The elephant’s not quite in the room but Meena, the six year old on the terrace outside Anantara’s breakfast room, definitely has her sights on the hand of bananas being proffered by guests. In Thailand’s fabled Golden Triangle, these revered pachyderms have long been an integral part of the environmental balance but at the elephant camp run by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, research into elephant intelligence has seen some go from logging to blogging!
OK, so the elephant’s not actually pressing the keys but at Anantara Golden Triangle’s on site elephant camp, director of elephants John Roberts acknowledges that they are highly intelligent and, as we know, have prodigious memories. Conservation and wild elephants are his passion and he’s overseen the rescue of more than 30 elephants from Thailand’s city streets as well as their mahout families. Mahout and elephant stay together for life and expertise is passed down father to son. Visiting the elephant camp for a morning elephant ride and bathing ritual, I discover a small village that not only houses the mahout families but where English lessons are arranged, children are educated and a silk worm business provides the wives with some financial independence, their vibrantly coloured lengths of ‘mahout silk’ snapped up by tourists at the resort boutique.
While elephants don’t work cheap (each elephant costs $12,000 a year to support), Roberts takes a holistic approach to a problem that’s largely underwritten by Minor International, owners of Anantara and Four Seasons, together with guests’ largesse. However, the enlarged scope of work including research into elephant welfare, associations with several Thai and foreign universities and the ground-breaking Thai Elephant Therapy Project run by Chiang Mai University to provide elephant assistant therapists for autistic children, means that more is needed.
Guests at Anantara’s Golden Triangle resort can quickly become involved in an inter-active environmental experience. Apart from riding through the resort’s lush 160 acre forest, bathing elephants or being a mahout for a day, visiting scientific experts often provide guests with valuable insights into their work. I met with New Yorker Josh Plotnik founder of Think Elephants International at Anantara. It was Plotnik’s PhD study in elephant self-recognition carried out at the Bronx Zoo that led him to Chiang Rai and Antanara’s elephant camp. Plotnik trained as a psychologist but began researching similarities in intelligence across species.
“In their environment, elephants have a need to be social as a group. Knowing nothing about elephant intelligence led to my research a decade ago at Bronx Zoo where I set up experiments, nothing invasive, just games, tasks, problems to see how they solved them,” said Plotnik.
So what did he learn and how does it help the elephants here?
“The first study was of three elephants looking at themselves. Their self-recognition and awareness led us to understand that they experience empathy, they care about others, something we used to think was uniquely human. Our research focuses now on how elephants ‘see their world’ through smell and hearing. Mahouts have terrific inter-species communication abilities and this is being harnessed into schools’ educational programs and in setting corporate conservation goals. Elephant intelligence not only helps us to better understand them, it helps us to understand the diversity of intelligence and the way species evolve.”
It seems that us humans are always searching about who we are and why we behave the way we do. Helping to make a better world for elephants might be the key….
To join the fundraising efforts, donations can be made via ‘Friends of Conservation’ in the USA friendsofconservation.org/GoldenTriangle.htm or through the charity administrator John Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.