I want to start introducing “Spotlight” posts sporadically that showcase a specific organization, person, animal, etc. that is making positive impacts throughout our world no matter how big or small. The goal is to educate others on the spotlighted project/person/thing and generate more awareness of their presence and purpose.
The first Spotlight post is about the Surin Project. I volunteered with the Surin Project while traveling in Thailand and I feel as though I haven’t been able to properly explain in words the impact they are making in captive Asian elephants’ lives. Hopefully today I can do it justice by recounting my own experience and the complex problems facing captive Asian elephants and their mahouts.
(lengthy article ahead)!
Located in the Baan Tha Klang village in the Surin province of Thailand is the Surin Project headquarters. Their mission is simple: Work to improve the living conditions of captive elephants. The website explains it best by stating, “The Surin project is a new and innovative project focussed on finding solutions to the challenges faced by mahouts and their elephants in Surin province in North-Eastern Thailand. It is committed to improving the living conditions of Asian elephants and providing sustainable economic revenue for their mahouts in the local community” (www.surinproject.org). I encourage you to visit their website to learn more in depth about their purpose and ways to get involved.
The Surin Project is made up of currently only 11 elephants of the 200+ elephants living in the Baan Tha Klang village. These elephants and their mahouts are paid a salary in exchange for their agreement to not use a bullhook on the elephant, to chain the elephant by only one foot in their shelter, and require the elephant to be off chain for at least 3 hours a day (most of the elephants in the village are chained 24 hours a day except for the tours or shows they may take part in).
The mahouts on this project are kind and gentle people whom I greatly admire. They treat their elephants with love and respect and appreciate our help in caring for the wellbeing of the elephants. They serve as role models to others in the village and help show them that people would rather pay to work with elephants humanely than to pay for circus shows or elephant rides.
The rest of the village is just as welcoming and kind as the project mahouts save for a few who believe our presence may be a nuisance. A big lesson that I’ve learned is that as outsiders, we must tread lightly. This village culture is rich with tradition and established practices. Pushing our views of what is “right” and “wrong” onto them does not help our cause and can ultimately make situations worse for us and the elephants. Only in learning to respect and understand cultures different from our own can we learn from each other to make positive changes.
My week at the Surin Project started off each day by waking up early and working in groups of 2-3 people to either help cut sugar cane, clean the elephant shelters, or clean the elephant enclosure. We then would go on forest walks/walks to the river with the elephants and mahouts which helped us develop stronger bonds with the elephants and get to know the mahouts better. Then, we would participate in project work which helped keep up the maintenance around the village or improved conditions for the elephants. This consisted of watering crops of fruit, constructing bamboo recycle bins, or taking part in any project the coordinators had going on that week. During the evenings we would meet back at our Surin Project landing and observe the elephants in their enclosure where they spent time playing in the water or relaxing in the forest. At night we would usually take part in some sort of activity whether it be learning Thai, watching a documentary, or playing games with the mahouts. We were also fed extremely well. The food was amazing and I really do miss it!
My favorite part of volunteering was getting to know the mahouts and, obviously, the elephants. We were able to walk beside them, help bathe them, and goof around with the mahouts every day.
One thing I learned from my time at the Surin Project is that the best solution for the welfare of captive Asian elephants is not in black and white. This isn’t a question of “good” people vs.”bad” people, but a much more complicated situation with roots seeped in tradition, history and environmental impact. For history of the Asian elephant click here. The tourism industry has replaced the logging industry in terms of jobs for captive elephants. From street begging to circus shows to elephant rides, many Asian elephants are suffering from abuse and overwork. One might believe that the ideal resolution would be to “set all the elephants freeeee!!!” However, it is a very complex situation. The elephants’ natural habitat has been nearly destroyed through deforestation in Thailand and taking away elephants from their mahouts would leave many families and villages penniless.
The best option for now seems to be supporting eco-tourism programs like the Surin Project. More support for a program like this will bring awareness to captive Asian elephants and in turn will eventually ask for additional positive solutions such as reintroducing more elephants into the wild. With more support, attention, and education on eco-tourism, the less support inhumane tourism will receive.
What I love about the Surin Project is that it goes above and beyond a service vacation. Within a week I developed a bond with not only the elephants but with the village and my fellow volunteers too. I felt a devotion to them when I left which has stuck with me ever since. The Surin Project instilled a sense of responsibility in all of us to inform others on the plight of the captive Asian elephant and do all we can to help.
***The Surin Project is part of a bigger foundation called Save Elephant Foundation. Their mission is:
Save Elephant Foundation is a Thai non–profit organization dedicated to providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population through a multifaceted approach involving local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism operations. (www.saveelephant.org)