By Published: May 24, 2023

Karen Bailey will present her work on the fraught relationship between elephant and human communities in Thailand when she receives her award at the Ecological Society of America 2023 Annual Meeting

Karen Bailey, an assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, is not your typical ecologist. She is also a social scientist concerned with the interconnection of vulnerable human communities and wildlife threatened by global warming.

In recognition of her interdisciplinary work, Bailey has been named an Early Career Fellow by the Ecological Society of America (ESA), the world’s largest community of ecologists.

Early Career Fellows are chosen within eight years of completing their PhDs, have made significant contributions to ecology and show promise in continuing their exceptional work. They are elected for five years.

Bailey in the field

At the top of the page: CU Boulder ecologist Karen Bailey, center, focuses on solving human-environment problems through her research. Above: Bailey in the field.

Bailey also was awarded the ESA Excellence in Ecology Scholarship in 2022.

When Bailey was a graduate student at the University of Florida, her work centered on traditional ecological subjects, such as small-mammal species in Southern Africa, where she trapped rodents in conservation areas, large-scale sugar plantations and small-scale farmer’s grazing fields.

“While I was there, it happened to be one of the worst droughts in recent history. Grazing fields and croplands were dying around me,” Bailey says. “It was at that point that I made some links between human well-being, environmental well-being and the broader systems that had negative impacts on the environment and people.”

After completing her PhD in 2018, Bailey formed the Well-Being, Environment, Livelihoods and Sustainability (WELS) Group to study the complicated relationships between wildlife, the environment and human communities.

The WELS Group’s numerous projects include collaborations with the KAZAVA and PECAR

Projects, where researchers investigate how humans and wildlife interact and respond to the changing environment of the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area in Southern Africa and the Albertine Rift in East Africa.

Bailey’s latest research concerns elephant and human coexistence in Thailand, which is threatened by depleting natural resources for elephants and increased market demand for crops such as pineapple.

“As climate change continues to decrease the available resources for wildlife, it leads to increased conflict with humans over resources. This is particularly exacerbated when land use change further converts natural ecosystems into human dominated ecosystems like agricultural land,” Bailey says.

As a result of depleted resources in Thailand’s national parks such as Kui Buri, elephants have increasingly “crop raided” agricultural lands outside of protected areas, which have cost both elephant and human lives.

“Elephants love pineapple, just like people do,” Bailey says. “And this is a region where a lot of pineapple has been produced because of growing local and global economic markets around Thailand.”

Through the collaborative Human Elephant Coexistence Through Alternative Agricultural Research ​(HECTAAR) project, Bailey studies the activity of elephants and how local agricultural communities can adapt their farms to coexist with their wildlife neighbors.

Tyler Nuckols, a PhD student in environmental studies advised by Bailey, is leading the project.

“We’re trying to minimize this conflict by shifting pineapple monocropping to mixed-crop landscapes with unpalatable crops interspersed with palatable crops. Then, over time, we’ll track how elephant movement might change with different crops on the landscape,” Bailey says.

Switching from pineapple to other crops, however, might come at a cost to small farmers who rely on global demand for the fruit.

“We’re also working with an organization, Bring The Elephant Home, that is forming a co-op around fair trade production to ensure that these unpalatable crops have a strong economic market and minimize the risk to the farmers who are taking on this change,” Bailey says.

For Bailey, the theme of justice for vulnerable communities who share ecosystems with endangered wildlife has been a major thread throughout her work in the WELS Group.

There’s this sense that, globally, we all benefit from the existence of elephants. We enjoy the concept and being able to vacation to places where we can see them. But there are costs to living with elephants that are not globally distributed.”

“There’s this sense that, globally, we all benefit from the existence of elephants. We enjoy the concept and being able to vacation to places where we can see them. But there are costs to living with elephants that are not globally distributed,” Bailey says.

When it comes to the challenges of elephant crop raiding and global warming, Bailey believes we need more cooperation with the communities who are most vulnerable.

“The needs and values of local residents matter, and I think some of the challenges of conservation have been people from faraway places telling these communities what they can and cannot do. That doesn't facilitate community-driven decision-making around natural resources in the environment,” Bailey says.

Bailey will present her work on HECTAAR at the ESA 2023 Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon, where she will receive her Early Career Fellowship award.