Rising second year veterinary student Elvina Yau is in Chiang Mai, Thailand, conducting research on Asian elephants. Over the next few weeks, she will be contributing a series of posts called The Elephant Diaries about her unforgettable experience! Check out Elvina’s personal blog at Elvina The Explorer.
My name is Elvina Yau and I am a rising 2nd year veterinary student at Cornell. While my professional interests include Companion Animal Medicine and practice ownership, I am also passionate about wildlife conservation. Expanding Horizons was an excellent opportunity to further explore this realm in an international setting.
I partnered with the Elephant Research and Education Center (EREC) at Chiang Mai University Veterinary School to conduct research on Asian elephant welfare. EREC was founded in 2010 with the objectives of conserving the Asian elephant species and preserving the elephant-based culture that Thailand embodies. According to the IUCN Red List, Asian elephants are listed as Endangered. Currently, Thailand’s remaining wild population is estimated at roughly 2,000-4,000. Without significant changes, the number of elephants may critically decline to levels beyond restorability. The country’s industrial shift from logging to tourism after the 1989 commercial forestry ban marked the rise of elephant camps. Many Asian elephants and their mahouts (caretakers designated to individual elephants) who were once employed in logging and resorted to illegal street performing now live in tourist camps as rescues. These camps enable the elephants to roam freely and interact with visitors while providing employment for their mahouts. Inevitably, the standards of care provided at these tourist camps vary. The complexity of tourist camps arises from the fact that elephant rescues are given a place to live at these sites, but tourism generates the income needed to provide sustenance and veterinary care for these elephants.
My project specifically investigates how elephant foot health is affected by housing factors, which is a reflection of the management practices at various tourist camps. Conditions such as hard flooring substrates, high workloads, or excessive feeding have been associated with the development of foot abnormalities. By performing thorough physical examinations and working directly with mahouts, I’ve been able to inspect the limbs of multiple elephants and use a foot assessment checklist to score the severity of foot pathology on the toenails, interdigital spaces, and footpads. Our team then applied this data by providing facility and husbandry recommendations that will improve elephant welfare at these camps.
Foot pathology comprises one of the most prevalent health concerns afflicting Asian elephants. Since health is a useful indicator of animal welfare, the data gathered from this study can help inform targeted management modifications that can be implemented at these camps, reducing foot disease while enhancing the welfare of these elephants. Studying the relationships between housing conditions and elephant foot health and applying those findings are tasks that involve a collaborative effort between veterinarians, mahouts, and camp managerial staff. Pursuing this international service-learning experience demonstrates the organizational and teamwork skills critical in the interrelated nature of any research and conservation endeavor.
Through Expanding Horizons, I witnessed the daily operations of elephant camps and clinics while immersing myself in the sights and sounds of Thailand. The experience dovetailed a clinical and research component that enabled me to hone my skills both as a budding clinician and inquisitive scientist. Obtaining a first-hand view of Thailand through a unique veterinary lens ultimately allowed me to delve into a new facet of my career path while assisting EREC in their efforts to champion elephant welfare.
From this experience, I wanted to gain not only clinical knowledge, but also better understand the institutional factors and management strategies that wildlife conservation hinges upon. Veterinary care is essential to maintaining the health of the elephant herd, coupled with educating the global community about these issues in order to promote conservation efforts. At Chiang Mai, I was placed in an incredible position to help provide veterinary services to and conduct research on Asian elephants—a formative and intensive experience during which I learned about the complexities and joys of caring for numerous elephants, and what advocating on their behalf truly entails.
Participating in Expanding Horizons this summer therefore provided me with a unique opportunity to broaden my perspective of conservation medicine and truly explore the versatility of a DVM degree. As I progress on my veterinary career path and continue to cultivate my professional interests, I am excited to uncover what lies ahead.