Why We Think Elephants
The loss of natural habitat, poaching for ivory, and human-elephant conflict are serious threats to the sustainability of elephants in the wild. Put simply, we will be without elephants, and many other species in the wild, in less than 50 years. Although conservation and wildlife management are not new ideas, clearly new approaches are needed. Think Elephants International is a non-profit focused on practicing science in the field, and teaching it in classrooms. Through research on elephant (and other animal) intelligence, we hope to better inform conservation practice in the wild by helping to formulate action plans that along with focusing on the needs of local human populations, take advantage of what we know about the animal's needs as well. Our research focuses on how elephants "see" their natural world – through smell and sound – and how they navigate this world – through problem solving and cooperation. Equipped with a better understanding of how these animals live, we hope to better help protect them in the wild.
Think Elephants is something else as well – an organization focused on conservation through education. But we don't just teach kids about the conservation battle, we bring the battle to them by bringing the elephants into their classrooms.
How Elephants Think: A Scientific Approach
Although 50 years of field observations and anecdotal evidence have resulted in a rather well accepted notion that elephants are intelligent, emotional, social animals, remarkably little actual science has been done to support this. It is not simply enough to observe an animal's behavior and assume it thinks and feels the same way we do. But how can we find out what an animal is thinking when we can't simply ask it the way we might ask a child why they are crying or a friend why they have helped us? Through carefully planned and executed experiments – games or problems that we give to animals, and now elephants, to test their intelligence – we can begin to ask how animals think. The answers are sometimes difficult to interpret, but to date, we have found that elephants recognize themselves in mirrors (a feat that is unique to only a small number of animal species and seems to be linked to an ability to show emotional, empathic behavior), show complex cooperation (not just helping but coordination and an understanding of partnership), and rely on specific sensory abilities that we humans can not to navigate their natural world. Through a better understanding of how animals, especially elephants, think, we hope to contribute to a better understanding of humanity as well as a unified, multi-faceted approach to protecting what's left of our planet.
Conservation Through Classroom Education
Imagine a game warden or park ranger in Thailand or Kenya or Sri Lanka. He cares about the animals living within the park's fences, and he cares about protecting them. But he has a family, and a government salary that is insufficient and unreliable. He is offered a bribe to "look the other way" one day while poachers go in, or bring out rhino or elephant ivory. He faces a conundrum – feed his children or do the job he is hardly being paid to do. What would you do?
Think Elephants doesn't blame those that take the bribe to feed their children. They have no other choice. Think Elephants wants to give them one. We have designed an education curriculum that brings local scientists into classrooms to teach kids of varying ages and in multiple countries (from the U.S. to Thailand) about biology, psychology, evolution, wildlife management, conservation, climate change, and more. Young students get an opportunity to ask questions of in-the-field scientists about complex science. Our program's hallmark is our webcam sessions from our elephant field sites, where kids get to experience elephants up-close, in their classrooms. In addition, they get to participate in the design, implementation and analysis of experiments. We are currently writing up a number of studies for publication that will have university faculty as well as 12-year-old middle schoolers as authors. Science is not just for those with Ph.D.'s. The 12-year-old in Thailand's classroom today may be the next game warden in 20 years faced with a difficult decision. Hopefully, we'll have enabled him or her to have – and make – a better choice.
Is It Too Late?
We truly hope it is not too late. But if we do not try to change the way we protect our environment, it certainly will be. The more we learn about elephants and other animals through research, the more time we put into collaborating on conservation efforts rather than arguing over their viability and efficiency, and the more we enable our children to make better informed choices about protecting the world we have left, the more likely it is we will make a positive difference. We are Think Elephants International, and we are scientists, professionals and kids working together to help.
Think Elephants International is a 501(c)3 non-profit foundation incorporated in the U.S. State of New York. All donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of U.S. law. If you are interested in making a donation, please do so through PayPal or by contacting us via the Get in Touch page.