Pursuing Knowledge in the Face of Terrorism

April Sri Lanka bombings disrupt doctoral candidate’s research.

by Anne Reynolds

Pursuing Knowledge in the Face of Terrorism

Chase LaDue’s interest in elephants is long-standing.

“My parents tell stories of me getting a VHS copy of Jungle Book when I was three or four years old,” he recalled. “And watching the scene with the elephants walking by over and over again to the point where the tape wore out.”

His enthusiasm has fueled a lifelong study of the pachyderms as well as a distinguished academic career. Now, this doctoral candidate in Mason’s environmental science and public policy program is putting his expertise to work to help keep Asian elephants from extinction.

LaDue’s doctoral advisor is Elizabeth Freeman, a faculty member in the School of Integrative Studies whose areas of interest include behavioral ecology and endocrinology; she studies hormones and behavior (and their interrelationship) among the world’s diverse species. LaDue is an applied ecologist studying elephant behavior, physiology, and conservation. His work centers on the study of elephant hormones and behavior, seeking to prevent or mitigate human-elephant conflict.

Freeman explained, “The focus of his research is a unique characteristic in male elephants: they go through a heightened sexual state called musth that is very similar to a rut in deer. But all the deer go into rut the same time and compete for females. In elephants, it’s what we call asynchronous. Males go into musth different times of year and for different lengths of time depending on their age and physical status.”

Musth, said Freeman, “has been better studied and understood in African elephants, and so Chase is interested in filling in gaps in our knowledge in Asian elephants... And a lot of what we know and learn is from the captive community, and very little work has been done on wild elephants.”

This information is vital for the elephants’ survival, noted Freeman. Asian elephants are critically endangered, and because musth can correlate with aggressive, erratic behavior, male elephants in a musth state are “most likely to be ones that are going into villages, raiding crops, and interacting with people, leading to human−elephant conflict.”

LaDue has received prestigious funding for his research, including the Fulbright Program and the National Geographic Early Career Grant to help fund the study.

In Sri Lanka, LaDue worked within a collaboration between Mason, Rajarata University, and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation, which has a research site at Rajarata. “The research plan was to do three different national parks,” he said. “We started at Wasgamuwa because the way the rainy and the wet seasons work, most of the elephants were close by that park in the north-central province. It was just getting dry enough in the parks in Kaudulla and Minneriya, where I was planning to go next, that elephants were starting to move there. … Sri Lanka – the island – is small enough to where it’s pretty much one continuous [elephant] population, so the elephants move according to the seasons, across the island.”

However, because the second and third parks planned for LaDue’s study remained flooded, he said, “I took some of the vacation time that Fulbright gave me to go to Thailand to see more elephants -- because that’s what elephant people do on their vacations.”

While he was out of the country, violence struck Sri Lanka. On April 21, terrorists detonated explosives in churches, hotels, and a housing complex.

“It was Easter Sunday when I got a bunch of text messages from friends who are actually outside of the country -- there were two or three of us who were outside of Sri Lanka when the bombs hit – saying, ‘What’s up? What’s up?’ And we were getting some communication back from some people who were still on the island just telling us to go inside and not go outside.”

It was extremely difficult to get information, he said. “Sri Lanka – it has happened a few times in the past – Sri Lanka’s response to any emergency is just to immediately shut down social media. So that includes Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more importantly, WhatsApp … abroad, that’s how almost all people communicate.”

He continued to monitor the situation through email contact with the Fulbright director in Sri Lanka, who advised him at first to stay in Bangkok. However, he soon received word that he would be evacuated back to the United States. All of his belongings, research equipment, and samples collected in the course of his study remained in Sri Lanka.

“The one miracle that happened in all of this,” he said, “I work on vacations all the time but this time in Thailand I wanted to focus on the elephants, so I didn’t bring my laptop with me. I always travel with my laptop. This time I didn’t bring it with me. I was so nervous – it was in Sri Lanka when I was in Thailand: how am I going to get this back?

“Luckily, some of the senior Fulbright scholars who were being evacuated from Sri Lanka, one of them was going to Uzbekistan to finish up his grant there … and he was going to have to fly through Bangkok. By some miracle, we got my laptop from the university, driven six hours to [Sri Lanka's capital,] Colombo, got it to him at the airport, and when he flew to Bangkok I took Uber to meet him at his hotel. And I got my laptop. … but everything else that I left in Sri Lanka is still there.”

One significant challenge is retrieving LaDue’s research samples. They are, by their nature, somewhat sensitive. According to LaDue’s blog:

We can learn about an animal’s life from its poop, including its diet, genetic composition, microbiome, and other things. For our project, we’re interested in measuring hormones, the body’s chemical messengers that are important regulators of behavior, helping an animal cope with its environment. And yes, we can measure hormone metabolites in elephant poop.

LaDue is now safely home in the United States, working with Mason and Rajarata University to navigate the complexities of shipping research equipment and biological samples from abroad.

In another setback, he has learned that the Fulbright program is unable to fund the three months left in his research. “This is totally uncharted territory … for the Sri Lankan program, they’ve never had to stop it halfway through,” said LaDue. Nevertheless, he is working on securing alternate funding to travel back to Sri Lanka and remains optimistic that he will be able to return in the summer of 2020. He is mindful of his teammates who are unable to leave the country and is hopeful that he will be able to rejoin them soon to complete their work.

 “In spite of all of this, Chase is hankering to get back there,” said Freeman. “He fell in love with the country, feels passionate about what he’s doing and wants to complete what he set out to do.”