About 4 months ago I had the opportunity to visit Thailand and spend a month living on an elephant sanctuary. The experience is one I will never forget, but it was also far from what I had expected. Elephants have been a part of Thai culture for close to 300 years. In the past, they were used by royalty, both in labor to help build temples and in wartime as weapons. Most recently they were used extensively in the logging industry to carry and transport timber. Logging in Thailand has now been outlawed, but not before a large amount of deforestation ruined the majority of habitats for wild elephants. Today, the Thai elephant population has plummeted and many elephants are domesticated and live with families who support them, but an elephant can eat over 300kg of food per day, that’s more than most families eat in a week. Their mahouts (elephant masters) have had a very challenging time continuing to earn enough money to support the ongoing care of their elephants and many have turned to tourism in order to earn enough money to care for these amazing animals.
Elephants and their mahouts are often seen begging on the streets of Bangkok. They are also used frequently as tourist attractions. Every year elephants are killed by over exhaustion from being ridden over and over again. Many visitors may think they are helping the elephants by supporting them through tourism, but the case is often opposite of this and elephants see very little reward from any of the funds raised.
With this in mind, I entered into my volunteer program based in Surin, Thailand.
The first thing I noticed when I got to my home-stay (besides the heat) was a very pregnant elephant who lived in our backyard. I don’t know about you, but the only pet I’ve ever had was a dog, so I’m not exactly used to a 500lbs. animal hanging out in the backyard. But this elephant was stunning.
Her name is Bank and at the time I met her she was about 19 months pregnant. So like a human, she had her mood swings. Some days she would eat everything in her path and other days she only wanted the greenest grass and the sweetest sugar cane and refused to eat anything else. Her best friend was a ‘mini’ elephant who lived next door. Numwat never grew to her full size, but don’t tell her that because she could keep up with any of the big guys. You could often hear the two of them talking to each other in the backyard and Bank would never walk down to the river without her best friend a few steps away.
As amazing as these elephants are, there were some things I saw at the elephant sanctuary that really challenged me and in the beginning made me upset.
Bank, and many of the elephants in the sanctuary, were kept in pens. To me, this looked like a lack of freedom and I wondered if domesticated was really the right thing for these elephants. I also heard that elephants are social animals, but from what I could see they lived mostly separate from each other.
Here’s what I learned during my month in Surin.
The elephants are contained so they do not eat all of the plants and crops grown by local farmers. These local farmers work hard to support their own families, but they also work to support the elephants even though they do not own them. Amazingly, most members of the town accept these animals into their community and take care of them just like any other member.
Domesticated elephants can also not return to the wild. When domesticated elephants are returned to their natural environment they are often shunned or killed by the wild elephants. They are not accepted into the established herds and face a lot of dangers.
Finally, the mahouts understand what is best for the elephants. As an outsider looking in, I thought I had a clear vision of what these elephants needed, but a few questions let me know how wrong I was. These people care deeply about their elephants. They want to see them live long and happy lives and they have the experience and knowledge to know how to achieve that.
The family I stayed with treated their elephant like one of their children.
At night our host family would eat dinner outside next to Bank. They would talk to her and constantly interacted with her. Sometimes they would sleep outside just to be close to her and to makes sure she was ok. Peeman and Mr. Swy (our Thai parents) would wake up at 5am every morning to wash Bank, feed her, take her on a walk down to the river, and make sure she was loved. I’ve never seen such an amazing display of unconditional love towards an animal. Bank was truly a part of their family and there is no doubt that they would do anything to make sure she had the best life possible.
Today, GVN Foundation’s partner in Thailand continues to work towards making life for these elephants better. They have a ‘walk among them, not on them’ policy so that no one rides on the elephants. They are also encouraging and creating more social time between all the elephants in the sanctuary. During this time the elephants walk freely in the grassy areas in small groups and are loosely monitored by their mahouts who simply work to make sure they don’t eat everything in sight.
So my advice…leave your expectations behind and let yourself be open to new ideas, experiences, and cultures. You may find yourself in a place where the culture is completely different from the one you are used to, but that does not mean that it is wrong.
We have 8 spots left for the January 2016 Thailand trip, so work hard to raise your first US$1,000 and then contact us to reserve your spot! This trip is an amazing opportunity and without a doubt will change your life.