I wonder if elephant milk tastes like cows milk?
Do you dare me to try it? – An unwise Wendy
After my last blog about the joy of working on the Starfish elephant project I was thinking back to the elephants I saw in the city of Surin and the lives that they lead. Elephants are one of the national symbols of Thailand and are highly revered in Thai culture but, as we all know, there are always people in the world that are ready to make a quick buck. Some elephants, not only in Surin but all around Thailand, are used or, you could even say taken advantage of, in order to make money.
Sitting in any bar or restaurant in Surin, experiencing the amazing food and wonderful hospitality is gravy up until you hear the ‘ooooh’s and the ‘ahhhh’s of tourists that have never seen an elephant up close before. Elephants are paraded around the streets for hours on end, surrounded by dangerous traffic in a world that is so out of where they should be in order to attract the attention of tourists who will by bundles of sugarcane to feed to the elephants.
Now although people say that giving these handlers money, personally I really don’t see them as Mahouts, isn’t really that much of a big deal, it actually is. You may not see it as actively encouraging the practice but that is exactly what you are doing. You are telling these people that it is ok to have their elephants being dragged around the streets. That it is ok for them to not be in their natural habitat. That it is ok to not be able to spend their evenings grazing like elephants should. And that it is ok to abuse your elephant if he or she does not perform the trick you demand. There is so much more behind the decision to pay 100 baht to feed an elephant that most people, innocently, don’t even think about.
I have the same approach to street elephants that I do to homeless people with dogs. It isn’t the animals fault that they are in a world away from their own, it isn’t their fault that they think that this is normal or that they have to fear man. Thai elephants, also known as Asian elephants, unbeknownst to most are actually an IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature) endangered animal. Their population levels have decreased by over 50% in the last three generations, a fact which still baffles and upsets me; even more so to know that some of the few that are left are being forced around the streets of busy cities in order to get money for their handlers.
The tourists that do choose to feed street elephants may think that it is just a treat for the elephants but for a lot of them, that is their only food, given to them only when they perform tricks on command. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enriching an intelligent animal with teaching commands and actions but I do think there is something wrong with knowing that their performance directly influences if they get their food for that day.
Asian Elephants eat at least 250kg of food a day, even more depending on their size. Now if you think that a bag of sugar is around 1kg, imagine what it looks like to times that by 250, a lot right? Wll that is the amount of food you need, at least, every day, in order to sustain just one elephant, and in a city like Surin, which is a built up place, you have to wonder where the handlers get this food from. Many of the elephants live in the city itself and are fed on whatever can be bought on the streets from various vendors, some of the lucky ones do come from outlying areas surrounding Surin where there are high levels of vegetation but you have to then consider how far away those areas are from the tourists in Surin. It isn’t a five minute walk to the shop to buy a packet of crisps or a pot noodle, it’s a one to two hour trek through busy and dangerous streets full of traffic and other dangers in order to get to the shop. I don’t know about you, but for me, that doesn’t seem worth the 5 minutes of joy from feeding a street elephant.
I can’t tell you that stopping feeding street elephants will show these handlers that it isn’t the right thing to do because I don’t think it will. They clearly aren’t bothered that their elephants are already underfed and hugely lacking in the vital nutrition that they need and what is worse is that these unfortunate, 4 ton, street elephants are set to live like this for their entire 70 year life expectancy. Could you imagine being worked like a dog everyday, not knowing if you will be fed and watered, for 70 years? Could you deal with being beaten morning and night because you didn’t perform your trick correctly or you didn’t walk fast enough through some heavy traffic because you were scared of the loud noises? Yes elephants are huge and at times very dangerous, but naturally they are gentle and loving creatures and will live this life because of the love that they have for their handlers.
Just think of the scene in Dumbo where Dumbos mother has her trunk through the bars of her mad elephant cage (don’t try and kid yourself that that scene doesn’t make you cry!), she puts up with her mistreatment as she loves Dumbo; very much the same as these street elephants love their handlers.
But, and this is the happy bit, not all Asian elephants have to go through this torment everyday. Some get to live in the lush jungles and flatlands that are their natural territory due to the incredible hard work undertaken by charities and volunteer companies. There are now bans on hunting of elephants, export or sale of ivory and also governmental grants to people who own and correctly care for elephants.
This is where me and you step in. People like us, who care about making sure these elephants are not in horrible conditions, can do something amazing and hugely beneficial with our time with the help of Starfish in order to look after and correctly care for these incredible animals.
The baby elephant or calf that is at the top of this post is the newest member of the Starfish family (she took my title away pretty quickly!!). She is a newly born elephant belonging to our youngest Mahout, Saam, and is set to have a wonderful life under the his care and also from the Starfish volunteers who give their time to make sure that she doesn’t have to go grow up to be a street elephant; if it weren’t for volunteers’ hard work and dedication we here at Starfish wouldn’t be able to provide these elephants and their mahouts with the life that they deserve.
The elephant project volunteers contribute to the care of the elephants in so many ways; they plant new crops of banana grass;
maintain previous volunteers crops by clearing away dead leaves;
and chop down banana trees (with massive machetes :3) to feed the elephants;
not only do the volunteers undertake the physical work to look after the elephants but they also get to reap the rewards by seeing happy elephants and knowing that they won’t ever be exploited or abused.
If those volunteers weren’t there though non of this would be possible. The elephants would have to be tied up in the flatlands in order to give time to the Mahouts to farm which makes elephants restless and often depressed as they have no mental stimulation. If a Mahout spends his day farming for his elephant he cannot spend time farming for his family which means that his wife and children are directly effected by the time given by volunteers.
The work that the volunteers do also effects the wider community as well. We pay farmers of the surrounding villages to let us cut down their crops to feed the elephants which means that they get extra income that they wouldn’t normally get. And we aren’t just talking one or two farms that we cut crops from, we are talking ten to twenty different farms and families that get our help; and it isn’t just money that we contribute either, it is our language skills as well. Volunteers spend time with the families at their farms and those few hours of english language interaction go a very long way in terms of their own education. Speaking English is such an important skill in Thailand but one that many rural villages and farms do not get exposed to; but with the help of you and of Starfish they do.
It’s the snowball effect. We give money and language to farmers who can then afford the transport to send their children to school, to buy food and clothes, to invest in larger areas of land in order to grow more crops. Their opportunities just grow and multiply all because of the volunteers and the work that they do; the more volunteers we have the more help we can give to these people who are so desperate and welcome to have our time and effort.
There are often times when you put money in a charity box and feel good for the rest of the day but then that’s it, the good feeling wears off, but volunteering with Starfish has given me a feeling that I have actually made a difference. I have helped a family provide for their children, I have helped teach a whole classroom of children English, I have saved an elephant from a street life; that isn’t the kind of feeling you get if you just put some money in a charity box, actually getting out there and doing something makes a whole world of difference and what more is that it makes a whole world of difference to so many people.
So. . . . . . . . . . when are you going to make a difference?
If you want to have a look at the amazing work and volunteering opportunities we are currently doing shuffle on over to the Starfish – Volunteer Thailand Facebook page and sign up to the Starfish newsletter. Another great way of seeing what we are up to and what you can expect when you come out to Thailand is to try the Starfish Tumblr page and our very own
Build. Protect. Teach. Care. – The Starfish Motto