The Elephant Diaries, Part 4: Community Cooperation

A wizened, bespectacled man sells bananas by the bushel at a street stall. Across the road, several dozens of people file into a nondescript building. This is where the local government holds town meetings. Today is a special occasion, as the county sheriff has organized a day-long series of meetings, inviting the elephant veterinarians (and the vet student interning with them—yours truly) to preside on this conference. Also in attendance were owners and mahouts representing 30 different elephant camps throughout the province of Chiang Mai.

The meeting agenda was split into different sessions. The morning was dedicated to announcements from the council committee on Chiang Mai’s expectations, standards, and responsibilities bestowed upon its elephant camp owners. The afternoon session was an informative presentation by the elephant vets on EEHV (Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus). The vets educated the mahouts and owners present on what clinical signs to look for, delineated the virus’ pathological progression, and emphasized the importance of early detection of this serious disease.

After a brief tea break, the vets took the stage once more to discuss the newly formed Chiang Mai Elephant Alliance. The objectives of this organizational body were described as combating both “internal” and “external threats.” The former refers to disease and other risks to animal health, whereas the latter refers to animal rights—not to be confused with animal welfare—activist groups who propagate misinformation and tend to particularly defame mahouts.

The final session was conducted by representatives of a tunnel corporation to discuss a recently approved irrigation project. Beginning next week, they would commence an underground bombing protocol to create a tunnel that would connect two neighboring rivers. Doing so would improve water supply to Chiang Mai—a measure that the townspeople deemed necessary and beneficial.

According to the construction company, the tunnel was projected for completion in two to three years. The initial stage involved creating the actual opening. To achieve that, there would be four months of bombing, once a day, with the bombs gradually increasing in strength. All this talk of explosives conjured graphic war images, but I was assured that the bombs would be detonated at a safe depth. There were no risks of crumbling buildings, landslides, or the earth splitting open beneath us. The bomb site would be well-contained and manifest only as an audible boom and vibrations in the ground—seismic signals that elephants have been postulated to detect and communicate with.

While an enhanced irrigation system that will benefit the people is something to be celebrated, one cannot neglect the hundreds of elephants who also happen to reside in that same locale. Fortunately, that’s precisely why the town council summoned this meeting. The committee recruited prominent members of the veterinary community to weigh in on this very issue: the welfare of the elephants.

In camps located near the bombing site, the vets were tasked with monitoring the elephants at the time of explosion. Given the sensitivity of these elephants to seismic waves, the committee was concerned about the animals’ well-being during the course of this long-term irrigation project. Behaviors we had to watch out for included loud trumpeting, slamming of the trunk on the ground, and stampeding—which would endanger the mahouts and their families living on the camp site. Chronic side effects from months of bombing could potentially develop, such as elevated cortisol (stress) levels and the cessation of eating/drinking. Since this project is ongoing, we have yet to see if any serious chronic health issues materialize. From the bomb trials conducted so far, the only responses we witnessed from the elephants were brief pauses followed by the resumption of eating—nothing concerning!

I was touched that the tunnel corporation entrusted the veterinarians with such consideration and responsibility, making sure we were present at each detonation to observe the elephants’ demeanors. Stories like these stand in such contrast to the age-old tale of “Big Business” pursuing commercial developments at the expense of—and lack of regard for—wildlife and the environment. The inclusivity, thoughtfulness, and involvement of multiple parties (e.g. mahouts, camp owners, vets, council members, town residents, construction workers) reflect how the exemplary members of the Chiang Mai community assembled to address the needs of various stakeholders while still supporting elephant welfare.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on July 28, 2017.

Read Part 1 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Read Part 2 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Read Part 3 of The Elephant Diaries here.

The Elephant Diaries, Part 3: Client Conflict

The office phone rings shrilly. An elephant camp two hours away is phoning in for a clinical appointment. The patient: a 1.5 year-old female baby elephant with bouts of diarrhea. While this chief complaint may not seem very urgent for the typical animal, elephant veterinarians treat it as an emergency case. Both the elephant’s young age and clinical sign of diarrhea point to the likelihood of EEHV (Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus).

After loading up our mobile clinic van and driving across precarious terrain, we arrived on site at the elephant camp. We were brought to the sick baby elephant and conducted a physical examination, which produced other findings such as facial edema, depression, and hemorrhagic stool. These signs further affirmed the veterinarian’s diagnostic hunch.

Since elephant calves with EEHV can often die within 48 hours of the disease’s onset, the vet urged the camp owner to bring the elephant to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) to receive critical care. Located in Lampang, TECC is a government-owned hospital that offers free veterinary services to elephants. Given the cultural reverence surrounding the elephant, the Thai government covers these expenses to provide quality medical treatment to the country’s cherished giants.

Surprisingly, the owner and mahout declined. Due to the patient’s young age, the mother would have to be transported along with her baby to the hospital in Lampang. Weaning does not occur until 2.5-3 years of age, and the staff cited the baby’s potential separation anxiety and stress during transportation as reasons against hospital care. Furthermore, they believed the mother may be pregnant and were concerned that transporting her could pose a risk to the fetus. However, the vet remarked that she had not yet started her next ovulation cycle since giving birth to this current baby, making pregnancy unlikely.

Another complication arose from the camp’s “no chain, no hook” policy—tools that, when used appropriately, are actually necessary for training the elephants to position themselves and be compliant for certain medical procedures. For example, the elephants couldn’t respond to a mahout’s command to lift a limb for foot inspection, stay still for an injection, or open their mouths for a dental exam, complicating our ability to deliver basic care. The lack of training would also pose difficulties in getting the baby and mother to willingly walk into the hospital truck destined for Lampang.

While acknowledging these logistical concerns, the vet continued to stress how time-sensitive the patient’s impending treatment was. Despite his insistence on administering anti-viral therapy at TECC, the camp owner again dismissed the option. He said they wanted to wait and monitor the baby longer, promising to call us the next day with any updates.

The camp had only been around for several years and had only experienced one baby elephant death so far. They had also decided to forgo hospital treatment for that patient, and the cause of death—surely enough—was EEHV. I’m not sure how many baby elephants have to become severely ill for the message to truly hit home with the staff. Furthermore, finances are a common and understandable reason why owners may not proceed with certain treatment options for their animals. However, in this situation, the medical bills would be entirely paid for by the government. Additionally, from a business standpoint, the camp risks losing 1 million Thai baht if the baby elephant dies. Although we mentioned these details to the staff, they were still unwilling to seek hospital care.

I began to feel crestfallen, gazing at the baby elephant as the veterinarian and camp staff continued to debate the issue. The escalating clash of viewpoints—though calmly spoken—made me rather anxious as her chances of survival were being heavily discussed behind me. It was heartbreaking knowing that the baby elephant I once saw gleefully slip and slide in the muddy river, munch on sugarcane stalks with reckless abandon, and toot out trumpet noises through her trunk, I may not see again.

While the vet is the ultimate advocate for the animal, we must also respect the owner’s final decision. Before the empty truck headed back for Lampang, the vet gave some multivitamins to the baby that would help stimulate her immune response. He also instructed that she be temporarily separated from visiting tourists, which may help reduce stress levels that would otherwise not aid her recovery from the suspected virus. We thanked the staff for their time and for calling our mobile clinic to examine their baby elephant, then scheduled a follow-up appointment.

Upon our second visit, we were relieved to find that the baby had been situated away from the tourists and actually appeared better—a rare finding given the rapid downfall of most EEHV cases. The results from her second physical exam improved, as she was less depressed, had better appetite, and exhibited increased ambulation and play behavior. The camp staff also expressed a change of heart and started a chain training protocol with the baby to facilitate any medical procedures she may need to undergo in the future.

What began as client conflict eventually crystallized into compromise. I admired the veterinarian’s composure despite the various frustrations. His persistence, client education on EEHV, and alternative remedies—tempered with respect towards the owner’s stance—contributed in turning a challenging client situation into an instance of communication and conflict management skills.

Read Part 1 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Read Part 2 of the Elephant Diaries here.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on July 26, 2017.

 

Events: Professor Andrew Dobson

Andy

Professor Andrew Dobson of Princeton University is coming to Cornell as an Andrew D. White Professors-at-Large to give two talks:

  1. “What have birds told me about old and emerging pathogens” on Tuesday October 17th at 5 pm in lecture hall 4 of the vet school atrium
  2. “Elephants, Ivory and the Wildlife Trade” on Thursday October 19th at 5:30 pm in Call Auditorium, Kennedy Hall

For more information on Dr. Dobson’s research, go to his lab’s website: https://www.princeton.edu/~dobber/

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.

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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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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