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Thinking Like an Elephant in Thailand



John Roberts is the Director of Elephants at the Anantara Resort Golden Triangle


CHIANG RAI – Elephants are endangered throughout their range countries. Asian elephants in Thailand are of particular concern, with approximately 1,500 left in captivity, and 2,000 remaining in the wild in Thailand. (There are fewer than 50,000 elephants throughout Asia.)

Elephants are widely regarded as one of the most intelligent species on Earth, but remarkably little empirical evidence exists to support this. Most of what we know of elephants comes from extensive, long-term field research in Africa, but little has been done experimentally to test how elephants think about their environment and about each other.

Understanding elephant behavior helps scientists to both better understand the evolution of intelligence in non-primates, and to potentially develop human-elephant conflict mitigation protocols that recognize and take into account the social and physical intelligence of elephants in the wild.

At the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), a Thai non-profit organisation based in Chiang Rai, Dr. Plotnik is investigating elephant cognitive complexity, conducting experiments on memory, problem-solving, and cooperation. Non-invasive cognitive and physiological research on captive elephants complements wild elephant research by providing a controlled environment in which careful analysis of behavior can be performed and interpreted for future application to wild elephant management.

The more we learn about elephants, the more we can educate the public about our need to protect them, and the more comprehensive our approach to working to mitigate human-elephant conflict, specifically the encroachment of wild elephants on private land, will be. The project research team – led by Dr. Plotnik is currently conducting a wide-range of studies on elephant memory, cooperation, problem-solving, and reasoning.

Asian elephants in Thailand are of particular concern, with approximately 1,500 left in captivity, and 2,000 remaining in the wild in Thailand.

A note about the elephants at GTAEF:

Prior to 1989, captive elephants were primarily used in the logging industry. Following the commercial ban on logging in that year, thousands of captive elephants were left jobless. Due to a large number of captive elephants, and not enough wild land to support them, many of these elephants went into tourism. The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is a Thai not-for-profit foundation currently home to 30 elephants and their mahouts (caretakers) and families. Most of these elephants were ex-street begging elephants, or elephants that spent their days on the streets of major cities with their mahouts and owners begging for food and tips. Unfortunately, the number of captive elephants still exceeds the number of elephants needed in tourism, and there is little traditional elephant handlers can do but to seek alternative means of income.

Meet the Scientists

Dr. Joshua Plotnik

University of Cambridge


Dr. Joshua Plotnik, Ph.D. is a Newton Postdoctoral Fellow in the Dept. of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. He received his Ph.D. at Atlanta’s Emory University, US, studying animal behavior and comparative psychology. In addition to elephants, research interests have included corvid prosociality and cooperation, and chimpanzee social behavior, cognition and face recognition. Joshua is currently Head of Elephant Research, at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) in Thailand, and the founder of Think Elephants International, a U.S. based non-profit focused on wildlife conservation education programming in primary and secondary school classrooms. He can read, write and speak Thai.

John Roberts

Anantara Resort Golden Triangle


John Roberts is the Director of Elephants at the Anantara Resort Golden Triangle, Chiang Rai, Thailand. He gained a degree in Materials Science and Engineering at Bath University, UK, before volunteering in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the desert of West Texas. He pursued this interest in conservation, working in Northern Australia, followed by five years in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. In Thailand, John coordinates a charity foundation, bringing juvenile elephants and their mahouts from Bangkok and giving them a forest home. John is a trustee of the International Trust for Nature Conservation, and has contributed articles to several publications, including Bird Conservation Nepal.

Dr. Cherry

Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok


Dr. Cherry is one of only several, trained elephant veterinarians in Thailand. She is the full-time elephant veterinarian for the GTAEF, but also spends time training and working at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center’s main government elephant hospital in Lampang. She has attended many conferences and workshops (including international conferences on elephant health and wildlife management), and been involved with elephant health training programs for foreign vets and researchers. Dr. Cherry received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and immediately took up her elephant medical training upon graduation. She is a native Thai speaker, and can read, write and speak English.

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