The Elephant Diaries, Part 1: Elvina Yau (2020)

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.

Read Part 2 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Expanding Horizons Bio: Eric Teplitz (2020)

Eric Teplitz (2020) in Malawi through the Expanding Horizons program at CUCVM

My name is Eric Teplitz and I am a rising 2nd year veterinary student at Cornell. With an interest in infectious disease epidemiology, I participated in the Expanding Horizons Program with the goal of gaining applied research experience in the field. I established my research project with the Silent Heroes Foundation and the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust in Malawi, an organization that promotes wildlife rescue & research, advocacy, and conservation education. Illegal bushmeat and pet trading are prevalent practices in Malawi that are destructive to ecological health and biodiversity. The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre was established as a sanctuary for animals subjected to such crimes and aims to rehabilitate and release them into the wild.

I have been at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre for the past seven weeks, and I have another two weeks before returning home. In my free time, I’ve had several opportunities to travel, visiting South Luangwa National Park in Zambia and Liwonde National Park in Malawi. I’ve also had the unique experience of scuba diving in Lake Malawi, which has a greater diversity of fish species than any other lake on Earth!

My research objective is to provide additional information for the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s primate release program. Release strategies of captive wildlife are based on several factors that determine if, when, and how an animal will be reintroduced. One such factor is the risk of disease transmission from reintroduced animals to wildlife populations and humans, as failure to evaluate these risks can lead to unintended disease communication.

Salmonella and Shigella are groups of bacteria that colonize the intestine and cause diarrhea and inflammation of the gut lining. They are spread via fecal-oral transmission – the bacteria are shed in the feces and subsequently ingested by another animal. These bacteria infect nonhuman primates and humans globally and are therefore critically important for both wildlife conservation and public health. Unfortunately, Salmonella and Shigella are difficult to treat medically, and consequently studying the patterns of shedding is important for informing disease management strategies through an understanding of transmission dynamics. At the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, I am studying the shedding patterns of Salmonella and Shigella in primates.

The primary objective of my project is to identify temporal shedding patterns of Salmonella and Shigella as well as risk factors that affect shedding. Some examples include stress, age, sex, body condition, patient history, and concurrent parasitic infection. I designed a sampling schedule upon arrival, and currently I am collecting fecal samples for bacterial culture and diagnosing parasitic infections via fecal flotation. I have been evaluating stress through behavioral analysis, monitoring for behaviors that characteristically indicate stress in primates (such as pacing, self-grooming, and excessive scratching).

The project involves components of microbiology, primatology, and epidemiology, and the interdisciplinary expertise I gained during my first year of veterinary school has allowed me to conduct my research successfully. Designing and implementing an epidemiology study has been a useful learning experience as I find ways to adapt to logistical and technical constraints while in Malawi. Throughout the past several weeks, I have become more familiar with the procedures for primate integrations and reintroductions, which has guided my experimental design so that I can provide the most important information. In my remaining two weeks in Lilongwe, I will do my best to produce useful data!

International Experiences Application Deadline: January 20, 2017

The deadline for applying to International Experiences program is January 20, 2017.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell, we are pleased to announce that we have funds available to support 3-4 veterinary students who are interested in international experiential opportunities in any geographic region of the world. Experiences are not restricted to developing countries. Experience may be pursued anytime between summer 2017- spring 2018.”

Download the PDF call for proposals here: International Experiences- call for proposals 2017