The Elephant Adventure

By graduate student Vanessa Gravenstine, MS in Environmental Communication

When I was an undergraduate and envisioned my life as an environmental scientist, I imagined I would be riding in some adventure movie-style Jeep chasing elephants in Africa.  Over a decade later, as a graduate student at ESF, I found myself working on an important project with the Town of DeWitt to improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.  The internship and thesis that resulted from this work will, I hope, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.  However, there are no elephants.

13728418_10209090445071103_1404197524_oAs an ESF student, I want to improve the world around me; I also want to live as many of my dreams as possible.  Through funding from the Fink Career Fellowship I was able to interact with a semi-wild herd of elephants in Thailand while pursuing my M.S. in environmental communication.  Many environmental issues are caused and solved by decisions made by people; therefore in my future career I would like to teach people about environmental issues in a fun and adventurous way.

The Fink Fellowship enabled me to participate in Global Vision International’s elephant conservation internship. I flew to Thailand and after two full days of travel involving an 11-hour time difference, I was transported to a remote village on a steep hillside. The village is called Huay Pakoot and the villagers are Karen people which is an ethnic minority in Thailand.  The people are descendants of Burmese refugees, who used to grow opium but now grow mostly corn for animal feed.  The people in that region have traditionally owned elephants for logging and warfare, but today the elephants are mostly taken to the city to work in tourist entertainment camps.  Almost all of the camps treat these gentle and intelligent beings in an unethical manner, often keeping them awake for many hours, preventing proper socializing, and forcing them to participate in activities that damage their feet and spine. In addition, the mahouts, the elephant caretakers who are usually young boys, must leave their families and often get involved in unhealthy lifestyles in the city.

In this small village, a few families have chosen to work with Global Vision International (GVI) and return their elephants to the forest. They make money from volunteers who pay to see, study and learn from elephants in their natural habitat, a rare occurrence in Thailand where the number of domesticated elephants is three times larger than the number of wild elephants.  The village has no stores other than a few located in homes where families sell candy, beer and cigarettes.  The women weave cloth in traditional patterns — dresses are white for unmarried women and skirts are red or blue for married women. Pigs are kept in pens made from rough-cut wood and chickens are kept in baskets woven from bamboo from the forest.  Karen meals are cooked over an open flame and often include eating rats, frogs, and snails. Even though there is no hot water and people take showers by dumping a bucket of water over their heads, many houses have TV and many people have smartphones and scroll through Facebook while dinner is cooking.

Every morning, I would wake up around 5 a.m. to a chorus of more than 100 roosters screaming in strained and garbled voices. My host family had the most chickens in the village and an arena for cock fighting in their yard. The mahouts of the village would lead us on steep and muddy hikes through a mix of humid jungle slopes and quickly eroding cornfields.  After crossing streams and livestock fences, we would eventually see evidence of elephants nearby: broken bamboo branches stripped of their leaves, large round flat footprints on the hillside, or the faint sound of a distant rumble. I loved when new volunteers arrived to the village. We would take them on their first hike and after a sweaty and exhausting walk out in the thick jungle, they would see an elephant, then another elephant, and soon a whole herd of five to seven elephants. When the elephants saw us, they would come forward, excited to greet us.  We were scientists searching for giant beasts in a misty and mystical land.  This was my elephant fantasy come true, and the Asian elephants are even cuter than those found in Africa. The look of wonder and amazement, admiration and pure joy on a new volunteer’s face upon seeing their first elephant emerge from the jungle and come up close to touch us with its trunk made the grueling hike worth it.

Once we found the elephants we conducted health checks and collected behavioral data.  We also spent some time watching entertaining behaviors such as mothers interacting with their babies, and elephants taking mud baths, drinking water by sucking it up into their trunk and then bringing their trunk to their mouth, eating tree bark, using a branch as a fly swatter and scratching up against a tree.

I came to Thailand to learn about elephant biology and deforestation, and to gain more field work and leadership experience.  I didn’t expect to learn so much about myself by meeting people from all around the world. I got to know Thai and Karen people and I made friends with interns and volunteers from England, Australia, France, Belgium, Canada and China, and other parts of the United States. Living and interacting with people from such different backgrounds every day helped me clarify my own thoughts, identity and goals for the future. I was in awe of all the people who overcame obstacles such as language barriers, medical issues, financial troubles and leaving their loved ones to come to this remote region of the world. It became clear there are things all of humanity has in common: generosity, laughter, courage, curiosity, fear and apprehension. Despite our differences we can still enjoy food together, play with children, dance, and be kind to one another. The people in the village live a simple lifestyle; they work, and spend time with their families. In the United States, I would sometimes see or hear of someone doing something and I wanted to be part of it because I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity. This caused me to often get distracted from the things I care about most. In Thailand, I got to know the feeling of being confident in my personal intentions. In this state of mind, I felt less scattered when the people around me were doing different things. I began leading and teaching people, which I really enjoy. It made me think of what excuses I might have made up to hold me back in the past. Being so distant from the familiarity of my country, combined with the intensity of our daily hikes and spending almost all my time outside in nature, I focused on how much strength I had in my own choices and my inner voice. I was reminded that I should try to confront challenges and questions by consulting my instincts and what I consider to be my truth.

In the village, one of the main things that got me out of bed in the mornings (besides the roosters) was Root’s Coffee Shop. Root is a mahout, about my age. He is married with four children. He speaks the best English out of all the villagers. He knows the Karen language as well as Thai, and even tries to learn French from the Canadian, French and Belgian volunteers. A few months before I arrived in the village, he built a little shack on the hillside. It has a deck with tree stumps for chairs and a hammock that overlooks the mountains. There is always a picturesque fog nestled in the hills because the coffee shop is only open 6 to 7 a.m., the hour before we leave for the elephant hikes. There is no running water so he brings water jugs to the shack where he makes coffee on a little espresso machine for 45 Thai baht ($1.30), he also offers free green tea and cookies. Sometimes when he runs out of cookies he makes white bread and jam paninis. His cousin grows the coffee in a nearby village.

Much of the forest in Northern Thailand has been destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture. Many of the hill tribe people grow corn using harsh pesticides and a method of farming that causes rivers of mud to pour down the hillside when it rains. The Asian elephant is endangered but if the population were to increase there would not be enough forest to sustain them. Coffee grows in the shade, under a canopy of trees. The forest does not have to be burned and the trees decrease erosion, reduce extreme temperature, and improve soil quality, reducing the need for heavy fertilizer application. It is also a more valuable cash crop than corn.  Entrepreneurial projects like Root’s Coffee Shop can help people make money without the harsh environmental implications of the corn fields.

Now, back in the United States, I am reminded that we have a lot of choices here in how we live our lives. We have options for our food, housing and lifestyle that are more difficult for people in other countries to obtain. I am also inspired by how one person can help a whole community move toward sustainability and how one organization can bring people together to learn and spread knowledge. In the future, I hope to work in conservation public education or citizen science. I want to empower people to reach out and get their hands dirty, to try something new and to unite with others to improve our communities.

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