After a 13 hour flight, cramped in the back of a long-distance airplane, 2 warmed up meals, 3 movies and several attempts to nap, I arrived in the metropolis of Thailand, the city which never sleeps; Bangkok. It was the middle of the night, 2 am to be exact. My accommodation wasn’t ready for check in until 2 pm. I was either going to sleep at the airport or go to my hostel, I decided on the latter and threw myself into the fray. I didn’t decide to travel around the world being worried all the time – it’s about crossing your limits, risking something. The taxi driver let me out nearby my hostel, the street was closed to traffic. The last kilometre I have to walk, fully loaded with my large backpack and shoulder bag. I already felt like a working elephant. After storing my belongings into the luggage room I become even more aware of Bangkok’s charm as I walk the streets. There is no night life quite like Bangkok’s – around 5 am I watched Thai families eating between the countless of tourists who form rows in a line from bar to bar. After 2 days visiting the dozen sightseeings around the inner city, I was really excited to meet my project leader and the other volunteer workers. For the next 3 weeks, we’d all be working with elephants! Just a 7 hours drive to north east Thailand, the Surin Province till then.
The Surin Project is one of various projects run by the Save Elephant Foundation (SEF) and is located in a small village of Baan Tha Klang in the Surin Province at the local Surin Elephant Study Centre. They help elephants abandoned from circuses and elephant rides. The Study Centre supports 200 “mahouts” (a person who rides an elephant) , the elephants owners with their elephants – however the Project has only the capacity to work with 12 elephants at once. During my time we worked with 7 female elephants. (To be more precise with 8 thus I had the chance to see a new born baby elephant!)
Once we made it to the village, my group who were made up of 20 international volunteers were allocated to our host families. I lived with a mother and her two daughters, they were so welcoming and lovely. It was a humbling experience to live with them and live there life. It makes you realise how lucky we are and to be grateful for every moment.
We were welcomed with a ceremony and met the mahouts (a person who rides an elephant). Mahouts work over decades with the elephants to build up a connection to the animal. The elephants only listen to the voice and orders of their personal owner. Surprisingly there were also some mahouts younger than me (26) – they started working with the younger elephants. The village elder, also a mahout prayed for us and gave us welcome bracelets, a recognition for others that we are now part of the village community. Our project leader introduced us to our work schedule. Each morning we had to cut sugarcane, the main food source for the elephants on bought fields or cleaning the leftovers in the nearby enclosure in the forest for approximately 30 minutes. The rest of the day’s program is to keep the elephants busy by either walking with them into the forest, bathing with them in the river, feeding them or just observing them interacting freely in the enclosure. We also taught English 2 times a week in the village’s primary school and in the evening at a temple for each one hour. Most of the young pupils already know the ABC but it was our aim to explain to them the different spellings by learning them simple words or playing word games. They also put a talent show on each Friday and an some mahout sport games each Saturday with the elephant owners.
The work alongside the mahouts promotes a better understanding of each other and volunteers can expect to learn more about the unique culture as well of their connection to their elephants
The rash deforestation and clearing of the woodland of the elephant natural habitat over the past 50 years and alteration of the water systems has resulted in a lack of food and water for the elephants. Today the Surin government provide 200 acres of land for the elephants and their mahouts with many extensions on they way for the elephants.
Elephant husbandry is a long time part of the Thai culture and deeply integrated in the lifestyle. Unfortunately to raise the elephants a so called bull-hook is still often used, a sharp tool to control the elephant behaviour and to steer them away from undesirable places. By working in a close collaboration with mahouts they are changing the mindset of the people and showing how to treat elephants with respect. The mahouts who takes part in the project still enclose their elephants over night to prevent dangerous situations for the volunteers. Elephants like humans have their own personalities and can be sometimes playful or protective for their baby. The Elephants in the Project are not bought from their owners. We teach the mahouts how to treat the elephants, without force or harm. Through the volunteers work we can show people that people are willing to see the mahouts to be more considerate of the elephant’s welfare.
All in all it was a very unique and worthy experience – I fell in love with the gentle and polite people, the back to basics lifestyle for a few weeks which was completely different to my lifestyle, I even wanted to stay longer in Bangkok. The peaceful and organised rural village life which teaches you to appreciate the little things in life and of course with the beautiful elephants. Although I have to admitIi had a lot of respect in the beginning but over time you learn more and more about these beautiful creatures and that they need your help! In my opinion my participation may have improved the living conditions of the elephants temporary but with increasing volunteers numbers maybe one day the elephants treatment in this area will change forever…
Words: Alexander Debus
ABOUT Save Elephant Foundation (SEF)
Save Elephant Foundation is a Thai non–profit organisation dedicated to providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population through a multifaceted approach involving local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism operations. Each of our flagship projects is aimed at accomplishing that mission, as well as working towards these goals:
to expand self-sustaining eco-tourism operations that benefit local communities and ecosystems
to better incorporate our efforts into local communities and to ensure their benefit through our continuing operation
to become a leader in the field of Asian elephant research through academic outreach and education programs
to create practical, positive reinforcement based elephant training and rehabilitation programs
to establish an international volunteer community that raises awareness to issues facing the Asian elephant
to more fully integrate with the global conservation community to facilitate dynamic cross-cultural networking