How to be an Elephant Researcher

By Lisa Barrett

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Working for Think Elephants International was a very unique experience, so I wanted to share what an average day was like. Follow the below instructions to gain the perspective about life as an elephant researcher in the Golden Triangle of Thailand (Warning: Do not approach an elephant without its mahout present).

Wake up to the sound of whizzing motorbikes, calling roosters, or chanting monks. Grab a clean (or not-so-clean) Think Elephants t-shirt and worn khaki shorts. Say a prayer that the elephants don’t get you too dirty to give a presentation to hotel guests later that day. Eat cereal (Honey Stars, to be precise). Brush teeth. Leave apartment, go downstairs. Disassemble hair to assume helmet. Run back upstairs to grab your raincoat, a necessity in rainy season. Hop on motorbike with fellow research assistant.

Stop in the office to grab the research camera, clipboard, and research schedule for the day (maybe while singing a song or two with the team). Continue on to the “lab” via motorbike…

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 Sophie, with the help of P. Pong, shows guests how to take Lynchee’s pulse. 

At the research site

Dismount the bike into muddy grass (try to avoid the biting ants), and work quickly to set up the first research experiment. Somjai is already on his way down the path with P. Boon, his mahout (elephant caretaker).

Once Somjai is in place, turn on the camera, “Good morning, camera!” your coworker sings. Giggles. “Today is December 23, and this is Somjai doing Set…3.” Carryout the set with Somjai, then move on to the next elephant on the schedule. If an elephant does not show up, call P’Tom, the Thai lab manager (more like your Thai mother). Record any research disruptions (e.g. if another elephant walks by and your subject is distracted).

After research is finished for the day, sweep up any leftover elephant snacks and put away equipment. Drive back to the office (maybe stop at 7-Eleven for a midmorning snack).

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 The “parking lot” at the research site was sometimes very muddy. 

In the office

How did research go? Do we need to repair any equipment? Do we need to buy more elephant snack rewards? Do any mahouts need to be called to remind them to come tomorrow? Discuss with the rest of the team.

Enter data, create data sheets for tomorrow, and figure out who is running the guest programs this morning. Work on creating lesson plans about animal behavior and conservation for Thai children with P’Tom and the other research assistants. Take a break by petting a street dog. Post to social media or work on writing a script for the next YouTube video.

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Elise and Rebecca work on an apparatus repair. 

Guest program

Enter the 5-star resort to meet the guests who have signed up for your program. They are here to learn about elephant biology and conservation, so make your two hours with them fun and meaningful. Lead them down to the elephant camp to meet two elephants. Demonstrate an elephant health check. If there are younger kids in the group, have them check off each step on their clipboard to keep them engaged. Show the guests where the elephants get their showers from their mahout, and have them spray the eles. Assist with photography, and call the hotel to get a jeep to pick up the guests. After saying goodbye to your group, grab lunch in the canteen or in the village (this will cost only about 40 Baht, a bit over $1.00).

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 A delicious spicy egg salad from our favorite restaurant in town. 

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