Tag Archives: animal behavior

One Tourist’s Dream, An Elephant’s Nightmare

Thailand & Cambodia 2013 787

A retired elephant at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Elizabeth Matthews

The first reaction people have when told I spent my summer in Thailand is excitement and curiosity. But the first question I am always asked burns through my core, conjuring a memory that I will never forget. “Did you ride an elephant?” I see a line of elephants parading up a steep hill. Part of the tourist industry, these animals just finished giving rides to giddy vacationers, and are now out of their line of vision. On their backs now ride the elephant handlers; in each hand the herders carry a spear that is held just inches from the elephant’s eye. When the elephant is not moving fast enough, or their attention is strayed, the handlers elicit a sharp stab to their eye. Covered in scars and wounds from previous beatings, each elephant stared straight forward, the pain reflecting out of their gaze as sharply as the knives held in their periphery. Holding up the rear of the line was a small elephant, whose pain was unbearable to watch. As he passed by, his handler’s hook rested below his eye ready to strike, the elephant shot a quick glance at us as we stood silent, in shock. As he continued to march, our eyes were drawn to the elephant’s rump. With a badly broken hip, the elephant dragged one of his hind legs, clearly unable to move it. But despite his disability, his handler continued to yell and kick the creature while his body struggled to overcome the steep incline.

Riding an elephant is a dream come true for many unknowing tourists. It’s understandable; who doesn’t want to climb on the back of the largest terrestrial mammal on earth with their selfie-stick while parading around the jungles of Asia? Exactly. But with a little education on the industry, no animal lover would ever consider riding an elephant again. The training of elephants for elephant trekking is a long time Thai tradition called “phajaan,” which in English translates to “crush” [2]. It consists of ripping baby elephants at the young age of six-months from their families, entrapping them in a small cage with little room to even lift a foot, and beating them with hooks, spikes, and nails, forcing them into human submission. Each and every elephant that tourists eagerly climb onto for a ride has undergone this horrific process. Not only does this training regimen clearly result in significant physical damage, but mental and behavioral impairment as well.

Elephants are extremely social creatures; they exhibit a highly complex social structure that is key to their survival. Elephant society consists of a high degree of mothering, adult cooperation, and care and interest for ailing members of their families. In addition, raising offspring is at the central core of society, and is therefore vital for full cognitive and behavioral development [3]. But when young elephants are torn from their families at a tender age, they suffer dramatic developmental consequences. This lack of development results in abnormal behaviors, such as extreme anxiety, which is often illustrated by rocking back and forth and swaying their body. This extreme anxiety has also been shown to cause aggression, putting both elephants and humans at risk. And not only is the tourism industry harmful for Asian elephants mentally and physically, but their numbers are declining.

Once upon a time, the Asian elephant occupied the vast majority of Asia, with thriving populations occupying regions ranging from Thailand to Iran. Asian elephants have now almost entirely disappeared from Western Asia, Iran, and most of China. The surviving population of Asian elephants is estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000, only about one-tenth of the population of African Elephants [3]. Although the greatest cause for the species decline has been habitat loss and deforestation from anthropogenic forces, the tourism industry is only exacerbating the decline [1]. The ultimate solution to put an end to the horrific methods behind the elephant tourism industry is to spread awareness. The Thai people are not the source to blame for the treatment of elephants; phajaan is an age old tradition that is encouraged by the interest of tourists. With knowledge of phajaan, and spreading the awareness of its detrimental impacts on elephants, we can take a step forward towards the conservation and protection of the Asian elephant.

– Elizabeth Matthews

Here are some sources I used for this post:
1. http://www.elephantconservation.org/elephants/asian-elephants/

2. http://journals.worldnomads.com/responsible-travel/story/81053/Thailand/Why-Elephant-Riding-Should-Be-Removed-from-Your-Bucket-List

3. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/230242723_Social_structure_and_helping_behavior_in_captive_elephants

Caution – This is a video of phajaan, it is graphic but if you are interested, I would encourage you to watch it: http://youtu.be/SVckvi_gWVo

I volunteered at an elephant conservation center in Thailand that focuses on caring for “retired” elephants that were once in the tourism industry. The center works on providing the elephants with the best possible care for the remainder of their lives, assisting with mental and physical rehabilitation. Here is the website for the center: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

A Rare and Endangered species in your own backyard

Black-footed ferret Image by Kasey Burrus

Black-footed ferret
Image by Kasey Burrus

In our growing and ever changing world, extinction rates have soared greater than ever. Around the world, species are threatened with extinction due to many issues that include: poaching, agricultural work, deforestation and urbanization. Most people know about the threatened status of the flagship species like pandas, rhino, elephants and our big cats. However, there are few people that are aware of the endangered species in their own backyard. The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was once known to freely inhabit what is now known as City Park in the town of Fort Collins Colorado (2). What is a black footed ferret some may ask? These charismatic and ferocious creatures are thought to have descended from the Eupoean polecat (Mustela eversnanni) and are closely related to the domesticated ferret (Mustela putorius) one can buy at a local pet store (1). It is not unusual for most people to have never heard of a black-footed ferret before.

The black-footed ferret has been flirting with extinction since what was thought to be its last know population was found in 1981 (2). It was 36 years ago that this species was on the verge of extinction when the last known population of 9 ferrets were brought into captive breeding to try and save. However, the captive breeding program was unsuccessful and its failure was attributed to a lack of knowledge about the species. Just 2 years later on a large ranch in Meeteese Wyoming, another population of 120 ferrets was found. This discovery was a rare and incredible find since the black-footed ferret was thought to have gone extinct. Biologists were determined to keep this population from plummeting to extinction again. However, an unexpected turn of events happened when an outbreak of K-9 distemper struck the ferret population and killed over 85% of the remaining ferrets. The team of biologists had to make the difficult decision to either bring the last 18 surviving ferrets into another captive breeding program or leave them in the wild and see if they survived (2). This time biologists were careful to observe the behavior, reproduction, feeding habits and life histories of ferrets. These key features are important for the captive breeding and rehabilitation of a species because life in captivity can be so much more fragile than life in the wild.

Another crucial aspect to protecting any threatened species is figuring out what is putting the species on the brink in the first place. After careful research and observations of the ferret’s natural habitat, it became clear that this species relies solely on extensive prairie dog colonies. The prairie dogs that live in the colonies are the black-footed ferrets primary source of food. So, the success of the colonies contributes to the success of the ferret species. Another important contribution to a successful reintroduction relies on the imprinting of killing their natural food source, prairie dogs. The imprinting that happens while still in captivity has a small window of opportunity for it to be successful and must occur within the first 60 days of life. This learned behavior is crucial to their survival in the wild once they are released and have their own kin to raise and teach.

The captive breeding program started in Wyoming but now resides in Northern Colorado Just 20 miles from Fort Collins. The facilities house over 200 ferrets and, as of fall 2014, the 3rd ferret release in Colorado happened in Soapstone, just a few miles outside of the City of Fort Collins. After 35 years, the program is looking to be very successful but still has a lot of work to do. As a breeding facility, they can contribute to the growth of the population of ferrets, but they cannot save their habitat alone. Education on prairie dog habitats and conservation is an important aspect to saving the black-footed ferret and many others species that live in this unique habitat.

– Kasey Burrus

Work Cited

(1) The Animal Files. “European Polecat.” The Animal Files. 5 Jan. 2010. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://www.theanimalfiles.com/mammals/carnivores/polecat_european.html.

(2) Gober, Pete. “Black-footed Ferret Recovery. Are We There Yet?” Endangered Species Program. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://www.fws.gov/endangered/news/episodes/bu-01-2012/black-footed_ferret/index.html.