Three days have passed since I reported for my volunteer duties at the Surin Project and everything I own is covered in elephant poop. It’s not like I rolled in a pile of it, but rather that it permeates all surfaces and waterways and is therefore unavoidable. Today, my comrades and I shredded poop balls for an hour and a half as we prepared home-made fertilizer to be used on the sugarcane crop. Pretty crappy way to spend an afternoon. Man, I love me some puns.
There are already stories and photos to share from my time here, but it’s important that I provide some background on the status of Thailand’s captive Asian elephants and the Surin Project’s work before explaining why I had to take two bucket showers today. Here is my best attempt at paraphrasing numerous pamphlets, documentary footage, a literature review, and the answers to (what seems like) the million questions that I’ve asked thus far:
- Thailand is currently home to around 2,500 captive Asian elephants; this is in contrast to the remaining 1,000-1,500 wild elephants in Thailand’s forests
- Elimination of the legal logging industry forced many mahouts to use their elephants in circus shows, trekking camps, or to beg on the streets of major cities
- These activities pose serious threats to elephants including brutal training methods, exhaustion, and traffic accidents
- Mahouts now make less money and struggle to support their families, which has led to a decrease in proper elephant care
A Complex Issue
Now that you’ve all Googled “mahout,” I’ll tell you what it is— a mahout is the traditional title for someone who takes care of an elephant. This typically works in a 1:1 fashion, and has been a part of Thai culture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Surely you’re thinking the same thing that I did: “Your job is to take care of a colossal pet? Amazing!” However, with the deterioration of Thailand’s native forests and the country’s urbanization and tourism boom, many mahouts are now overwhelmed with the task of supporting their families while also providing for their elephant (these things eat a TON, quite literally, and a big percentage of earnings go directly back into caring for the animal). The “lucky” ones avoid the dangers of street begging and illegal logging and instead are often trained to perform (which often includes repeated beatings, shackling feet, etc.) and quite literally shoulder the burden of an entire family by trekking with 100+lb baskets of people atop their surprisingly delicate spines.
In places like the Surin Province, most performing and trekking elephants rarely get off of their chains other than to work. They spend hours, if not days, in the same spot, without mental stimulation, social interactions, or exercise—a frustrating and dangerous combination for the animals. This is where the Surin Project comes in…
The Project’s Plan
The Surin Project is under the umbrella of the Save Elephant Foundation, who runs perhaps the most successful Asian elephant sanctuary in existence. The Surin Province in northeast Thailand is home to 200 captive elephants and the Foundation knew that something needed to be done to improve the quality of life for at least some of the animals. Four years after its inception, the Project now provides a small weekly salary to each of the 12 mahouts and elephants who have opted into the program, and in exchange the mahouts pledge to not use control hooks, participate in performances or trekking, only chain their elephant by one leg, and participate in all project activities. Their elephants enjoy walks in the forest, sufficient nutrition, free time with the group in an open environment, and an existence void of fear. In the end, the mahouts in the Project make less than their performing, begging, and illegal logging counterparts, but their quality of life and relationship with their animals improve markedly.
Volunteers are invited to come and help build shelters, plant crops, and interact with the elephants and their mahouts. The cost of 12,000 THB per week ($420) covers all meals, lodging, and transportation. The remainder goes directly to feeding the elephants, subsidizing the mahouts’ salaries, and providing materials for additional infrastructure. It is a comparable fee for similar programs around the region and the use of funds is intentionally transparent. So far, I’ve felt like a hybrid tourist/volunteer, which has been a bit of an adjustment from my previous volunteer stints. However, I came here with the somewhat selfish intension of having the once-in-a-lifetime experience of playing with giants while also doing some good, and the Surin Project has not disappointed.
Alright. Now that I’ve presented the nitty-gritty basics about this place, I plan to share my personal experiences—especially those that involve copious amounts of poop. Stay tuned my friends.
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