A road in Baan Tha Klang.
_ From November 21 - 27, 2011, I was in Baan Tha Klang (or Ban Ta Klang), a village in Surin Province, Thailand, as a volunteer with the The Surin Project. As most of my volunteer efforts in the conservation field have involved serving on boards, participating in meetings, and advising non-profit and other organizations on policy, legal and organizational issues, I have not done much work in the field. (Possibly I have not done any prior to this trip.) It was a fascinating experience, both uplifting and heartbreaking. The week spent volunteering with the Surin Project gave me a sense of satisfaction that I was helping where help was needed desperately. It also gave me a lot to think about, challenging some of my assumptions about the care and training of animals (not just elephants), the variety of approaches to conservation and the importance of respecting local culture and customs when trying to bring about change, no matter how noble the cause.
If you don't want to read all of this, you can check out the photos and here's my conclusion: The Surin Project is making a difference, far beyond helping the elephants that are part of its program. It is fortunate to have a brilliant and energetic Program Director, who is fluent in Thai and passionate about the Project's mission. The Project's biggest strength is its approach of being part of and working with the community. By doing so it is helping not only the elephants that are in the Project, but demonstrating that providing a better life for the elephants is a winning proposition for the elephants, their owners and mahouts, and the community.
Surin Project elephants swimming.
I have had a life-long fascination with elephants. They are the largest land mammals, are vegetarians and are highly intelligent. New revelations, such as their ability to communicate over long distances through vibrations, make them all the more interesting. Sadly, elephants face the real possibility of extinction (Asian Elephants have been listed as "endangered" on the IUCN Red List since 1986, with a decreasing population). Elephants in both Africa and Asia face threats to their survival on many fronts. In the wild they are or may be victims of poachers and the illegal wildlife trade as well as human-elephant conflict.
An adult male with both front legs chained.
_Captive elephants are subject to abuse, inhumane treatment and neglect whether in zoos or circuses, as working animals, or as unemployed burdens on owners who expect an income from their elephants. (I am not suggesting that all elephants in any or all of these situations are abused or neglected.) While there are any number of successful elephant rescue camps, some of which I have supported for many years, I wanted to visit a place where captive elephants really needed help. Surin was that place.
Entrance to the Government Study Center.
In Baan Tha Klang, a small village in Surin Province, located 300 miles (480 kilometers) northeast of Bangkok. approximately 200 privately owned elephants live in a government-owned area known as the Government Study Center. This is in some ways a village that may not have changed much in a very long time; cars, satellite TV, cell phones and electricity being possibly the only exceptions, Walking through the village, one can see elephants chained in front of the simple homes of the locals who own and/or care for the elephants (mahouts). The houses are above ground and accessed by stairs that are more like ladders. There is no hot water; bathrooms are outside and do not have modern plumbing. Many of the mahouts are not able to earn a living from their elephants, so they work elsewhere or do not work. The result is that most of the elephants in the village spend the majority of their lives chained, often without any cover from the hot sun or rain, and in many instances with both front legs secured. The chains are short and I saw more than one elephant struggling to lie down.
It is a paradox that, despite the chains, elephants are are very much revered, at least in principle, throughout Thailand, and are regarded as special enough in Surin that there is located there what may be the world's only elephant cemetery. Dan Koehl in his blog provides an interesting discussion of the cemetery and its history. http://dankoehl.blogspot.com/2011_11_01_archive.html
Elephants off the chains enjoying the day.
A program of the Elephant Nature Foundation, which operates the popular Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, the Surin Project was established in 2008 but has only had a full time project director for the past 18 months (Summer 2010). The Project faces unique challenges in its mission to help improve the lives of the elephants in Baan Tha Klang.
Mahouts on a walk with the elephants.
The Elephant Study Center pays stipends to about 200 mahouts so that they will live in the village with their elephants rather than leave the province and in most cases beg on the streets of Bangkok, which can provide a lucrative income from well meaning but naive tourists. I found this to be an interesting anomaly: On the one hand the government wants the elephants to stay in Surin Province. On the other hand, there are no standards of care for elephants and they are subject to the same laws that govern livestock.
The Surin Project is located within the Government Study Center, so it is not an elephant camp or rescue center. The Project cannot dictate standards of care for the elephants the village. Therefore it is not uncommon to see mahouts carrying bull hooks, "tools" considered by many, in the West especially, to be a barbaric instruments used in training and disciplining elephants, and by others as necessary to maintain control over large, potentially very dangerous animals (captive elephants are not domesticated). Participation in the Project is voluntary, however while in the Project, mahouts must follow certain standards. So far, according to Alex Godfrey, the Project Director, no mahouts have left the Project and there are a number of others who wish to join. Not all those who wish to participate are able to do so, as human and financial resources are limited. This is a program that relies heavily on volunteers, and doubling or tripling the number of volunteers it would take to bring in another 15 or 20 elephants, espeically quickly, would undoubtedly bring about new challenges just as the Project is starting to show results.
In spite of these challenges, the Surin Project is succeeding in retaining mahouts and showing them that they can earn a living while giving their elephants a much better life. The Project has already attracted foreign volunteers, with an impressive number of repeat visitors, who are willing to come to the Project to work with the mahouts and enable the elephants to spend time unchained. The volunteers help the mahouts care for their elephants so the elephants get to spend time unchained and with each other in groups they have formed, and to just "be elephants". Volunteers pay what is a small amount of money for most Westerners, but which not only covers their meals and lodging costs while in the village but also provides funds for the mahouts' salaries, food for the elephants, etc. Not much is left over and rarely have I seen a non-profit organization do so much with so little.
It is heartbreaking to see elephants on chains, in the hot sun, with no activity or stimulation of any kind. I am still haunted by the memory of one elephant, whose both front legs were chained every time I saw her. As far as I could tell, and I checked on her often, she was left out in the hot sun all day long without any shelter covering, less than 100 feet away from a lake she could not reach. She swayed back and forth constantly, which is referred to as "stereotypical behavior." Quite a number of the elephants chained up engage in similar behavior while chained. I can only hope her owner will either join the Surin Project or adopt some of its standards of care to give this beautiful elephant a chance of a decent life.
Elephants on chains are a fact of life in Baan Tha Klang. To some extent it is necessary, as there are no structures available to house the elephants. I found myself thinking that an elephant who has only one leg chained and only at night was getting a pretty good deal. Welcome to Surin.
Here is a photo of a young elephant. Note that both front legs are chained, and there is little room for the elephant to move about. I do not know how long this elephants spends secured in this manner, but this photo was taken during the week during daylight.
It was not unusual to walk through the village and see elephants with both front legs chanined, even very young elephants.
The Project seems to me a hybrid of direct action - getting mahouts and elephants in the program so the elephants have a better life as soon as possible - and attempting to win the hearts and minds of the local population so that they will make changes on their own in the way they treat their elephants. This seems an excellent way of helping the elephants in this setting, given that they are privately owned by different individuals, living on land owned by the government, and that there is a long history and cultural differences that would not make laws or rules difficult to enforce even if they were to be enacted and adopted. Without the authority to dictate standards of care, demonstrating that the model works seems most likely to bring about change. The sad reality is that change can not come about overnight. The good news is that some elephants have already benefited, and there is good reason to hope that more will benefit either by joining the program or by changing behavior on their own as they see the positive results brought about by the Surin Project.
Project Director Alex Godfrey pointing out a field where crops will be planted for food for elephants in the Project.
Another goal of the Project is to create a sustainable environment for the elephants by acquiring more land, either by lease or purchase, on which volunteers are helping to plant bamboo, elephants grass and other food for the elephants. In this photo Project Director Alex Godfrey is showing volunteers land on which crops will be planted by volunteers.
In less than three years 12 female elephants and their mahouts have joined the Project and participate full-time, with 5 males participating part-time, and the number of volunteers has increased so its current capacity of 12 volunteers is being reached on a somewhat regular basis. At the same time, the local population can see that a new idea works, that foreign tourists are willing to come to Surin to help the mahouts take care of their elephants, to see elephants off chains and spend time with them on walks or simply watching them in a natural setting. The message is therefore being delivered that the mahouts can provide their elephants with a humane and better quality of life while at the same time earning a salary and bringing additional revenue to local businesses.
What especially appealed to me about the Surin Project is that it is respectful of the local culture despite how challenging doing so can be at times. It demonstrates an alternative way that the mahouts can earn a living and care for the elephants, without trying to force a philosophy on a society that has lived with elephants for centuries. This approach has helped create an environment that is welcoming rather than suspicious of foreign visitors. This gave me much to think about, as it is common for Westerners to have an emotional response to seeing elephants treated in a manner not consistent with their own values (I plead guilty to having had this reaction).
For more information about the Surin Project, www.surinproject.org. There are numerous articles and websites about the challenges facing wild and captive elephants in Thailand. This Wikipedia article may be of interest, but I won't vouch for its accuracy.
I would like to thank Alex Godfrey for taking the time to speak with me about the Project at length during my visit. I did not "interview" him, however; and the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Alex, the Surin Project or anyone affiliated with it.
Photos and text by Steven Stone copyright 2011.