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Volunteering at the Surin Project

please see: http://www.surinproject.org

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Everyone loves a good elephant, riding them, photographs with them, even tourist clothing adorned with them- but their popularity is perhaps also their downfall. The situation is particularly complicated in Asia, where although the elephant is considered a national symbol of Thailand, an estimated 60% of the elephant population are considered captive (statistic taken from http://www.elephantnaturepark.org)
When I travel I always try to spend a week here or there contributing to a non-profit organisation, and this summer I came across the brilliant Surin project in Thailand. Not knowing much before I went this was a very educational experience for me. Speaking to fellow travellers, very few knew about the situation of Asian elephants in captivity, or how our tourist money is involved.
Education is the key to change- and so I decided to write this blog.

The Surin ‘elephant village’
Surin is found in the North-Eastern province of Thailand, towards the border with Cambodia. Not many tourists I met had heard of this area, and the language here is closer to Laos than Thai. Surin is famous among Thais for its elephants, in fact the Surin elephant round-up festival is held there every November. Walking around the village there are literally hundreds of elephants, it is funny how quickly you acclimatise to seeing elephants chained up every hundred yards or so! However, the Surin Project itself only currently supports 11 elephants and their mahouts- they are not involved in traditional elephant tourism as I will explain…

casually strolling past my bedroom window

casually strolling past my bedroom window

So why are there so many elephants here and what do they do? Why are they chained up? How can their mahouts manage to afford to keep them? And what exactly does the Surin Project do?
Logging to begging
Elephants were traditionally used as a mode of transport, protection from beasties of the forest, and for logging. Around 1900 a massive 95% of Thailand was forested, so elephants were left free to roam the vegetation and get their own dinner. Due to deforestation, now only 25% is forest covered (Elephant Nature Park information). In 1989 there was a ban on logging rendering many elephants unemployed. Furthermore, a lack of freely available forest for food means that the mahouts are increasingly reliant on an income so that the elephant pays its keep. This lead to shift in careers- illegal logging, the start of tourist camps and begging in major cities such as Bangkok and Phuket. These activities all have associated problems with them, but notably begging was banned in Bangkok in 1997. A law from back in the 30s classes working elephants with the same legal status as cart animals such as buffalo and oxen, so there is no legal framework in place to protect them.

Begging to tourism
To reduce begging the Surin government started the ‘Take Me Home’ project in 2005 and set aside the land for the Surin elephant ‘study centre’ (elephant village to you and me). This pays the mahouts a (small) salary to live back home in Surin. However, with many elephants in the area and no forest for them to roam around safely, the elephants have to be chained up. Although this may seem cruel to us westerners, we must remember elephants are potentially dangerous animals. Mahouts cannot be expected to let their livelihood escape and there are currently few other realistic options. Chaining the elephants up all day can lead to stress or boredom, and some show signs of stereotypical behaviour such as swinging of the head, rocking back and forth and so on. Walking around the village most elephants had one foot chained, but some had two together, or worse three.

The problem with tourism
To make an income other than the small government stipend, the vast majority of the elephants in the village are involved in tourism. This is in the form of circus shows that run all day, elephant rides and elephant painting. The circus elephants probably have the worst deal in that they repeat the shows over and over, day in day out. Forcing a large animal to fit onto a small pedestal is unnatural and potentially harmful to the elephant’s physical and mental wellbeing. One of the elephants on the project I was working with, called Tangmo, showed the classic signs of stereotypical behaviour which we believed she picked up from her training as a young circus elephant.
Elephant riding is a very contentious subject; the demand among tourists is not going anywhere, so in my opinion managing the situation is key. Riding has been described as the ‘best of a bad bunch’ when it comes to elephant tourism, as at least the elies get to exercise and prevent foot root (a common medical issue for captive elephants). One issue with the rides is ill-fitting seats; in the study centre we were shown an elephant skeleton and the bone deformities from the seats. The strongest part of an elephant is its neck, not the round of the back. In Surin the walking route is literally round in a square on cemented roads. This is boring for the elephant and perhaps not the most exciting for the costumer either. A better situation in other elephants exist where costumers get to trek through a more stimulating environment such as the jungle, and carrying one person on the neck should be less stress on the elephant. Legalising proper fitting seats is also a suggestion.

Elephant skeleton

Elephant skeleton

Another major issue with these forms of tourism is the training that is involved to make touristic activities possible. The cruellest method is the ‘phajaan’ process: The baby is prematurely separated from its mother and is ‘broken in’. All the babies at the centre have to be separated otherwise there would be no way the mahout could control the animals. A frightened baby broke free during my week volunteering and the mahout holding her mother had to use all his strength as well as several helpers to get the situation under control. These are very strong animals, and there is pretty much nothing getting in the way of an angsty mother.
To break the baby in it is placed in a small dark wooden box so it can’t move. A bull hook (a stick with a metal end) or other sharp objects are pushed into the skin to cause serious pain, until the baby’s spirit is completely broken. This results in an exhausted, compliant, terrified elephant that will do anything for its owner to avoid being hurt again. This is a popular method because it is quick and pretty fail-safe. There are other less cruel ways of training, such as teaching voice commands through positive reinforcement, but there is concern among older mahouts that these practices are dying out.
The mahouts that are signed onto the Surin Project, are not allowed to use bull hooks; instead they use bamboo sticks, lead ropes, voice commands, or just tug on the ears.

The Surin Project
The 11 elephants signed up to the project:

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The volunteers money (about £200 for a week inc food) goes towards food for the elephants and paying the mahouts a salary- the same as the governments stipend so they are technically receiving double. This is still much less than they could make touting their elies to the tourists, a major barrier to some mahouts taking part. To be on the project they also have to abide by the rules- no involvement with drugs or drink problems, no bull hooks, no taking part in the village’s elephant rides, and full engagement in the projects activities.

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The week I was there we were a group of 7 volunteers, we split into three groups: team England, team China and team Canada. The morning tasks rotated around the groups. Shelters involves raking up the dead sugar cane from the day before, enclosures involves poo picking (you get gloves for this one!) and you get a big knife to chop down the sugar cane. In the afternoons we would go on walks with the elephants, getting them off their chains. We also helped the mahouts with some weeding in the sugar cane fields, but us ‘farang’ (foreigners) were wilting so badly in the midday sun we weren’t much help! Notably the work is physical and you get hot and dirty, but there are plenty of breaks and you are never expected to overstep your limits. One of the girls volunteering had been there a couple of weeks so sat out of a long walk one afternoon in preference of a nap! The dinner was really good, a buffet style of Thai food dummed down for us westerners.

DINNER!

DINNER!

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The highlight of my week was washing the elephants in the river. I got to wash my favourite elephant TangMo (watermelon- because shes small and round awww), with her mahout Crow, and Euang Luang with Toi later in the week.

Me and Euang Luang, she has very distinctive markings on her trunk and ears

Me and Euang Luang, she has very distinctive markings on her trunk and ears

Turnip wars: Farsai on the right is the big boss of the three friends!

Turnip wars: Farsai on the right is the big boss of the three friends!

Crow and TangMo being silly!

Crow and TangMo being silly!

Walking through the paddy fields

Walking through the paddy fields

Road block

Road block

Putting on a 'farang' show for the mahouts on Friday night

Putting on a ‘farang’ show for the mahouts on Friday night

Thanks for reading!

Thanks for reading!

I really enjoyed my week here and learnt loads; I recommend it to any elephant lovers out there! Please share this post with your friends to spread the word and help to change attitudes for the better. There is plenty of work to do, but the Surin Project has taken the first steps towards a brighter future for captive elephants and could really use the support.