HELPING – with elephants

Elephants, elephants everywhere. That’s what life is like in Bann Tha Klang, Thailand – an ancient Kui village which is home to the Surin Elephant Study Center and approximately 200 elephants. I was privileged to spend a week volunteering with the Surin Project and 11 of these amazing animals and their mahouts. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this adventure, but I am so glad that I did. It was truly a week to remember – and I will – I really will.

I miss them already. These gently giants are an amazing sight to behold.

I miss them already. These gently giants are an amazing sight to behold.

*Text adapted from Surin Project website* In 2005, a provincial organization began an initiative to reunite mahouts with their families; as their families often stayed at home in Surin while they earned an income street-begging with their elephants. The Surin Provincial Adminsitrative Organization (SPAO) and the Zoological Park Organziation Thailand (ZPO) support approximately 200 mahouts with a monthly salary and free housing for their families, provided they keep their privately owned elephants within the Study Center. Unfortunately, the salary is not enough to cover the monthly expenses of properly caring for an elephant, not to mention supporting an entire family. In order to supplement this income, many mahouts find other work outside the Study Center, which forces their elephants to be chained up all day and all night, or perhaps they choose to have their elephants offer rides to tourists or perform in circus shows within the Study Center.

In 2009, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert founded the Surin Project as a way to support the mahouts living within the Surin Elephant Study Center and, in turn, provide their elephants with a better life. For each mahout that joins the project, Save Elephant Foundation matches their monthly salary received from either SPAO and ZPO, which gives them the chance to fully support their families. In return, each mahout must agree to:  leave their bullhook at home, unchain their elephant for at least 3 hours per day, participate in a cultural exchange evening, refrain from taking part in elephant rides or circus shows, and assist volunteers with daily project work.

First task hopping on the pickup with 2 other volunteers and a few Mahouts to cut sugarcane for the elephants.

First task hopping on the pickup with 2 other volunteers and a few Mahouts to cut sugarcane for the elephants. Bonus – found a place to wear my ugly orange Seattle Marathon shirt.

Chop it down and pile it in. Did you know sugarcane is super itchy.

Chop it down and pile it in. Did you know sugarcane is super itchy?

Su Ched is a sneaky little bugger. After he cut us some sugarcane to reward us for our hard work, he proceed to tie bits of grass onto the other Mahouts clothes. Silly Su Ched, silly.

Su Ched is a sneaky little bugger. After he cut us some sugarcane to reward us for our hard work, he proceed to tie bits of grass onto the other Mahouts clothes. Silly Su Ched, silly.

The elephants love their sugarcane!

The elephants love their sugarcane! Look how happy she is – I swear that’s an elephant smile.

The Surin Project is not an elephant sanctuary. They are working within a government-run facility which does not have the same welfare standards for the elephants as they would like. This makes their work there all the more important, but it also exposes them to a certain amount of suffering. If you are familiar with their project at Elephant Nature Park, you will notice some considerable differences from elephant sanctuaries – the land is government-owned, so their ability to build new structures is limited; the elephants are owned by their mahouts, so how they are treated is ultimately not the projects decision; over 90% of the elephants (about 180) living at the Study Center are not members of the Surin Project, and as such, you might witness use of the bullhook, elephant riding, elephant circus shows and chained elephants showing signs of stress (stereotypic behavior); the Study Center is located within the village of Baan Tha Klang, embedding volunteers within a community with a unique Thai culture.

The number of elephants with their mahouts as part of the Surin Project frequently changes, and they are constantly working to increase membership. At the present time, they have 12 elephants that they support. Hopefully, by showing local mahouts that people are willing to volunteer to help them and see their elephants living in a natural setting, they will be provided with the tools to adapt their mindset to be more considerate of their elephants’ welfare. After all, as their volunteer registration for the project expands, so too will their ability to support more elephants.*Text adapted from Surin Project website*

We bought some cucumbers back in town - the elephants were more than ready to chow down.

We bought some cucumbers back in town – the elephants were more than ready to chow down.

Feed to the trunk, not to the mouth. Elephant Safety 101. Did you know elephants have over 2000 muscles just in their trunks?

Feed to the trunk, not to the mouth. Elephant Safety 101. Did you know elephants have over 2000 muscles just in their trunks?

A bit like a game of hungry hungry hippos.

A bit like a game of hungry hungry hippos.

We visited the poo paper factory - yep that's paper made out of elephant poo. Volunteer Coordinator Ocha shows us how its done.

We visited the poo paper factory – yep that’s paper made out of elephant poo. Volunteer Coordinator Ocha shows us how its done.

We even had to opportunity to try it out ourselves.

We even had to opportunity to try it out ourselves.

The Elephant graveyard - they bury the elephant for several years first to allow it to decompose and then retreive some of the special bones like the skull and leg bones to put in the upper portion. Mahouts and their families visit the graveyard and pay respect to the lost family members.

The Elephant graveyard – they bury the elephant for several years first to allow it to decompose and then retreive some of the special bones like the skull and leg bones to put in the upper portion. Mahouts and their families visit the graveyard and pay respect to their loved ones.

We went for daily walks with the elephants. Meandering through the forest, snacking along the way.

We went for daily walks with the elephants – meandering through the forest and countryside.

They are truly magnificent creatures - so big and beautiful.

They are truly magnificent creatures – so big and beautiful.

The volunteers usually stayed in a group at the rear of the herd - the safest place to be in case of a stampede.

The volunteers usually stayed in a group at the rear of the herd – the safest place to be in case of a stampede. We had no issues the whole week, the elephants were on their best behavior.

I got pretty used to this view. I could even identify some of the elephants by their bums. Hello Fa Sai!

I got pretty used to this view. I can even identify some of the elephants by their bums. Hi Fa Sai!

Cute, I know.

Cute, I know.

Imagine camping – now imagine camping while surrounded by elephants. That’s about how my week was. Very simple accommodation in little 2 room cabins on stilts, with a very hard mattress on the floor and a mosquito net cover. The toilet was in a separate little building and instead of a nice hot shower there was a nice cold bucket bath. It was unusually cold during my weeks stay. At night I slept in all of my clothes including socks and hat, inside my sleep sheet and under two blankets. The first night was the worst because it poured down rain and made everything feel damp and even colder. The days were nice and sunny though and I eventually got down to a tshirt by midday.

The Surin Project needs volunteers. Yes, it is mainly for the money they bring in – but this money goes almost directly into food, lodging, and care for the elephants, the mahouts and their families. Did you know that an elephant eats about 10% of its weight everyday? That’s a lot of food and an awful lot of money too. The elephants in the project are healthy and generally happy. They show far less stress induced behavior than the other elephants in the village.

The volunteers are necessary because they show the community an alternative way of having their elephants participate in tourism. The locals may thinks it’s crazy that a bunch of foreigners (or ‘farang’ as they call us) would come and pay money to shovel shit and cut sugarcane, but we will and are much happier to spend money helping elephants have a better life than to pay money breaking their backs by riding on them.

I learned so much about elephants and their plight over this week, and I feel very fortunate that I found the Surin Project and was able to learn first hand about what they do. There are many elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, and they are great. But the reality is that there are and will continue to be a huge number of elephants in captivity. Unfortunately, these elephants are generally not treated very well and often suffer due to inappropriate tourism. The Surin Project is showing that there is another way and I am so happy I was able to help in a small way.

View from my bed. The mornings were super chilly - I had a hard time willing myself to emerge from my cozy cocoon.

View from my bed. The mornings were super chilly – I had a hard time willing myself to emerge from my cozy cocoon.

We visited the local market one day and I couldn't resist trying the local delicacy - fried crickets!

We visited the local market one day and I couldn’t resist trying the local delicacy – fried crickets!

Not as disgusting as they look - just rip off the legs and wings and it's a salty crunchy old oil flavored snack.

Not as disgusting as they look – just rip off the legs and wings and it’s a salty crunchy old oil flavored snack.

Walking to the swimming hole. Two miles through the rice fields and along the road.

Walking to the swimming hole. Two miles through the rice fields and along the road.

I never knew elephants made so many different sounds. They trumpet, they growl, they scream (sad but true), and they pound their trunk on the ground producing an eery hollow thunk sound.

I never knew elephants made so many different sounds. They trumpet, they growl, they scream (sad but true), and they pound their trunk on the ground producing an eery hollow thunk sound.

A stare down with Jaeb while feeding her from a big bag of Taro.

A stare down with Jaeb while feeding her from a big bag of Taro.

Elephants bathing time - watch out for the feet and the floating balls of poo.

Elephants bathing time – watch out for the feet and the floating balls of poo.

When in a water fight with an elephant - the human is sure to lose.

When in a water fight with an elephant – the human is sure to lose.

There were volunteers from America, England, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. A great group of people.

There were volunteers from America, England, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. A great group of people.

Gotta scratch that itch!

Gotta scratch that itch!

Tang Mo and her mahout Crow. There is a very special bond between Mahout and elephant - a deep love and respect.

Tang Mo and her mahout Crow. There is a very special bond between Mahout and elephant – a deep love and respect.

Play times over, time to head back home.

Play times over, time to head back home.

Sai Fa and her mahout Doe.

Sai Fa and her mahout Doe.

Fighting for a spot at the water fountain.

Fighting for a spot at the water fountain.

The old lady and her lady mahout and daughter.

The old lady elephant and her lady mahout and daughter.

At the end of the week we participated in the Mahout Olympics - a series of games/challenges for mahout and volunteer teams. Here I am trying to catch seeds on the back of my hand and then throw them up and catch them again in the palm of my hand. I only got one.

At the end of the week we participated in the Mahout Olympics – a series of games/challenges for mahout and volunteer teams. Here I am trying to catch seeds on the back of my hand and then throw them up and catch them again in the palm of my hand. I only got one.

I was really bad at the slingshot. I didn't hit the bottle once.

I was really bad at the slingshot. I didn’t hit the bottle once.

Mahout basketball - I got three out five. I was MVP of this round.

Mahout basketball – I got three out five. I was MVP of this round.

The losers of the games got a face full of talcum powder and had to do the chicken dance.

The losers of the games got a face full of talcum powder and had to do the chicken dance.

The last walk - a final farewell to these beautiful creatures.

The last walk – a final farewell to these beautiful creatures.

Peaking out from under Nong Lek. What's going through my mind? Please don't step on me, please don't step on me!

Peaking out from under Nong Lek. What’s going through my mind? Please don’t step on me, please don’t step on me!

It was an amazing week, one I will not soon forget. Being in the company of these gentle giants, touching them, feeding them, witnessing their unique personalities and traits was a truly wonderful gift. If you ever have the opportunity to help in such a way – please do. It is definitely worth it.

Thanks for reading!

-Rene

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4 responses to “HELPING – with elephants

  1. When you looked into their eyes did you feel a deep communication and wise intelligence? That was my experience with an elephant decades ago, at a zoo. You were so fortunate to have this experience. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Volunteering for the elephants in Thailand got me interested since I first read about it on a random travel blog. I would love to bathe the elephants too but I heard you have to pay a certain amount (which is rather high for an average Filipino) so for now, it’ll stay on my bucket list and hopefully tick it off before I get old. Cheers to travelling with a purpose! 🙂

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