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Elephants in Nepal group 2
Dr. Michelle Szydlowski stands with her travel team: Annabel DeSmet, Meghan Woerner, and Deonna Young.

Beacon Staff

When Meghan Woerner received an email from her anthrozoology instructor, Dr. Michelle Szydlowski, inquiring about possible interest in a trip to Nepal to study elephant health and welfare, she jumped at the chance.

“Reading about the (research assistant) position, I could not believe the opportunity I was presented with,” said Woerner, a junior anthrozoology major at Beacon who said she has dreamed of working with elephants since the age of five. “Every second of the trip sounded like a dream, I could not believe I would possibly be able to live out my career goals so early in my professional life.” 

Soon, her dream will become reality, as Woerner, Szydlowski, and two other students, Annabel DeSmet and Deonna Young, will embark on a research trip to Nepal early next year to study the pachyderms.

The team will be revisiting the pachyderm stables which formed the basis of Szydlowski’s health and welfare study to reevaluate them given changes brought on by COVID-induced lockdowns and an ensuing loss of tourism to Nepal. (You can read more about Szydlowski’s efforts here and view a lecture she recently gave on the topic via Beacon’s Salon Lecture Series).

Elephants are native to Southern Nepal — a lowland, tropical region known as the Terai — but many are trafficked from India to satisfy the tourism industry. And while some are well cared for, many are not. While in captivity, they suffer from chronic disease, painful foot problems, saddle wounds, poor nutrition and other injuries.

Michelle Szydlowski with elephant “We are excited to be making this trip, the first in a while since COVID,” said Szydlowski. “This opportunity will give students some real-world experience with research field work as well as an immersion in other cultures. These students are all interested in careers in conservation or are looking at graduate careers that explore the intersection of humans and other animals.”

Beacon students will be working as research assistants and gathering body condition scores for captive animals to determine their overall health. They will also examine the wildlife surrounding the stables where the pachyderms are housed. Just as important, they will evaluate the living conditions of the elephants’ handlers, known as mahouts.

“Mahouts live away from their families, and they themselves are a marginalized community … We are trying to gather data on changes mahouts would like to see in their living conditions,” said Szydlowski.

Besides gathering biological data, the team will also be working with community members on conservation and sustainable development projects which may reduce the impact of ecotourism on the jungle.

Among them are projects pushing for the creation of elephant sanctuaries, efforts to track elephant health and well-being, and creating awareness about the biological effects captive elephants have on Nepal’s wild elephant population, particularly disease transmission.

Before their trip, students will be required to participate in weekly discussions involving literature review and cultural studies, such as how Buddhist and Hindu perspectives shape the human-animal relationship in Nepal.

This cultural background is important given how long elephants have played a major role in Asian culture. For thousands of years, Asian elephants have been used in warfare, transportation and logging. More recently, they have found their way to Nepal’s tourism sector.

“We want the students to gain experience working in a variety of other cultures, and to respect the viewpoint of those cultures,” explained Szydlowski.

These conversions will be further strengthened by activities planned once the students arrive in Nepal, including a visit to local schools that will have them exchange life experiences with residents.

While being conscientious of local viewpoints, however, Szydlowski and her students also hope to support changing local perspectives on elephant conservation. A key component of their trip’s mission is meeting with stakeholders to discuss how best to improve the lives of elephants and humans alike.

The students, who arrive in Nepal in early January 2022, will document their experience by blogging and making videos, including promotional videos for Beacon’s Anthrozoology Program. In addition, they will write academic papers and present at conferences, most notably the Anthrozoology as International Practice student conference, which will take place in March 2022 and is hosted by the University of Exeter in England.

The Katie Adamson Conservation Fund, a community-based conservation organization based in Colorado, has provided some funding for the trip. Szydlowski is seeking additional sponsorship to reduce or cover the costs.

DeSmet, a senior, said she was looking forward to the trip because of her interest in animal husbandry and welfare as well as the chance to engage in cross-cultural research.

“I hope to gain experience doing daily husbandry routines with larger animals, as well as more experience in both academic and journalistic writing,” said DeSmet. “This experience will give me more credibility when applying for both husbandry jobs and graduate school.”