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May 23, 2013

The Scourge of Global Elephant Inequality

In celebration of our well known love of all things pachydermal, the Editorial Staff offer up the best.virtual.field.trip.evah:

In April, Think Elephants, a Thailand-based organization that promotes conservation through education, published the results of a study that found that elephants could follow vocal commands telling them to find food hidden in one of two buckets. This suggests that elephants may navigate their physical world in ways that primates and dogs – prior subjects of animal cognition studies – can not. You thought your family pooch was smarter than an elephant? Think again.

Perhaps more surprising is that the academic paper’s coauthors were middle school students living and studying at the East Side Middle School in Manhattan. They had formed a relationship with the conservation organization half a world away via Skype, providing an outlet for students to interact with both the elephants and the trained professionals studying them. From there, the students helped formulate and execute their own experiments, which led to the study. The academic paper was published in Plos One, a peer-reviewed, open-access, online journal.

The closest that previous generations of students could have gotten to an elephant was by watching a documentary or visiting the zoo. But advances in telecommunications have changed all that and in the process influenced the way students can learn. According to Dr. Joshua Plotnik, Think Elephants founder and CEO, the camp in northern Thailand is wired for Internet through a wireless router. There’s a Macbook Pro on a wooden table, which is linked, via USB, to an external HD handicam. Using an external handicam means that he can zoom in and out, and bring the camera to the elephants. The group usually communicates over Skype (but have also used Google Hangouts) to link live directly with 12-to-14 year old students at East Side Middle School.

Dr. Plotnik arranges for three to four elephants in the camp to hang out with the students while the handlers (mahouts) feed them. The students can ask questions, see inside the elephants’ mouths, watch an impromptu veterinary check, etc. The publication of the paper paper capped off a “three-year endeavor to create a comprehensive middle school curriculum that educates and engages young people directly in elephant and other wildlife conservation.”

We have often thought that every American middle school should have access to its very own elephant. This may even be a humyn right. We shudder to think of the teaming throngs of underprivileged schoolchildren who must somehow bravely soldier on, sans pachyderm, bereft of real time, wireless access to the world's flora and fauna, and plagued by the lingering shame of global Elephant Inequality.

Hopefully this bold new foray into interspecies telecommunication will include sensitivity training, because these kids totally need to check their elephant privilege.

Posted by Cassandra at May 23, 2013 08:01 AM

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Cass, I too, am a heffalump admirer. I even have a an "elephant painting" that was given to me by a former US Elephant Polo team member. the painting was done by a 7 year old cow at the Thailand Elephant Conservatory and is kinda cool if a little modern for my tastes - :). if you haven't already, check out the work of Dame Daphne Shelcrick in Kenya. she is the lady that came up with a workable baby elephant formula that allows her group to save orphan elephants who are VERY young. Heck, I feel like I watched Eleanor (one of the first orphans she saved) grow up on a bunch of National Geo specials in the 60s and 70s. Very cool lady and worthwhile project.
thanks for the story.

Posted by: Barry Jones at May 23, 2013 05:02 PM

if you haven't already, check out the work of Dame Daphne Shelcrick in Kenya

I will, if I can put out this fire that's been in my hair all day! Thanks :)

Posted by: Cassandra at May 23, 2013 05:12 PM

It's great to be living in the future, ain't it?

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 23, 2013 05:31 PM

oops...that would be Daphne Sheldrick...dang, i hate it when I do that!

Posted by: Barry Jones at May 23, 2013 05:45 PM

That's OK, Barry. We make far bigger mistakes all the time.

Posted by: The Lamestream Media at May 23, 2013 06:06 PM