Plight of the Elephants
In Thailand, approximately 1,000 elephants remain in the wild, placing the Asian elephant on the endangered species list. Unfortunately, the approximately 3,000 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 legs. 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 home to anywhere between 150 and 200 elephants and their families. The government provides an income of 8,000 baht ($230) a month for families and elephants living at the center. Often mahouts have to turn to another source of additional income to take care of 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. Another method of being “on chain” is a 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.
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. The mahouts on the project 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 the volunteers have are taken at local restaurants.
For more information, see the Surin Project website at: www.surinproject.org