Why Study Elephants?

Why Study Elephants? [in captivity]

by Lisa Barrett


As a research assistant at nonprofit Think Elephants International (TEI) in northern Thailand, I helped design and carryout research on captive Asian elephants as part of a small research team. Our mission was to inform elephant conservation efforts through research and education.



Above: The other members of the TEI research team (2013). Photo by: Lisa Barrett



First and foremost, elephants in Asia are endangered, meaning they have lost half of their population within the past 50 years. In Thailand, there are about 3,000 wild elephants and 3,000 captive elephants. What’s more, only 15 percent of Asian elephants’ natural habitat remains. Whereas African elephants are largely threatened by poaching, Asian elephants suffer from lack of space, and as a result, increasing instances of human-elephant conflict. Humans and elephants get injured or killed from these encounters. After all, it is very easy for an elephant to devour a whole farm of crops—and with it, a family’s livelihood—in a matter of hours. Farmers may retaliate by killing the elephant (or the first elephant he sees). Research has (Osborn 2002; King et al. 2011) and will continue to help us mitigate this conflict.

Ever since the 1989 ban on logging, Asian elephants have been used in the tourism industry—giving trekking rides, performing in various entertaining acts, or begging for food from tourists. Since it is not feasible to release all the captive elephants in Thailand back into the wild (there is not enough room), the best case scenario may be for the elephants that are living in captivity to lead happy and healthy lives. While TEI was not responsible for daily elephant care, our goal by conducting research was to help prevent further loss of the species. Besides providing direct conservation applications, TEI’s research also allowed the non-profit to affect change indirectly through education.



Above: Mahout training activities allow tourists to get up close and personal with elephants (and are basically equivalent to a backpack for the elephant). Photo by: Lisa Barrett

By using elephants already in a captive situation, TEI is able to catch the attention of young Thai citizens. In this way, TEI’s education team uses them as a conduit to teach about animal behavior, scientific research, and conservation in carrying out its education goals. As a research assistant, I helped make educational YouTube videos, run guest programs on elephant biology, and teach young Thai and American children about our research and what it means for the future of elephants.



Above: Local Thai children visit the elephant camp to learn about conservation and make a promise to share the world with wildlife. Photo by: Lisa Barrett


From Bleum to Buathong to Somjai to Lynchee, each elephant had his or her own personality, and this definitely showed during research. Although this was interesting to see, it relates on a larger scale to why we were studying elephants. In other words, the puzzles we created for the eles were sometimes helping to give a better picture of how Asian elephants act in social contexts. TEI’s research team (along with Earthwatch Institute volunteers) was also using behavioral observations to elucidate elephant social behavior. The lack of a comprehensive ethogram of Asian elephant behavior also highlights the need for a better understanding of the social complexity of the largest land mammal.



Above: Elephants gather information by sticking their trunk in a friend’s mouth. Photo by: Lisa Barrett

Convergent Cognitive Evolution

Lastly, by studying animal cognition on a relatively understudied species, we can learn more about how cognitive processes evolve.  Considering my background in evolutionary anthropology, I found this reason extremely intriguing.  Convergent evolution is important, because if two distantly-related species share a common trait or capability, we know there must have been something in their environment or sociality that selected for the ability to evolve. For example, the great apes, dolphins, magpies, and elephants all share the capability for mirror-self recognition, but none of these groups are very closely related in evolutionary terms. Perhaps their sociality created a need for “high” intelligence and an ability to keep track of many individuals, including having some concept or understanding of Self.



Above: Happy passes the mark test as part of a mirror self-recognition experiment. Photo from: Plotnik et al. 2006

Studying elephants in captivity allows us to empirically test abilities that so far have only been cited anecdotally. Studying elephants in the first place, however, allows researchers to fill gaps about elephant sociality, convergent cognitive evolution, and how to address conservation issue such as human-elephant conflict. TEI also uses elephants as a conduit to spread important conservation messages to Thailand’s future generations of officials, policymakers, and informed citizens.



King, L.E., Douglas-Hamilton, I., and Vollrath, F. (2011). Beehive fences as effective deterrents for crop-raiding elephants: field trails in northern Kenya. African Journal of Ecology, 49(4).

Osborn, F.V. (2002). Capiscum oleoresin as an elephant repellent; field trails in the communal lands of Zimbabwe. Journal of Wildlife Management, 66(3), 674-677.

Plotnik, J.M., de Waal, F.B.M., and Reiss, D. (2006). Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. PNAS, 103(45), 17053-17057.

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