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The Call of the Wild

Written by Courtney Clemente

Nik Batruch '08

Nik Batruch '08 didn't have a typical spring break. Instead of lounging on the beach, Batruch accompanied physics professor Bruce Thompson to Loango National Park in Gabon, West Africa, where the pair set up listening posts to record acoustic and seismic elephant activity for six months. The data collected by these posts will determine how many elephants exist in the park and how they move around in response to oil exploration and other human activities in and near the park.

Over the course of 14 days, Thompson and Batruch set up 10 listening posts in various trees around the park. The devices were placed approximately 30 feet above the ground so that elephants and other animals, such as apes and monkeys, would not disable them.

“We were pretty much living the project 24/7,” Batruch explains. “We weren't just going out into the forest, doing an installation, and then coming back to a hotel room. We camped out in the field for more than half the trip.” 

Most nights Thompson and Batruch made camp in grassy fields where they saw many elephants as well as fresh tracks from panthers, gorillas, and hippos. While they camped on the hippo grazing ground, they heard the hippos grunting at night.

“I was not prepared for how beautiful the place is,” Thompson says. “I was a little bit worried about mosquitoes, but that turned out to be not much of a problem, and we got to enjoy the beauty of the place.”

An added challenge came from having to trek the bulky equipment and batteries through the mud and water of Gabon’s rainy season. Batruch was surprised at how much walking they did; he says they easily covered 50 kilometers while setting up the devices. “It turned out to be a lot more work then we thought it would be,” Thompson says. “But we did get them up.”

In the months before the trip, Thompson was searching for a physics student to accompany him who would go the extra mile in terms of field work. Batruch, a double major in physics and television-radio, has an interest in audio production and sound physics.

“Nik far exceeded my expectations about what he would contribute, and it was just wonderful having him along and having him help out with all of this,” says Thompson.

Thompson began his elephant research in March 2000 when he supplied a seismic sensor to researchers with Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project, which assesses the size and composition of elephant populations with acoustic monitoring of their vocal patterns. Since then, Thompson has traveled to Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic, the Rosamund Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park in Syracuse, New York, and the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, to study elephant footfalls and vocalizations. 

The opportunity to do research in Gabon came up quickly for Thompson, who had mere months to plan it. The Wildlife Conservation Society based at the Bronx Zoo alerted researchers at Cornell to upcoming oil exploration in the park. Cornell researchers shared the alert with Thompson, who knew it was essential to get listening equipment set up before the exploration started.

The data collected will help determine whether oil exploration activities have a profound effect on the elephant population in the park. Thompson hopes to learn whether the elephants move out once the exploration begins. There is also an increased risk of poaching associated with the large numbers of people who will be moving through the area.

 “We're hoping to give Loango Park feedback as to what oil explorations do in these forested areas so they can make informed decisions about how they use [them], because they may not be aware of the impact that these kinds of activities have,” Thompson says. Thompson's associate from Cornell, Peter Wrege, returned to Gabon in June to retrieve the data from the posts. In the fall, Batruch and Thompson will be refining the summer analysis and writing a report to funding agencies as well as a paper on the results. The project has received funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Thompson is awaiting word on additional funding from the National Geographic Society. 

Batruch says that walking through the forest and setting up the automated recording units, seeing exotic wildlife, and taking part in such an innovative research project is an experience he is grateful to have had at Ithaca College. “It was such a valuable experience to spend so many hours in the field,” he says.



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