After our regular morning chores we had a couple of shorter walks with the elephants. The first, before lunch, was through the forest. There’s always a trade-off. This was bugs for shade. It’s amazing to watch the elephants eat bamboo (one of their favorites). They wrap their trunk around a stem of the bamboo and pull, but with just enough strength to strip the leaves off and leave the thick branches. It’s incredible what they can do with their trunk! It’s like an arm and hand, no bones, very muscular and flexible. The manipulation is fascinating.
The second and slightly longer walk was after lunch. We spent more time on the road. Imagine seeing that come down the highway at home! It was HOT, so we were all glad to have this end in another swim to bathe the elephants.
There’s a lot of elephant butts in my photos. 🙂 There’s a reason for that. You would much rather be behind them than in front of them if there’s someplace they want to go. We get phenomenally close to these elephants, but that does not mean they are ‘safe’ from being an elephant. You must constantly be aware of your surroundings and on the walks especially. For such a large animal they are very quiet coming up behind you. It’s a bit of a shock to look over your shoulder when you sense someone is trying to pass you and what you see is a blurry glimpse of a trunk and ear as they try to catch up with their friends.
My morning task, along with two other volunteers, was to water the plants around the enclosure. Simple enough, right? I do this at home. I have a wonderful garden and I water the plants all the time. Nope. Here are three buckets. There is the pond. The pond is within the enclosure and the plants that need tending surround it. There is no irrigation system. WE are the irrigation system. It’s brutally hot and it’s 8:30am. Done. I have a new appreciation for my 100 foot hoses and hose connectors at home.
My 10:00am task to ‘shift poo’ at one of the fields was put on hold since the truck got stuck in the mud. So many questions… There are bins of elephant poo used for compost and the paper factory. This needs to be transported and broken down for use. We got the truck out and moving again and returned to the village. Too risky to keep going if it’s muddy. We were a group of five volunteers and a coordinator. Too many people to go missing, so we went back.
The elephants had a nice walk today. Certainly not as long as yesterday, but they’re happy to get off the chains for any amount of time. The walk ended at the enclosure and there’s alway sugar cane and swimming for any elephant that wants it. And what elephant wouldn’t.
I fed one of the babies today. This little guy was taken from his mother when he was about a year old. Babies will stay on mother’s milk for about three years. As a result he is malnourished. The owner can’t care for him properly and has agreed to let the Surin Project give him free food and care. He gets four bottles of rice mush with milk powder every morning. Have you ever seen anything so adorable?!
It was a quick trip out to the sugar cane field to cut today’s food for the elephants. The mahouts came with us and brought their machetes. We let them cut the sugar cane…they seemed to know what they were doing. 🙂 Within minutes they had cut enough food to fill the truck. That’s where we came in. Load the truck.
Today is a long day for the elephants off their chains. We do a 5-6 mile walk with the elephants that ends in a swim… for everybody. This was incredible. The elephants LOVE the water and when we go in with them we can bath them. Basically, we give the elephants a good scrub with our hands. An elephant massage, really. After the long walk we were all enjoying the river.
Finally, before dinner we hit the local market. They sell EVERYTHING! From fruit and vegetables to donuts and pig’s heads, clothes to tools. Feeling a bit parched, I ordered a soda. It was given to me in a bag with a straw. Not the can or bottle in a bag, mind you. No. The gentleman opened the bottle and poured it over ice into the bag and put a straw in it. I browsed around, not looking for anything in particular as I sipped my bag of soda.
First day of manual labor. Just that sentence alone makes it sound horrible. It’s really not. My job this morning was to clear the older dried grass out of one of the elephant areas. It gets loaded into the truck and brought to a place where they grow more grass and the dried grass is used as a mulch. That was the morning labor. Easy enough. The elephants needed to be fed, so it was cucumbers for them.
We explored the area a bit and were shown the ‘poo paper plant’. They actually turn elephant poo into amazing high quality artisan paper. Pretty impressive. Look for it in your local high end stationary stores.
The elephant cemetery was nearby. Within minutes of an elephant dying a monk is notified to bless and pray over the body. I have to keep reminding myself that despite the treatment some domesticated elephants get, they are a highly revered icon in Thai culture. It’s difficult to reconcile.
From here we walked the elephants to the water hole. It’s amazing to watch them play and relax in the water. This is one if the opportunities they get to be off the chain. You can see the joy they get from being in the water. They frolic, dive, roll around. It’s hilarious to watch. When the mahout calls for them to come out they seem to act like children that refuse to come out of the pool. Five more minutes, Mom! Please!!
When I think of a bucket shower, I think of something a bit different. I envision an outdoor area with a wooden bucket sitting above you attached to a rope that one pulls to tip the bucket over on top of you. That’s not unreasonable, right? What we have is a bucket shower. There are two rubber containers filled with water and a bowl floating on top to be used to dump over yourself. It’s not glorious. You see a toilet…pro. There’s no flush technology…con. When you ‘shower’ there’s a large amount of space. It’s a fairly large room…pro. Everything gets damp/wet if it’s in that room…con. Maybe that last one will change once I get the hang of ‘showering’ this way. (I don’t know why I am using quotation marks around ‘shower’. It just seems like an impostor. Like its not the real thing.) At this point I am grateful that there’s a separate room (albeit in the back yard) that can be called a bathroom. It could be, and I’ve had it, a lot worse.
We transferred to the project sight today – a five hour bus ride, followed by a two hour ride in a smaller van. During the second leg of the trip we made a stop at Big C, a Walmart-like plaza, to pick up anything we may have felt we were missing. The common purchase for the group was water guns. I’ll get more into this later, but we will be celebrating Songkran, the Thai New Year at the end of the week. The water gun will prove to be extremely essential.
This program is much different than the reserve in Chiang Mai. We are in a village, staying with a mahout family in their ‘guest houses’. All the elephants here (and there are over 200) are privately owned. The main objective of the Surin Project is to end the domestication of Asian elephants. To do that one must understand why these people have them in the first place. It’s centuries old traditions and a very delicate situation for Alex, the project founder and coordinator. These animals are kept mainly on chains on the property of the mahout. My mahout family has two, a male and a female. They’re out back.
It bothered me to see these animals chained to a cement post. But, I understand they HAVE to be on chains. If you were to let 200 elephants free to roam in such a small area there would be twenty dead elephants the first day (not to mention the damage or destruction that could be caused to the village). I think it’s safe to say nobody wants that.
We were given our housing assignments and attended a welcoming ceremony headed by one of the mahout elders. In essence we were being prayed for and wished good luck. It was a wonderfully moving ceremony with ritual I can’t even begin to explain.
Tomorrow is a mystery so far. All I know at this point is breakfast is at 7.
Today was a venture out to the Elephant Nature Park. It’s a facility run by a tiny woman, Lek, with a huge vision. It’s her desire to stop the domestication and use of elephants as loggers, street beggars and performers. She has 35 elephants on her 200+ acre reserve. There are no fences, chains, ropes. They are free to roam where they like. Over the last twenty years she has acquired these elephants by purchasing them from their abusive owners, rescuing orphans, and giving aid to the injured and distressed.
I am heading out to be part of the volunteer program in the Surin Province in a couple days and I wanted something that would give me a little preparation, insight to what I might see and do while I’m there. When we arrived at the nature park, we had an orientation of the facility, given knowledge about the Asian Elephant and it’s struggle, and we were introduced to the herd. Like humans, each elephant has its own personality, quirks, traits and as a result there is a mahout (person who works with elephants) assigned to every individual elephant. Someone who becomes expert in what that elephant likes, dislikes, their characteristics, moods…someone who understands the subtleties of that elephant. Someone that knows that elephant better than anyone else. They become best friends.
Its an amazing place. The herd is gentle. They have finally found a peaceful life. And although they come from all over Thailand and have different backgrounds and stories, they have a bond with one another. They are a family. Some of the elephants have created incredibly strong bonds. Jokia is blind. She was blinded by her logging owners because she refused to work after she lost her baby. She gave birth while working and the calf fell down the steep hill where she was being forced to move logs. The calf died and Jokia fell into a depression refusing to work. Her owners thought that beating and mutilating her would get her to work again. Mae Perm is her companion and her eyes here at the reserve. The two are inseparable. I don’t know that I’ve seen anything so moving.
I could go on about each elephant here, but I recommend visiting them for yourself. We fed them, visited the babies and their families, bathed them in the river, and generally had the opportunity to observe their lives. Some know tricks from their performing past. They touch their head with their trunk, they give a kiss. It’s something they know how to do and they still do these things, but they will never be forced to do them, or beaten for not doing them ever again.