Chiangrai Times– The Asian elephant is endangered and needs our help. Due to dramatic reduction in available legal employment in the logging industry, captive elephants in Thailand are left jobless. Heavy logging and development have left Thailand with limited natural habitat for elephants. The elephant owners were left with no choice but to feed their families by making their elephants beg for food in tourist areas in cities like Bangkok. Working in the cities is highly stressful for elephants, and lack of proper food and clean water is physically and mentally damaging to their well being.
To help mahouts and get their elephants away from busy city streets and off their chains, Elephant Nature Foundation started a new endeavor four years ago—the Surin Project. Elephant Nature Foundation is a conservation organization established in 2006 by award winning conservationist, Sangduen Lek Chailert. The mission of Elephant Nature Foundation is to increase awareness about the plight of the endangered elephant and teach locals humane treatment of their elephants and give rescued elephants a life worth living. Elephant Nature Foundation also provides a sanctuary at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) where abused and formerly employed elephants in circuses and logging industry find refuge live out their lives in an natural environment.
In 2005, the Surin government started the “Take Me Home” project and created the Elephant Study Center. The Surin government set aside 2,000 acres for elephants that have been retired from street begging. Surin province was once a heavily forested area teaming with wild elephants. Deforestation throughout the 20thcentury has turned the countryside barren. Elephants became captive. When rice paddies took over natural habitat, mahouts took their elephants to the cities to beg for food. In an attempt to bring back the elephants from poor living conditions in the cities, the Surin government established the Take Me Home project and opened the Elephant Study Center.The center now subsidizes close to 200 mahouts and their elephants to live at the center. Out of these 200, a few of the elephants and their owners participate in the Surin project.
The Surin Projectis a small sanctuary created with support from the Surin Provincial Administrative Organization and the Elephant Study Center. It is led by Alex Godfrey. Located in Baan Tha Klang village in Surin province in the North Eastern part of Thailand, the project provides mahouts and their elephants a natural, less stressful and sustainable alternative to street begging and other forms of tourism such as circuses and elephant rides. Mahouts are also taught ways they can treat their elephants more humanely with no hooks. Elephants who are shackled all day long with nothing to do are taken off their chains and walked to a nearby river for bathing.
Volunteers play a key role in the Surin Project. Volunteers from all around the world come to work for the Surin Project. They help the project explore ecologically sustainable and elephant-friendly tourism options. They stay onsite and help build the new sanctuary and help the famers and mahouts in reforesting elephant areas. Volunteers pant grass, sugarcane, and bamboos and build shelters for the elephants. Volunteers spend time maintaining and cutting elephant food at fields down by the river. All volunteers are expected to help with chores, cleaning the home-stay area and the elephant stables.
Volunteers also provide elephants with daily walks to watering holes and help them get off their chains. Walking the elephants to the river provides an excellent opportunity to witness these marvelous creatures in their natural environment rather than in tourist camps where they are trained to provide rides and entertainment.
More importantly, the money from the Surin Project’s volunteer program provides a much-needed economic revenue for the mahouts in the remote community, giving them the opportunity to have better living conditions and more freedom for their elephants. By generating economic opportunities, the Surin Project is allowing the mahouts to have a more traditional lifestyle. It is also luring other mahouts from the cities to bring their elephants to Surin so they can have better livelihoods.
The Surin Project is currently working with 11 female elephants, including a baby male, and part-time male elephants that join the volunteers several times a week to walk to the river. There are also five “retired” females that spend three hours in the enclosure near where the volunteers eat their breakfast. The Surin Project hopes to one day provide better conditions for all the elephants in the center.
Allison Argo, Emmy winning wildlife documentary film director/writer of Argo Films, said “Of all the projects I was able to visit in Thailand, I was most struck by the Surin Project. If you want to gain a true understanding of the many issues Asian elephants face, this is a great place to start. It can be a sobering experience. The project’s director, Alex Godfrey, is a great inspiration and a wonderful leader.” Argo is currently filming for her first feature film, The Story of Dao, about the life of a special elephant named Pang Dao and hundreds of endangered Asian elephants like her.
Thailand’s Surin Project is providing enriching experiences to volunteers and a new way of life to mahouts and their elephants. With a strong focus on sustainability and humane elephant treatment practices, volunteers will learn new ways to help elephants and the communities that rely on them.
- Surin is approx. 7 hours from Bangkok.
- Surin is part of the Isaan Region of North Eastern Thailand.
- Surin is known for its spicy and delicious food, farming traditions and rich rural culture.
- Baan Tha Klang Village is an hour drive North-West of Surin City.
- Volunteer fee is $384 for 6days/5nights.
- Volunteers are picked up from Bangkok and driven to Surin on an air-conditioned bus.
- Volunteers can work for a week or more.
- Volunteers are housed in pairs in home-stay accommodations at the Elephant Study Center.
- Shared bathrooms with western style flush toilets and showers are available.
- Three meals are provided daily. Drinking water is provided.
- Village development work varies from week to week. Volunteers can contribute new ideas
- To learn more, please visit www.surinproject.org