Helping Elephants in Surin

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Plight of the Elephants

In Thailand, approximately 1,000 elephants remain in the wild, placing the Asian elephant on the endangered species list. Unfortunately, captive elephants are considered livestock, similar to cattle, and are not protected as an endangered species. Captive elephants have a mahout (care taker) that forms a bond with the elephant. Often this bond is a life long relationship.

When young (about 3 years old), the mahout seeks to break the elephant’s wild spirit. Often the breaking process is through negative feedback involving beating with a hook (a foot long rod with a sharp metal book on the end) until the elephant displays the desired behavior. Once broken, if the elephant is destined for life in the tourism industry, they face further training to perform feats that are not a natural part of an elephant’s behavior such as playing soccer (football) or basketball, throwing darts at objects, painting or standing on their front lets. Again, this training is through negative feedback.

In 1989 logging was banned in Thailand. Elephants that once provided essential manpower were suddenly unemployed and their mahouts found themselves without a viable income source to feed their elephants and their families. Many mahouts turned to a life of street begging with their elephants or using their elephants in the tourism industry for trekking or circus shows. Ultimately, mahouts went from a standing of significant status to being on the lowest rung of the ladder.

Street begging elephants faced long days on the streets without access to proper nutrition or water as tourists paid to feed an elephant a bunch of bananas. In 2012, street begging was finally banned in all of the major cities in Thailand. And only a few years ago did authorities start enforcing the ban by fining mahouts using their elephants for begging

Trekking elephants and elephants used for giving rides at tourist locations face back breaking work carrying a heavy saddle (30-50 kilos/56-110 lbs) plus the weight of the tourists which can be another 70 to 120 kilos (150 to 265 lbs) or more, depending on the number of riders. The saddle is often ill fitting as they are a “one size fits all” design, held on with ropes that if tied wrong can constrict movements of the elephant’s legs and their ability to breathe. The elephant wears the saddle the entire working day. Despite the massive size of an elephant, their spine is not designed to bear this type of weight.

Life at the Elephant Study Project

Despite its research sounding name, the Elephant Study Project is basically a relocation option for formerly street begging and otherwise unemployed elephants and their mahouts. The center is located in Baan Tha Klan in the Surin province. Set on 2,000 acres of land, the center is currently home to 160 elephants and their families. The government provides an income of 8,000 baht ($230) a month for families and elephants living at the center. About half that money goes to feeding their elephants. Often mahouts have to turn to another source of additional income to feed their families. One option is to perform in the circus that is held twice a day or to offer elephant rides around the center.

Many of the elephants at the center are “on chain” the entire day, either because their mahout is working elsewhere or because they have no place to roam. On chain means bound to a stake by a heavy chain allowing the elephant a very small area to move in, typically a radius of only about 6 or 8 feet. Some elephants also have a chain binding their front feet together allowing them very little movement and often another chain around their neck attaching them to a tree or post of a shelter.

Elephants on chain tend to develop stereotypical behaviors, akin to a bored human drumming their fingers or taping their foot. Some elephants sway, some move their head in circles, others rock back and forth. Most elephants at the center display some type of stereotypical behavior. Walking around the center it was heart wrenching to see these beautiful creatures facing this reality on a daily basis. One of the most heart wrenching was a young elephant that spent his entire time on chain in a shelter. Day and night this little guy spent his time straining at his chain.

Throughout the day, morning to night, the air was filled with terrific bellows by many of the elephants. These cries were impossible to not interpret as frustration and anguish. Unlike the happy trumpets and belly rumbles I’m used to at the park, these cries were filed with sadness that drove straight to my heart.

Why Volunteer?

The Surin Project was started by the Elephant Nature Foundation as a way to provide elephants a better existence and to demonstrate that tourists are interested in seeing elephants acting as they would in the wild. Volunteers pay about $400 a week to be part of the project. This money covers project expenses for the volunteers and to pay the mahouts salaries.

The project currently has funding to support 12 elephants and 3 old lady elephants. The mahouts are paid an additional 8,000 baht salary to participate in the program. While these elephants still spend a large portion of their time on chain, the project ensures that they get at least 4 hours a day off chain to go for walks, for swims in the river or for roaming in the enclosure built with the support of the Surin Project. Mahouts are not allowed to use hooks or any sharp objects to control their elephant.

Besides directly supporting the mahouts, the project helps the community and village as a whole. Volunteer lodging is homes that are rented from study center families. The women take care of the houses daily to ensure the bathroom is kept clean and the refrigerator is stocked with an endless supply of water, and will do laundry if needed. Many of the meals we had were at local restaurants. And the volunteers desire for WiFi access, ice cream or other items supported the local convenience store.

Cleaning Shelters and Cutting Sugar Cane

Morning chores alternated between gathering the dried remains of sugar cane, which we had raked into piles the evening before when we cleaned the shelters, and cutting that day’s supply of sugar cane. Wearing long sleeved shirts was essential for both tasks, as sugar cane has rough edges that leave small scrapes on exposed skin. My shins are currently a testament to the effects of walking in sugar cane.

Shelter duty involved stuffing as much of the dried cane in the back of a tractor and taking it to a field where we had to spread it out so that it could continue to dry and decompose. Part of the team would go and clean the enclosure area where the old lady elephants live and where the 12 elephants get to feed and roam.

Sugar cane cutting was definitely my preferred morning activity. Any time I have an opportunity to tempt fate by using a sharp blade to slash through a plant, I’ll take it. Yes, despite hearing my litany of injuries over the past 2 years, they still let me use a machete. I am happy to report that all of my extremities are intact, although I think at one point one of the mahouts was particularly worried about my leg possibly getting cut.

As the dry season continues, sugar cane is becoming harder and harder to purchase for feeding the elephants. The current field owned by the project is nearly depleted. One potential field to purchase is almost 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the camp. Rainy season is still a few months away, without any guarantee that the region will receive enough rain to truly help the crops grow.

What Happens to the Poo

While cleaning the shelters, the poo is gathered into poo boxes (or piles for the shelters without boxes.) From there, the poo is used either for making paper or making fertilizer. The camp has its own poo paper factory. Approximately 40 kilos (88 lbs) can be processed at one time. The dried poo is ground, chemically treated, washed, bleached, washed again, then finally made into paper using mesh screens. From there, the paper is used to make cards and other items for people to purchase.

Our only real project, due to extreme heat, was to finish building a poo box at the enclosure. In the morning we went and gathered bamboo stalks. I once again got to use a machete in an attempt to cut down one of the bamboo stalks. Bamboo is not easy to cut and the mahouts were patient with me. Then they took the machete away.

In the afternoon, we cut and split the bamboo, then nailed the bamboo slats onto the box. Working with bamboo is almost as hard as trying to cut it down. First we had to clean the remaining branch stubs off the stalks. Sounds easy, and Apple (one of the volunteer coordinators) certainly made it look easy, but it isn’t. Then we cut the stalks into the right length. Final step was to split the bamboo using a machete and a hammer. Very tricky to get the machete started in a way that splits it evenly. Once the slats were ready, we hammered them on to the poles. And voila, the project was done.

Working in the intense heat wasn’t easy, but it was better than sitting around just letting the heat sap my energy. No one was required to help, it was just nice for the rest of us who had the energy.

Off Chain Time

As part of their off chain time we would take the elephants for a walk through the forest to a pond, where the mahouts would take them for a quick bath. The image of a forest currently in your mind is probably nothing like the actual forest we were walking in. Part of the walk did have trees that were taller than us, their anorexic trunks and branches providing a modicum of shade. The next part of the walk might be considered a field trying to be a forest with skinny trees and lots of shrubbery. Moving out of the forest, we crossed the area being cleared for Elephant World, the next attraction to be part of the center. Seeing the broad expanse of cleared area with leveled dirt made me feel disheartened. The area, once filled with trees, also grew mushrooms which the villagers were able to sell at market for additional income.

Walking with the elephants was a great time to get to know the mahouts and their elephants. Throughout the week we were challenged to learn the elephants names, identifying marks and who their mahout is. I managed to achieve all the names and about half of the mahouts. Next time I’ll at least have a head start.

Afternoon off chain time alternated between enclosure time and walking to the river. Enclosure time is when the elephants get to feed and roam on their own. The enclosure has trees for them to amble through and a pond for them to swim in. As well as being a good opportunity for pictures, enclosure time was a great way to watch the elephants interact in more natural groupings. Fah Sai is clearly the popular girl of the bunch. Wherever she went, Euang Luang was sure to follow shortly. And Sah Fai was also there as part of her entourage, often to the annoyance of Euang Luang.

Being in the river with the elephants was quite possibly one of the best experiences of the week. Each volunteer had a bag of food (cucumbers the first time, taro the second time) to feed their elephant. Once the food was gone, we would hep wash the elephants as they rolled about in the river, enjoying a brief moment of buoyancy. Seeing eye to eye with an elephant and getting to feel the expanse of their body definitely warms your heart.

The other great part of being in the river was the respite from the draining heat. Just remember to keep your mouth closed and watch out for poo fights breaking out. The ride back to camp after the long, hot walk in 110 degree heat (43 C) on blacktop road, was also a nice treat. That is, once the metal bars on the back cooled off enough to hold onto.

Mixing with the Mahouts

One of the really nice parts about this project was the opportunity to meet and interact with the mahouts. Throughout the week we had several activities to encourage interaction, beyond going for the walks.

The first evening at the project, the volunteers were welcomed with a ceremony performed by the local shaman and the mahouts. The volunteers sat in a circle and the mahouts gathered around us. A white string was wrapped around the volunteers to symbolically join us together and the shaman said blessings and prayers, evoking the spirit of togetherness and of family. At one point during the ceremony, the mahouts threw leaves from a tree on us to bless us as well. The ceremony finished with the tying of blessing strings on our wrists. First the shaman went around the inside of the circle and after he blessed us with a string, we turned to the outside and each of the 14 mahouts on the project tied a blessing string on our wrists. The blessing strings are worn for a minimum of 3 days, after which you can take them off. You are not supposed to cut them nor should you throw them on the ground (unless you place them under a tree.) In this way, we were all joined together.

One of the first activities we did directly with the mahouts was an ice breaker activity.The ice breaker activity involved leaving around a paper ball and whoever was holding the ball when the music stopped had to draw a piece of paper with an activity written on it. If you couldn’t do it, you had to walk like a duck. Fortunately, the one I drew was to introduce yourself in Thai, which I know how to do.

The last evening the mahouts had a BBQ. We had the opportunity to join them if we wanted. Sitting with them, sharing drinks and talking was great fun. Sarote, the head mahout, is a wonderfully friendly person. Throughout the week he had moments of mischief including tickling the backs of people’s legs with branches to feel like a bug was on them and making me a wreath out of branches. When offered Sarote’s glass of beer, you were expected to drink it in one fell swoop.

Every time I have come to Thailand the question is asked, “did you try a fried cricket?” I have always said that I wouldn’t go out of my way to try them, but that if offered, I wouldn’t turn it down. Friday night I finally had the occasion to try a fried cricket. Once you get over the mental hurdle of what this crispy thing with legs is that you are about to eat, they really aren’t bad. And the second one was easier than the first.

The evening also included the Farang (foreigner) Show. Kirsty and Wills (the project leaders) started the show with the performance of the Grilled Chicken song. After which two of the mahouts performed it properly. Next Monica, Meike and I performed a German children’s song about a little duck. After that, two of the mahouts also performed a Thai children’s song about ducks. The last two farang performances were dancing ones. At the end everyone got up and did a Thai dance around the platform area.

Saturday morning we had the Mahout Games. Divided into four teams, we competed in several events to gain points. Each team had two volunteers and three Thai members. The first event was the poo toss. Each team member got to throw two (dried) poo balls into a bucket being held by another team member standing on an overturned bucket. Next we made the challenge harder by blindfolding the tosser. Last activity was the seed throw. These large seeds have two blades on them that act like a helicopter. Earlier in the week I had shown Wills that it was better to throw them underhanded instead of overhand to gain better distance. Our team won the games! (A first for Wills to be on a winning team.)

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