Course allows students to research and live with elephants in Thailand

 The application deadline for the Asian Elephant Compassionate Conservation field course in which students work with an ongoing research program that helps return elephants to the wild in Thailand for summer 2018 has been extended until March 1. (photo via Institute for Compassionate Conservation)

The application deadline for the Asian Elephant Compassionate Conservation field course in which students work with an ongoing research program that helps return elephants to the wild in Thailand for summer 2018 has been extended until March 1. (photo via Institute for Compassionate Conservation)

The application deadline for the Asian Elephant Compassionate Conservation field course in which students work with an ongoing research program that helps return elephants to the wild in Thailand for summer 2018 has been extended until March 1.

The field course is available to second year undergraduate university students and above, Liv Baker, executive director of the Institute for Compassionate Conservation, said in an email. Students do not need to be an animal science major but should have a strong interest in an animal-related field.

Since this is the first year the program is available, the deadline has been extended to ensure that all interested students have the ability to apply, Baker said.  

The Asian Elephant Compassionate Conservation field course allows students to live in a local Thai homestay while they participate in an on-going research program with the Institute for Compassionate Conservation (ICC) with Mahouts Elephant Foundation (MEF) that studies the behavior, social dynamics, bioacoustics and food ecology of  re-wilded Asian elephants, Baker said.

Re-wilded Asian elephants are elephants who were previously forced to perform in the tourism industry, Baker said. MEF has been working to disrupt the industry by returning the elephants to their natural habitats where they can live a life of self-determination.

“In Thailand, more Asian elephants exist in some form of captivity than live in the wild. This model of tourism has led to major welfare concerns for the elephants and caused an increased level of elephant poaching from the wild,” Baker said. “Compassionate Conservation puts the humanity back into caring for the natural world by demanding respect and care for each individual - human and non-human animal.”

Students will help the foundations watch how the elephants are readjusting to their lives back in their natural habitat, Baker said.

“(Students will) document the lives of re-wilded elephants,” Baker said. “(They) will learn to identify individual elephants, conduct and record behavioral observations, record bio-accoustic communication, document the foraging ecology and spatial use of the elephants and conduct vegetation and wildlife surveys.”

The students will live in a village with the local Karen people of Thailand, Baker said. The Karen people are an essential part of the elephant conservation effort because they have a tradition of elephant keeping and forest protection, she added.

While living with the Karen, students will participate in local Karen activities including rice planting, traditional meal preparation and animal tracking, Baker said. The ability to live in the village allows students to have cultural experiences that will benefit future conservation efforts.

“Because (the Karen do) much of the work at the frontlines of the global conservation efforts takes place in rural remote villages like ours, the success of these projects depends on the successful partnership,” Baker said. “Learning how to work with a community is a vital skill for future conservationists to learn, and in the case of our project provides meaningful cultural exchange to visitors and villagers - is a vital skill for future conservationists. In the case of our project, the opportunity for cultural immersion provides meaningful cultural exchange to visitors and villagers.”

“In the region of Thailand where we work, people have been coexisting with elephants for thousands of years. In our village in particular, the elephants are viewed as respected family members and figure prominently in village folklore and spiritual life,” Baker said. “The only people who interact with the elephants are the guardians (professionally trained Karen mahouts) who have built a deep relationship based on trust with their elephants. This is a unique relationship and maintaining this relationship is key to the protection of the elephants and their habitat.”

Baker said she encourages students to apply for the program if they have the chance because it is a unique opportunity for students to spend a great deal of time observing elephants in their habitats.

“This program offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to take part in some of the first ever research studying Asian elephants this closely in their natural habitat. In addition to the valuable field experience in compassionate conservation, students will gain valuable experience integrating into a different culture,” Baker said. “Our previous research fellows have called their experience with the elephants as ‘life changing’ and ‘a magical adventure. ‘They considered the people they met in the community to be the “kindest they have ever met."


Rachel Philipson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.philipson@uconn.edu.