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.

Event: Monitoring Respiratory Disease in Wild Chimpanzees

Third year veterinary student Sarah Balik (2019) will present a lecture about her experience interning for the Jane Goodall Institute in Uganda through the Engaged Cornell Program this summer. Her project consisted of monitoring the health of wild chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, conducting a retrospective epidemiological analysis to understand the zoonotic potential of previous lethal respiratory disease outbreaks among the chimpanzees in Kibale, and serving the local forest adjacent communities by volunteering with a mobile medical unit to provide medical care to people who lack access to doctors. Come to this lecture to see how wildlife health, public health and One Health concepts have real world implications!

This lecture is part of the Conservation with Communities for One Health weekly lecture series. This series features veterinary students and undergraduates who traveled to Indonesia, Republic of Congo and Uganda to participated in the Engaged Cornell Program (VTMED 6743-6745 / NTRES 4150 – 4160) this summer and in preparatory coursework during the previous semester. The lectures will be every Tuesday at 4pm in LH2 during Fall semester 2017.

The Price of Freedom: How our choice to use lead is killing the bald eagle (Part 1)

This post was originally published at Science@CornellVet on July 27, 2017 by Melissa Hanson, third year Cornell DVM student.


bald eagle

Photo credit: Animal Health Diagnostic Center

The bald eagle is an American icon, a symbol of freedom, and for conservationists, one of the nation’s greatest success stories. Restored from near extinction, the species has been thriving once again—or so we thought. As it turns out, mankind may be placing unnecessary pressure on America’s best known bird.

Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC) employs some of the brightest minds in ecology and wildlife health. Dr. Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist, has been leading the research effort exploring the role environmental lead plays in bald eagle health. Schuler partnered with the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation to analyze two decades’ worth of data collected from New York State to identify sources of mortality. Their results are disturbing: 17% of bald eagle carcasses examined revealed death due to lead poisoning, and 80% had measurable lead levels in their blood, tissues, or bone. Schuler reports that adult eagles are more likely to die from lead poisoning than juveniles, posing a serious threat to the reproductive success of the species because adults nest and rear young.

Where is all this lead coming from? A likely significant source is ammunition. Lead bullets are commonly and traditionally used for game hunting, which can leave trace levels in meat as well as in the environment. When carcasses or offal are left on the landscape, eagles will scavenge from them, consuming lead bullet fragments. Lead is toxic to all animals, including humans, and eating venison shot with lead bullets may pose a risk to consumers. Schuler explains that the bullet fragments when it hits its target, and small shards can travel more than a foot from the wound channel where they are less likely to be removed during the butchering process. Pregnant women and children are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of lead, as developing tissues are vulnerable and easily damaged by the toxin.

So, how can we protect our families and our wildlife? Consider alternative ammunition. Modern non-lead bullets are inexpensive and do not foul firearms, as was once widely believed in the hunting community. These alternatives are safe and effective, and when combined with proper hunting etiquette, such as recovering carcasses and properly disposing of entrails, can make a real impact in the levels of lead present in the environment. Even recreational shooting with lead contaminates the environment, and participants should also consider alternatives. Lead bullets may be traditional, but they are also replaceable.

While 80% of bald eagles with measurable lead is a startling figure on its own, it is important to recognize that this species serves only as a snapshot of the entire picture. Lead is toxic to all wildlife and humans, and shared sources of food are the common denominator. “This is a problem that is both man-made and solvable,” says Schuler, emphasizing that humans have introduced lead into the environment and therefore hold the responsibility of removing it as well. Research conducted by the AHDC brings to light the severity of lead toxicity in New York State, exposing it as a true threat to wildlife health where it otherwise may have persisted as a silent killer. Schuler adds, “Just because we don’t see piles of dead eagles doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.” Thanks to her contribution, both problem and solution are now quite clear.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melissa is a third-year veterinary student from Cortlandt Manor, New York. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Duquesne University where she majored in biology and minored in biochemistry and history. Her interests are in clinical zoo and wildlife medicine and particularly rescue, rehabilitation, and release. She works as student technician at the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center, a service of the Cornell University Hospital for Animals.

China’s Promise: stopping the trade in elephant ivory

A message brought to you by the Cornell Elephant Listening Project.

In a time of global uncertainty and increased tension, elephants have just been given their best chance of survival since the start of Africa’s exploitation centuries ago. China’s president Xi Jinping has followed through on an agreement with Barak Obama to commit to a timetable for reducing the brutal demand for ivory that is wiping out Africa’s elephants.

China has promised that it will have stopped domestic trade in ivory by the end of 2017. China represents the world’s largest ivory market.  If the bottom drops out of the market, the incentives to kill will drop, too.

As WildAid said so well:

“When the buying stops, the killing can too”

We need to recognize that ending trade will be very difficult, and it is important to empathize with the many artisans who will lose jobs.  But this is intervention is a critical step towards saving the African elephant, and it is intervention on a scale that will make a difference.

While it is our responsibility to recognize positive steps, we also must raise our voices when needed so that the promise is kept.  Spread the news about this trade ban, and help China receive recognition for following through on this important promise.

The bar has been set – thank you, China.

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March 3rd: World Wildlife Day!

On 20 December 2013, at its 68th session, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) proclaimed 3 March, the day of signature of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as UN World Wildlife Day to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants. The UNGA resolution also designated the CITES Secretariat as the facilitator for the global observance of this special day for wildlife on the UN calendar.

World Wildlife Day will be celebrated in 2017 under the theme “Listen to the Young Voices.” Given that almost one quarter of the world’s population is aged between 10 and 24, vigorous efforts need to be made to encourage young people, as the future leaders and decision makers of the world, to act at both local and global levels to protect endangered wildlife.

The engagement and empowerment of youth is high on the agenda of the United Nations and this objective is being achieved through the youth programmes of various UN system organizations as well as the dedicated UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth.

In September 2016, Parties to CITES gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) and adopted the very first CITES resolution on ‘Youth Engagement’ – calling for greater engagement and empowerment of youth in conservation issues.

World Wildlife Day 2017 encourages youth around the world to rally together to address ongoing major threats to wildlife including habitat change, over-exploitation or illicit trafficking. Youth are the agents of change. In fact, we are already seeing the positive impacts on conservation issues made by some young conservation leaders around the world. If they can help make a change, you can too!

Governments, law makers, enforcement officers, customs officials and park rangers across every region are scaling up their efforts to protect wildlife. It is also up to every citizen, young and old, to protect wildlife and their habitats. We all have a role to play. Our collective conservation actions can be the difference between a species surviving or disappearing.

It’s time for us all to listen to the young voices.

Read more at wildlifeday.org

Conservation and the Elephant Listening Project

The Elephant Listening Project is a not-for-profit organization associated with the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  ELP strives to study the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) through recordings of the forests that serve as their home, picking up both natural and unnatural sounds – not only the calls of elephants to each other, but also the sounds of human involvement.  Graduate and undergraduate students in a variety of fields have contributed to the analysis of this data.

“Over the last twelve years the project called ELP has found ways to discern key aspects of the forest elephants’ life experience (the sizes and composition of their herds, movements of populations from place to place, evidence of mating, maternal responses to infants, evidence of distress and flight, and of the gunshots and chainsaws that reveal poaching) by listening to the forest from fixed recorders in the trees.”

– Katy Payne
Living With Sound, February 2013.

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Event: Spotted Hyena Reproduction

Dr. Place was in private practice as a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) for 4 years in Waynesboro, Virginia before earning a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Washington.  He came to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2004 as an Associate Professor in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Statistics and Director of the Endocrinology Laboratory at the Animal Health Diagnostic Center.  Dr. Place often refers to himself as a “rehabilitated” gynecologist, focusing his research on mammalian reproductive biology, eco-immunology, and aging.

From the Ned J. Place Lab website:

Dr. Place has studied reproductive aging in naked mole-rats, Siberian hamsters and cheetahs, seasonal reproductive biology in free-ranging yellow-pine chipmunks, and sexual differentiation and behavior in spotted hyenas under semi-natural conditions. Each animal model has provided an interesting perspective into the life history trade-offs that are associated with the timing of hormone secretion and reproductive effort. Dr. Place takes an integrative approach to his research, which is often relevant from both an ecological and a biomedical perspective.

Graduate and undergraduate students interested in comparative endocrinology and reproductive physiology and behavior are encouraged to apply. Our current model organisms are naked mole-rats and cheetahs – refer to research tab for details. However, students are encouraged to consider other systems that might better address their area(s) of interest. Trainees in my lab learn and use a variety of techniques to research questions at multiple levels of investigation (e.g. qRT-PCR, microarray, measures of immune function, immunohistochemistry, behavioral studies, mating tests).

Students interested in pursuing graduate work in my lab should contact me directly after they have read the statement of my current research interests and some of the papers that are listed on my publication page. If you decide our interests are well matched, please send a letter and c.v. via email (njp27@cornell.edu), and describe why you think my lab would be a good fit for you. I usually reply promptly, but send a follow-up email in a couple of weeks if you’ve not heard back from me.