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Studying abroad: Biodiversity in the foothills of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain

A year abroad can seem like a daunting prospect particularly when the destination is as remote as Northern Thailand, however, the experiences Aoife had there will remain in her memory for many years to come.

Elephant with Tree Backdrop

My name is Aoife Göppert and I am currently undertaking a degree in Zoology here at Queen’s University Belfast. How did my adventure start? Well, it began some years ago with a love of all things nature and the encouragement from my fantastic family in Donegal. I knew that working with wildlife had to be a major part of my life and from an early age I devoured every National Geographic magazine and documentary I could lay my hands on while making frequent trips to Glenveagh National Park as a would be ‘explorer’. The curiosity fostered by this interest led me to pursue a career in research and conservation. When the opportunity arose to undertake my placement year, I jumped at the opportunity to work with Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand.

Elephants in water

Finding the right placement for me

I chose to undertake the placement programme to develop my field skills and gain experience abroad. Previously I had volunteered for the Marine Turtle Research Group in Northern Cyprus. I really enjoyed my time there and felt I was contributing towards research as well as educating the public. Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, therefore, seemed like the perfect fit. KSES was founded in 2016 by Kerri Mc Crea and her partner Sombat Wheeraqwandee and their aim is to reintroduce elephants into their natural forest habitat while working with the local community. The project is situated in the Mae Chaem district approximately 180km West of Chiang Mai in the foothills of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain. I was placed in a homestay with a Karen hill-tribe, where living conditions were very basic with frequent power cuts and poor signal. These conditions, however, led me to interact with the community and delve into the project fully.

Settling into the village culture

The Karen, or Packinyaw people as they call themselves, belong to the largest ethnic minority group within Thailand, consisting of 300,000 people they are one of six hill tribes. Packinyaw people are often discriminated against for their darker skin colour, however, they are respected as the elephant keepers of Thailand and KSES aims to offer them equal employment opportunities and a fair wage. Part of my role consisted of working on some of the community projects in the village. I taught English to the villagers so that they could improve their job prospects in the ever-growing tourism sector. The project aims to support a deviation from traditional slash and burn agricultural practices towards sustainable farming techniques and even reforestation of land. This mitigates the fragmentation of the elephants’ forest habitat, an issue of great concern for Thailand’s elephant population. This philanthropic work helps to maintain and improve the relationship between KSES and the village in which it operates.#

Dog beside owners foot  Boy in water

Taking part in all of these community activities meant that I was able to learn far more of the local Packinyaw language. This in turn allowed me to learn about the people and their culture, and in time I was given the responsibility of teaching the basics of this language to new volunteers and interns, which allowed them to integrate with the families with whom they were staying. As I grew closer to the community this particular task proved to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.

Young boy with elephant

A typical day at with the sanctuary

As a group, we hiked to the elephants on a daily basis at 8 in the morning, and at times conditions could be extremely challenging. When we arrived with the elephants I would observe their behaviour for an hour and a half while they foraged. This could be difficult in the extremely dense undergrowth, with steep inclines and high temperatures hampering our progress. During these hikes, I would help to take care of guests and also educate them about these magnificent animals whilst carrying out elephant health checks and observing them in a semi-captive environment. As KSES is funded entirely by the public, it was very important to prioritise the visitors’ experience so that word of the sanctuary could spread to others, and this NGO could continue to grow.

Elephant by the river Man working with elephants

I was particularly fortunate to have been given charge of photography and social media management throughout the year. This gave me an invaluable insight into the role that this media plays in promoting a young organisation. It helps to promote the sanctuary, encourage visits and donations to the project and it also acts as a means of educating the general public. This task was a huge responsibility as it represented the face of the sanctuary. I really enjoyed developing these skills and I hope to continue with this work in future.

I also conducted Biodiversity hikes that examined the impact the elephants were having on insect populations. I would hike to areas that the elephants had and had not been, recording the diversity of species present using lines transects and pitfall traps. This was offered to guests as an alternative to the elephant hikes and it was an opportunity to engage them in research. Unlike most other elephant venues in Thailand, KSES incorporates active research in its visitor programme.

 Man with elephant

The project type work I completed proved to be extremely challenging yet rewarding as I learned the ups and downs that researchers face when operating in the field. I examined the four elephants’ sleeping patterns with the use of camera traps deployed at night and accelerometers that I attached to the elephants’ rope collars, I also videoed each subject for 20 minutes per day. My aim was to examine the activity budgets of the Asian Elephant, which is remarkably under-studied for such a renowned species. My main challenge was equipment and technical malfunction. Unfortunately, when working in such a rural environment, it can be difficult to get these elements to work, in comparison to controlled laboratory conditions, where you can easily troubleshoot problems with the use of the internet or indeed senior staff members. This forced me to become more adaptable and aware of the possibility of error. Eventually I had some breakthroughs and the data I was able to record will hopefully shine some light on this area. My ultimate aim is to examine this research in my dissertation with the help of Dr Mike Scantlebury.

Discovering me and my future

During this year, I discovered a lot about myself and the career I hope to have upon graduating. As a result, I have developed strong interpersonal skills and resilience in the workplace, I have learned to rely on others when necessary, but I have also gained confidence in my own ability. 

Although the prospect of researching the elephants seemed the most exciting in advance of my placement, I came away with a much deeper understanding and respect for the people who live alongside these animals. This anthropological viewpoint has stirred my interest in animal-human conflict zones and how these issues that arise may be mitigated. This is an area I hope to become more involved with in future.

 I have gained so much from my time in KSES and formed bonds with the community that will last a lifetime as well as a valuable insight into conservation field-research. Having learned a new language and living abroad for the entire year has pushed me out of my comfort zone but it has also proven to me that it is something I am more than capable of doing again in future. I feel more capable and self-assured because of the wide range of responsibilities I was given during my placement.