My teacher for the program had a strong background in animal behavior. So, since I enjoyed studying animals, I decided to check it out. When Josh responded, I was excited to be able to do behavior research on an animal that I didn’t interact with on a daily basis. But, even though I’m part of the lab, my experience is kind of different.

For starters, my schedule is very different and doesn’t align with a lot of the other members in the lab. I’m not free until after 4PM to go to the lab, and even then it’s not for too long because of the loads of homework I get. I have to do a lot of the actual research portion of it at home, which has its pros and cons. The cons are that I often feel disconnected to the actual lab environment because I’m used to doing coding at my desk. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of good that comes out of it. One small pro is that working from home saves me about an hour round-trip to and from Hunter College. I can also do work on the weekends, which is usually when I’m most productive. There’s also more desktop space for others who are able to go into the lab.

Nevertheless, I still love being part of this lab and interacting with everyone from different walks of life. I hope other high schoolers try to engage in research before going to college because you get a different sense of responsibility that high school doesn’t really offer. 10/10 would recommend research, definitely worth it.

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

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New York, NY 10065
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Copyright © 2018, Joshua Plotnik