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My Research, My Contribution, My Experience

By Brittany Chiapetti 5 years ago
Categories Chiang Mai

Traveling halfway across the world to work with elephants is a dream I never had until I became curious about elephants and research about them. I got more out of this experience than I ever could have imagined. Opening your eyes to the world and problems within it can be one of the most painful things you ever do, but it is more than worth it.

I witnessed first-hand some of the troubles Asian Elephants face today, and at the same time I witnessed the behavior and bliss of a select few who got their lives back and were reintroduced into their natural forests. I lived in a Karen Hill Tribe village known as Huay Pakoot with a population of around 400 people and 60 homes. The villagers came to Thailand to avoid conflict that was abundant in Burma about 512 years ago. Except for 5 Christian families everyone in the village is Animist, Buddhist, or Animist Buddhists.

The native language is Pakinyaw and elephants play a huge role in their culture.  Elephants are passed down within generations of families and only change ownership in certain circumstances. Each elephant falls under the same protection act as all other livestock, they are placed under the Draught Animal Act 1939.


GVI have reintroduced 9 of Huay Pakoots 60 + elephants back to the forests; these elephants all have a history of working in the logging industry and/or tourist camps. 6 elephants are funded solely by volunteers and 3 funded by the GVI Charitable Trust. For the Mahouts whose elephants live in the forest, they are now able to live back in the village with their families and receive income from a GVI contract. The other elephants and their Mahouts are spread all around northern Thailand in elephant camps.

The Mahouts with elephants in the camps get paid from the camps for “renting” their elephants out and they do not live in their native village; they live wherever they can get paid with their elephant. But for Mahouts in the village life is a little different. GVI aims to have a 10 year stay in the village to help the Community Conservation Group stand on their own and be able to support the elephants and themselves.


Being with GVI I was a part of many things which include teaching English in the school (which goes up to grade 6), helping out in nursery, participating in litter pickups in the forest and on in the village, bio diversity studies, and perhaps the most exciting work of all was with the elephants. There are three herds of elephants consisting of 9 individuals. There are typically 3-4 hikes a week where the elephants are observed off their chains. Proximity data is collected and recorded every 5 minutes as well as any touch data; and twice a week health checks are done on each elephant. Newest to the data collection is vocalization. The data collection time spans over 2 hours which can vary from the observation time, often after data collection we would opt to stay and continue watching them.

Each of the elephants are truly amazing and watching them in the forest where they should be; eating a healthy natural diet, doing as they please, and witnessing the bonds they each have with their Mahout, was all truly amazing. I am lucky to have found this volunteer opportunity.

I came to the GVI project to commence my own research, I wanted to gain an understanding of how vocal the elephants were during health checks, I soon extended this to monitor how vocal the elephants were during the 2 hour proximity collection time frame. The data collected is really interesting and does show some behavioral patterns. I hope in the future to be able to take the ecology and mind of the elephants into context to interpret the cause and meaning of each vocalization (Note that only audible vocalizations were recorded). Because there are three separate herds I personally could never have collected all the data alone. I really learned to work with others and partially rely on them. Thanks to staff members and other volunteers we were able to collect vocalization data for each elephant hike. Analyzing all the data has been really fun as well. I am learning a lot and have been inspired to do so much more, not just in terms of research but in terms of helping around the world.

Now that I am back at University I can see how many academic opportunities I have gotten for volunteering and doing this research on vocalization. I am hosting an event this October at Western New Mexico University, and another in Albuquerque, NM the following December. Having done a research paper on the elephant vocalization has helped me be taken more seriously by people in the zoology field who have more experience than me. For me the best part of all is that with these academic opportunities the end result is people learning about Asian Elephants and the issues they face. I hope that with these opportunities and those still to come, that I can educate enough people to help and to want to make a positive difference in the life of elephants.


All of this is just a briefing of some of the things that I learned while volunteering on this conservation project. Everything that I have learned I hope to be able to share, for the elephants’ sake. I did not go into detail about all the issues they face, but I plan to educate people on the issues involving Asian Elephants. I am happy to share my experience but more than anything with my presentations I would like in some way to help the elephants. I believe I can do this because some of the situations they are in are strictly driven by tourists from all around the world. So by being in the States, I plan to be a voice for Asian Elephants, they deserve all the voices they can get.