A Mahouting Wendy

So Monday saw my first time on the Elephant Project not being a volunteer, something which I thought would be drastically different to being on the project as a volunteer but it really isn’t. The co-ordinators on all of Starfish’s projects are on the project with you and they always put in 110% no matter how hot, humid or hard the work is; a great example of this is when Worn, the main Elephant co-ordinator climbed a palm tree with his bare hands in order to cut down the palm leaves to use as food for the elephants (video up soon :3)

I love to travel, anywhere, it doesn’t matter if it is just driving around with no purpose or going on a new adventure to a new country; I love it all. And I especially love the drive from Surin to the elephant village, it is about an hours drive through true Thai countryside where you see no tourists, only Thai people farming, looking after their children and just chilling out; something which Thai people are very good at 🙂 You get so see the buildings and hustle bustle of Surin melt away to nothing as you drive on dirt roads past tiny Thai villages, beautiful elephant temples and miles and miles of the most pristine farming countryside where people are working harder than I have ever seen anyone work before. The sky is endless and the brightest topaz blue with few to no clouds to break up the perfect view, and because the land around Surin is so flat you can see for miles and miles of unbroken countryside, it is very rare that you see telegraph poles and even rarer to see traffic lights; and by rare I mean there aren’t any! Driving around in Thai countryside is based hugely on skill and a united understanding amongst all of the drivers brave enough to drive those beat up gravel dirt roads.

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Who needs tarmac road when you can drive a dirt road?

The two volunteers on the elephant project this time around were Olivia and Lynn, a Brit and an American who had never seen an elephant up close and personal before which made me so happy as I love seeing peoples reactions when they first meet the beautiful and gentle giants of Thailand. When we arrived at Mr Lees house, I knew that the new baby elephant was probably the best thing to show them first so we chopped up some sugar cane and took it down to Pailin and Baby. The genuine smile you see on peoples faces when they see a baby elephant is like nothing else, the shock that they are so small in comparison to an adult and the joy of knowing that an endangered animal is right there in front of you and it is MORE than desperate to play with you is so beautiful see; and by play I mean Baby chases you, stands on your feet and gives you some pretty nice scratches and bruises; in all fairness I probably shouldn’t have been rolling around on the floor with her when she could easily break my leg with her weight alone, but she is just too darn cute!!

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It looks more like I have been playing with a tiger than a 2 week old baby elephant 😀 

The elephant project isn’t all about playing with elephants though, even if it is one of my favourite parts, there is a huge amount of physical labour and hard work thrown in there as well; it sometimes comes as a shock to volunteers just how much work goes into looking after elephants and that they will be playing a part in that huge operation as well. One elephant alone eats 200kgs of food and 20 litres of water a day, now that doesn’t just appear overnight, there are so many elements that are required to provide everything the elephants need, the biggest of course being farming.

Every morning the volunteers undertake farming and food collection for the elephants, now this can be anything from chopping down sugar cane;

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chopping down banana trees;

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it could be turning over a plot of land to prepare it for planting;

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or it could be using the most bizarre looking tractor in order to plough a field which is then planted with sugar cane, which is what the elephant team did for a whole 5 hours in the blazing heat just so that these elephants can have the food they need;

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Worn being a rather handy man to have around!

I have so much respect for the farming community in Thailand as they are toiling for 8 to 10 hours a day in 30C heat and 80% humidity in order to provide Thailand with the staples for survival, they grow everything from rice to sugar cane, carrots to dragon fruit and potatoes to rambuten, which are a super spiky pink fruit that tastes like grapes. Farming here also has no age limit so you see 5 year olds helping out their mums in the family rice field as well as 70+ year old farmers who are still as spritely and mobile as they were when they were 20; it never ceases to amaze me how much and how hard they work, especially when you compare to the level of hard work that we do in the Western world. I won’t lie, I have moaned about doing an 4 hour shift in Gamestation when all I had to do was sell Playstations and talk about games. I would complain that it wasn’t busy and that my feet ached from walking to work and how I was going to get a bus home because I couldn’t be bothered walking, now seeing how long and hard these people work without complaint sure does make me feel guilty. It’s the same as me moaning about how much I would get paid every week whilst working in a bar, ‘I only got £200 this week, that sucks!’. Now here in Thailand that is more than what the majority of people make in a month! A MONTH! And that is working everyday, and I mean everyday! 

Thanks for making me feel guilty there Thailand!!

But in all seriousness, I realised how much I take for granted back in England, the very computer I am using right now is a MacBook Pro which cost about £1500 which is so far and beyond anything people here have and I take that for granted so much. Being here and working to half of the level of Thai people is such a shock to most volunteers that they realise how materialistic they are and change the way in which they live to reflect their new found respect for how blessed they are.

So the next time you moan about how much you want that pair of shoes, the hardened edition of Black Ops 2 or the new iPhone 5 just stop and think how much money it is and how much that is to people who aren’t as well off as you. The price of a new iPhone 5 is about 6 months wages for the average Thai person, and that is without paying for bills, petrol, accommodation and food; so just have a quick think about wether you do actually need that new Superdry jacket or that shopping spree in Primark and think about how you can live more conscientiously and use that money to help people who actually need it.

Now as much as Thai people work hard they also play hard as well so after a hard day of working, and I mean a hard day, we always have fun filled nights in the village either visiting the local night market on a Wednesday and buying the most tasty donuts, pineapple biscuits, pork balls and slushies but we also spend hours playing with the children in the village who find more happiness in playing card games and catch than I thought possible. It is so beautiful to see children actually acting like children, playing football in the street, riding bikes and learning yo yo tricks, they aren’t like the teenagers and kids in England and the States who are desperate to play on their PS3 or love getting drunk on street corners and getting themselves pregnant. There is no video game that is more tense than a serious game of snap with 6 very competitive Thai kids and that is coming from someone who was playing 16 hours of Skyrim in order to get the Platinum trophy.

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Seems as though Henry is playing 1 against 4 here 😀

I can honestly say that I would rather spend 3 hours swimming and kayaking with the boys in the village, swimming with elephants and walking through the night markets than playing video games right now and that is what Starfish has done for me. It has made me actually appreciate the little things in life, tiny things like manners for example. Everyone in Thailand is so polite it is unreal! I took Olivia to see the Elephant Show at the Surin Elephant Study Centre on Thursday and there were around 100 school children from a province pretty far from Surin who had also come to see the show and they were more interested in me and Olivia than they were of the elephants! Now me and Olivia are both pale skinned, with blonde hair and blue eyes which is something that you don’t see in Thailand very often, especially a rural place like the Study Centre so needless to say we were the centre of rather a lot of attention. One of the senior teachers came up to me very gingerly and asked if it was ok for some of her students to come and take pictures with me and Olivia as they hadn’t seen white people like us before; both me and Olivia were very happy to oblige so spent the next 15 minutes taking pictures with the most adorable Thai children and their teachers.

Now the Elephant Show can sometimes throw up some questions from volunteers about animal cruelty. A few, not many, but a few volunteers often think that the show that the elephants put on in the centre is cruel and unnatural, now I can certainly agree that an elephant dancing, or playing football is certainly unnatural as I am pretty sure there is no Premier League in the jungle, but isn’t it unnatural for dogs to dance and horses to parade around dressage rings as well? Now is that cruel?

The way in which a mahout controls an elephant is mainly with their commands and with their bodies, elephants are a little like horses in that they will move away from something that is in their way, so if a mahout wants an elephant to turn left they will stand on their right or if they are riding them they will jiggle their leg behind their right ear. But, because elephants are so big and incredibly dangerous at times, mahouts need to make sure that they have a stricter way of controlling the elephants, now this comes in the form of a mahout stick which is a petrifiled branch with an iron hook on the end. This is only ever used if an elephant is being very badly behaved or if a mahout feels as though an elephant is in danger so they need to move them very quickly, such as when Pailan couldn’t see her baby one afternoon so started roaring and charging which is incredibly dangerous, especially when there was a large group of volunteers and villagers in her path. 

Now the Surin Elephant Study Centre is a huge government approved centre than looks after hundreds of elephants and is regularly checked by government officials due to the endangered nature of the Asian elephant. Do you think that the government would allow for animal cruelty, to their national animal, to occur in one of the biggest study centres in the country? I think not.

A few volunteers have expressed how they think it is cruel that the mahouts teach their elephants the different tricks and routines that are seen in the show but if you actually watch the show, you see that not one mahout uses his mahout stick to do more than attract the attention of their elephant, they only use their voices and touch them in certain places if they want them to move. I won’t try and say that an elephant standing on its hind legs is natural, as it isn’t, but it also isn’t cruel, people seem to forget that an elephant is hundreds and hundreds of kilograms and has incredible power, if it didn’t want to do something then it wouldn’t. If they feared man they wouldn’t come up to them so easily and they would shy away from the mahout sticks that are used. I can’t stress to anyone enough how well looked after these elephants are, mahouts will move their whole families in order to better look after their elephants, they will spend hours and hours teaching them new commands and taking them to the river to bathe. Elephants are incredibly talented and intelligent animals, you only need to watch them eat to see this. They will pick up individual bits of sugar cane or banana tree and pull off the bits they don’t like, or hit the food against their legs or backs in order to make it softer and juicer to eat. By teaching an elephant to do tricks you are enriching its life and giving it something to keep its brain active which encourages positive behaviour and a much higher level of obedience and calm in the animal itself. 

I think a lot of it has to do with how exotic an elephant is to Westerners, they don’t see an issue with a dog wearing clothes, having it’s nails painted or performing dance routines at Crufts as it is a normal every day animal to them. To Thai people seeing dogs like that is very strange for them, very much like it is strange for Westerners to see elephants perform shows. I am a huge advocate of animal safety and enrichment, I studied Animal Management and I would spend hours and hours with my own dogs to train them to bark, sit, stand, jump and bite on command so I am the LAST person to promote something that is in any way cruel, especially when it comes to an endangered species such as Asian Elephants. 

It made me so happy when Olivia turned to me after the show and said to me how amazed she was that the elephants were so happy to do what they were doing and that it wasn’t cruel in any way and that people who thought so clearly haven’t seen the level of dedication that these mahouts have to their elephants. I also encourage people to come to the show as it also gives so much money to the centre itself which is turns provides better care and standards of life for the elephants living there. 

So in essence, the show a fantastic show of the kind things that can happen when a person and an animals have such a close bond, the mahouts and elephants have an incredible close and beautiful bond that you can see from miles away and it is in no way cruel, so please don’t have assumptions about something you haven’t seen. Thailand and the world have moved on greatly from the old circus days where elephants, tigers, bears and lions were abused in order to provide people with entertainment, safety and high levels of care are the most important things to the mahouts and that is what you will see when you come to the show; as well as elephants cheating at football, it really is a sight to see!

It is safe to say then that both Lynn and Olivia have had a grand first week with the elephants and are looking forward to their next week as well. I can’t wait to see them embrace the lifestyle of the mahout and take more pictures of them bathing and riding the elephants so they can always remember how much they loved it and how much their work did for the village and the elephants.

Just a quick baby elephant update as well!! She is doing very well and is certainly turning into one cheeky little, well as little as a baby elephant can be, bundle of fun and naughtiness. We are still deciding on a name for her but as soon as we choose one I shall let you know and I will be posting lots of new pictures of her next week as well 😀

If you want to come and see baby for yourself or you think that you might like to make a difference in the lives of so many people by volunteering then you need to go over to the Starfish – Volunteer Thailand Facebook page, the Starfish Website or even the Starfish Tumblr page to see what we are all up to at the moment. Take a moment to have a ganders at our Instagram page as well which you can find at  #starfishvolunteers and also my own Instagram which I post nearly to nearly every day by clicking on the blue Instagram icon below.

Build. Protect.Teach. Care. – The Starfish Motto

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