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.

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

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