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Undergraduate Research: Elephants, Leopards, and Himalayan Black Bears

Posted by rdsayler | March 28, 2024
[Photo: Cayden Steele, undergraduate student in the Honors Program at Washington State University, looking at the sacred Buddhist site the Paro Taktsang in Bhutan, also known as the Tiger’s Nest. ]


Washington State University and the School of the Environment present tremendous opportunities for students seeking to expand and enrich their education through travel and study abroad opportunities. Just imagine being able to travel to Thailand and Bhutan in Asia to study Asian elephants (Elephus maximus) and leopards (Panthera pardus) as a formal part of your educational program.

Sure beats studying for that lab quiz at 3 pm, doesn’t it?

Taking the road less traveled is exactly what WSU undergraduate, Cayden Steele, recently did while conducting field research for his Honors Thesis in the WSU Honors College. Cayden worked with Drs. Jennifer Phillips (thesis advisor) and Rod Sayler (thesis evaluator) in the School of the Environment to complete his honors thesis looking at human conflicts with Asian elephants, leopards, and Himalayan black bears (Ursus thibetinus laniger) in South and Central Asia.


[Photo: Students hiking up to the Tango Monastery, a Buddhist monastery in Bhutan.]


Cayden worked with the School for Field Studies to gain valuable field work experience and study wildlife conservation in collaboration with The Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri Cambodia, Bring the Elephant Home in Ban Raum Thai, Thailand, the Bhutan Ecological Society in Paro, Bhutan, and other conservation programs.

For his honors thesis, Cayden studied aspects of human conflicts with elephants in Thailand followed by conducting surveys for leopards and Himalayan black bears in Bhutan. All of these species may come into conflict with humans, especially when farmers are growing crops (e.g., pineapples) that are eaten by elephants or raising livestock that may fall prey to leopards and other large predators.


Students in jungle and working
[Photo: Undergraduate students taking a lunch break in the jungle in Thailand and working in field conditions on wildlife projects.]


Cayden didn’t exactly miss taking lab quizzes:

We were fully immersed for weeks at a time, living in the jungle with no wifi, no electricity after dark, and in some cases, not even windows for any extra light. Days started early and ended late.

But our group of students were able to tackle many different subjects relating to elephants, such as behavior, ecology, potential deterrents to crop damage, and we even got to help a farmer protect their crops from wandering elephants. It gave us a great opportunity to experience and connect with people and local cultures.”

In Kui Buri National Park in southern Thailand, Cayden was asked to focus his work on evaluating the biodiversity value of alternative crops (e.g., lemongrass, galangal) that are thought to be less attractive than pineapples as forage for elephants that sometimes leave the natural cover of the national parks and forested areas to seek food in planted fields.

The hope is that conflicts with farmers can be reduced by growing alternative crops less attractive to elephants.

In field studies in Thailand, Cayden spent his time systematically sampling and identifying insects from study plots to evaluate whether insect abundance and diversity would be higher in these alternative crops compared to the traditional monoculture fields of pineapple subject to raids by foraging elephants. The essential question there was whether these alternative crops also presented other environmental benefits through higher insect biodiversity.

In separate studies in Bhutan, Cayden collected and used data from automatic camera traps to examine habitat use and compare the timing of activities of humans, livestock, and two large predators, leopards and Himalayan black bears. This work explored the spatial and temporal aspects of how large predators potentially interact and use landscapes increasingly dominated by humans.

Insect Studies

Unfortunately, most of the insect studies conducted in alternative crop fields in Thailand did not reveal significant differences in abundance or diversity among crop types, however, the results did suggest that improvements to sampling procedures and more extended studies could clarify and expand comparisons of biodiversity for different types of crops.

Negative results are a major, if not a dominant, part of science and Cayden leveraged these results to explore and dig deeper into the issues of developing better measurements for biodiversity in these field sites in his honors thesis.


Cayden Steele
[Photo: Cayden Steele, WSU undergraduate student. Selfie with Asian elephants in Thailand.]

Leopards, Bears, and Camera Traps

Cayden and his colleagues also spent many hard hours traversing rugged landscapes in Bhutan to visit and maintain camera traps which utilized motion sensors to automatically photograph wild animals, people, and livestock that triggered the cameras.

Data from the camera traps were then subjected to extensive statistical and graphical analysis to reveal broad patterns of habitat use and interactions of wildlife and humans over large landscapes.

Analysis of images from camera traps revealed several interesting patterns of habitat use such as leopards being more active in early morning hours (i.e., peaking around 0500 hrs) while Himalayan black bears tended to be more active later at night (i.e., around 18:00 hrs). Activities of both predators tended to be more frequent either before or after most human activities as well as when horses or cattle were active.

Cayden also found that leopards were more likely to be detected in relatively flat terrain compared to other categories of terrain, which he partly relates to diet and prey selection. Leopards are entirely carnivorous and likely exploit deer as prey occurring in flatter terrains while Himalayan black bears are omnivorous and exploit a wide variety of resources occurring over different elevations and terrains.

Cayden hopes that additional results from ecological studies such as these can be useful in determining ways to reduce human-wildlife conflicts and improve future wildlife conservation for many species, especially large carnivores and threatened and endangered species.


Cayden Steele

[Photo: Go Cougs!!! Cayden Steele, undergraduate student in the Honors Program at Washington State University. Asian elephant in the background.]

The Road Less Traveled

What might the future hold for Cayden? Like most people, Cayden doesn’t know exactly what opportunities might pop up and what new paths he might take and explore in the future after he finishes his education at Washington State University, but he is sure that he wants to continue his education and study animal behavior.

Wildlife ecology and animal behavior are fascinating subjects and Cayden wants to continue his adventures and learn all that he can about caring for and preserving the natural world.

R. Sayler


For More Information: Dr. Jennifer Phillips

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