The Surin Project

One of the most eye opening experiences I had in Thailand was volunteering at The Surin Project, where I learned a lot about elephant tourism and met some amazing people who were trying to change things for the better.

What is the Surin Project?

The Surin Project is an initiative that seeks to promote an alternative, more animal friendly form of elephant tourism in Thailand.

In the past, elephants were used widely in Thailand to help in industries like logging, and when farm machinery replaced that need, the mahouts and elephants turned to practices like elephant rides, elephant feeding and street begging – the last of which was made illegal, as street begging elephants would cause traffic build ups, often destroyed property, and could hurt people.

To help eradicate street begging, the Thai government also opened up the ‘Surin Elephant Study Center’, where they pay around 200 elephants and their mahouts to live in the ‘Elephant Village’.

Inside the ‘Elephant Village’, but run by a non-government conservation organisation, is where The Surin Project is located.

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The ‘Elephant Study Center’ is grossly misnamed, in actuality being just a tourist hot spot, where both Thai and international vacationers come to ride elephants, watch them paint and do tricks in an elephant circus, get married on elephants, or to watch the annual Surin Elephant Roundup. And they sell a lot of ivory and other animal products.

If you don’t know much about elephants, that probably all sounds great. But you might reconsider when you learn a little more.

Elephants, even if born in captivity, aren’t domesticated, and the usual way that they are ‘broken’ in order to be easily handled, involves removing a baby calf from it’s mother, putting it in a tiny cage – called, fittingly, a training crush – where it’s tied up and then repeatedly stabbed with sharp objects, beaten and yelled at while being starved and deprived of sleep.

Then, after days of this, the mahout will approach it with food and water and take care of it, to show it that he is it’s only friend and that only by obeying it’s mahout will the elephant avoid undergoing that same pain in the future. Not all elephants survive this process, and of those who do, some will be injured for life.

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And all those elephants doing circus tricks? They learn the same way – with constant abuse and beatings until they learn to do the tricks properly. Even elephants who aren’t doing tricks are controlled with a bullhook, which is exactly what it sounds like – a sharp hook that the mahout will beat the elephant with or dig into it’s skin to discipline it, or sometimes just to remind it that he’s the master.

You may think, though, that if an elephant is already broken, there’s no harm riding them. Wrong. Elephants’ spines are not made to hold heavy weights, and lots of them end up having spinal injuries. They also have very delicate skin, despite appearances, to the extent that they feel mosquito bites just like we do. Those huge seats aren’t just heavy, but rub away at their skin, leaving them with painful sores and welts.

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Not to mention that most of the elephants used for riding are massively overworked, sometimes even given amphetamines to keep them going, and will have to walk around – often even if old or pregnant – in the hot sun for hours on end without much food, water or rest. And yes, elephants – like us – can get sunburnt.

A lot of the elephants at the center who aren’t being used for rides are kept solitarily chained up in the hot sun all day, sometimes in their own excretions, with no space to move, no water, and nothing for them to do but shuffle their feet and sway their heads side to side – this is called weaving (although some mahouts will refer to it as dancing) and it is stereotypical behaviour for elephants in captivity: a sign of boredom, frustration and desolation.

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And this is where The Surin Project comes in. At present it doesn’t have enough resources to support more than 12 elephants at a time, but those 12 elephants who are on the project are housed under cover so as to be protected from the sun, are given adequate food and water, and are walked daily and given free time to socialize and play with each other. Their mahouts are paid for this, and part of the rule is that they don’t bring bullhooks to the project.

It’s such an important initiative. Changing the law in Thailand as regards animals hasn’t been very successful yet since most people ignore the changes, and the new laws don’t have heavy penalties and aren’t policed. The Surin Project seeks to change the way the Thai people think of elephant tourism, and to show them that they can earn a more sustainable living by treating elephants humanely.

Helping out with the elephants

I had never before thought about just how hard it was to look after elephants. I’d had this vague idea that anyone who engages in animal cruelty or tourism must be lazy and mean.

I couldn’t be further from the truth – taking care of an elephant is a full-time job, kind of like having a baby except that there’s no daycare for elephants when you want to have a break.

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Every morning we’d split into teams to clean both the elephant enclosures in which they lived, and the open areas in which they were allowed to roam and socialise.

Elephants eat a lot and poop a lot, and they also leave a lot of dried sugar cane scraps behind – all of which have to be raked up, put into a trailer, and taken to the sugarcane fields where they’re spread out as mulch.

Each mahout has his own sugarcane field, where he has to constantly grow enough sugarcane to feed his elephant (they eat between 149 and 169 kg of food a day), and every morning they have to cut fresh sugarcane and pile that up in a trailer as well to take back to the enclosures.

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I actually really loved chopping down the sugarcane with a huge machete, but I hated putting the sugarcane into the trailers, because it was so prickly that I’d get itchy all over. And at least I had gloves, which not all the mahouts did.

Then there were the walks. In the wild elephants walk and play for up to 20 hours a day. Obviously, that’s not replicable in captivity, but the mahouts did take the elephants out for long walks twice a day – which, I can tell you from doing the walk with them, was fairly painful given how disgustingly hot it was.

They also had to be fairly vigilant because the mahouts were responsible for making sure the elephants didn’t steal anyone’s plants – which they were wont to do – or damage anyone’s property.

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With most walks they’d also get to swim in one of the local watering holes, which was great for the elephants because they absolutely love swimming, but also because it helped keep them cool. Wetting themselves and then throwing mud on their backs is their version of sunscreen.

Washing the elephants was one of the most fun experiences I had there – some of the mahouts had taught their elephants to spray water out of their trunks whenever they said ‘pow’, so that I ended up having a ridiculously fun water fight with an elephant – which I subsequently lost.

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Of course, our mahouts were the good ones, the ones who were progressive enough to want change – even though they could make more money going off to a festival for a few days than they could on the project in a week – and who truly loved and cared for their elephants.

Not all the mahouts on the project were like that – not even a little bit. One of the saddest things I saw was a mahout walking with a young elephant calf, who started to cry out for some reason. The mahout reacted by beating him with his bullhook, only making the poor thing more and more scared until it peed itself in fright and collapsed onto the ground, whereupon the mahout started digging the bullhook in to the top of it’s head. I have no idea what that was meant to achieve, but hearing the little one’s scared and pained cries was absolutely heartbreaking.

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In another part of the center, another calf was chained up and every time I walked past, she seemed to be trying to pull her chain off the pole it was tied around. She’d manage to squeeze herself through the fence and would pull and pull and pull, to no avail, until eventually she’d give up, go back in, and lie down again.

It’s one thing to see an elephant already used to captivity, but when you see one so desperate to get out of chains, it leaves you feeling incredibly helpless – I so badly wanted to do something for her, but there didn’t seem to be anything I could do.

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In comparison there was another elephant close to us who was kept out in the sun all day and whose mahout was apparently known for being neglectful. She wouldn’t get walked at all, and she’d be in that one place all day long with little food and no water – I only ever once saw her mahout walk her a very short distance to a water tank, where she got a quick little wash and drink, and then she was taken right back and chained up again, with both her front feet chained so that she couldn’t even move around a little.

The worst thing was that she’d given birth not long ago and her calf had been separated from her. Whenever the mahout walked her calf past, she’d start pulling at the chains and making mournful noises, but they were never allowed to be together.

Getting to know the mahouts

The mahouts on the project were wonderful, and it was a lot of fun getting to hang out with them. They had a great sense of humour and loved making jokes and playing pranks. While we were there we got to participate in ‘the Mahout Olympics’ with them, where we were put into groups to compete in games like ‘elephant poo golf’ (which is exactly what you think it is) and three legged races. On our last night together we put on a ‘Farang show’ where we had to share an activity from our home countries, and which ended with us all dancing to Thai music.

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It really bought home to me that the issue of elephant tourism doesn’t just affect the elephants, but has a human aspect to it too. All of our mahouts worked so hard, and so did their families. A few of their wives ran little restaurants, where we’d go for lunch, while others had set up shops or would offer to wash our clothes for some extra baht.

Not all had chosen to look after elephants – for some it was an inherited position. They were also victims of circumstance. Even if a mahout decided his elephant should be free, he could hardly just go release it into the wild. And with the costs of looking after an elephant being so high, they need to have some outlet for the elephant to bring in an income.

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That’s why the work The Surin Project is doing is so important. Hopefully a growing recognition of conservation issues should stop more elephants from being killed and captured in the wild, but for those elephants who are already captive, showing mahouts that there are sustainable alternatives to traditionally cruel elephant tourism is the best way to improve their livelihoods.

Living the Simple Life

The callous acts of animal cruelty notwithstanding, living inside the center was pretty cool. The volunteer program was run by a Welsh couple, Kristy and Wills, and they made it as enjoyable as it was educational.

Our accommodation consisted of a simple mattress and fan set up, with a mosquito net, in stilt houses owned by the mahouts. The bathrooms were all outdoors, with only cold water bucket showers on hand, but that was hardly an issue given the heat, and we came to regard showering with a bucket as a novelty rather than an inconvenience.

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Internet was only available at the entrance to the center, and only at certain hours during the day – I didn’t bother because it was too far a walk in the sun. Instead we did spend a lot of time playing with the dogs around the center – of which there were an abundance – especially Jones and Harrison, who belonged to Kristy and Wills, and the most adorable puppy, named Donut, from a shop up the road.

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We got some basic Thai language lessons, helped out at a local school, visited a temple, played lots of Monopoly Deal (think Monopoly but in the form of a card game that doesn’t take hours to finish), and ate amazing meals together, home cooked by Osha, another one of the coordinators.

My favourite moments were when we’d get driven around in the ute, and I would sit on the roof of the cab, with the wind in my hair, just taking in the rural beauty surrounding us.

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Some facts about elephants and elephant tourism

I spent a lot of time reading about elephants at the Project as well, so thought I’d share a few facts:

Elephants are one of the few non-human species that can recognise their reflections as themselves (the self-identification test). They’re also incredibly sensitive – if a calf is upset, the whole herd will go and comfort it, they cry as a sign of distress, and they purr when they’re happy.

In fact, elephants have the most developed hippocampus of any animals, including humans, which is why they’re so emotional and have such amazing memories – but which is also why a lot of them suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They’re one of the most intelligent creatures on earth. They’ve even got burial ceremonies for their dead.

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They’re also super playful. We’d frequently see the elephants on the project trying to steal each others’ food, giving each other massages, cleverly opening coconuts, and using various objects as butt-scratchers.  There’s nothing like seeing a bunch of happy elephants playing together, they’re so childlike and joyful and it’s incredibly humbling.

Unfortunately, elephants in captivity just don’t have rights in Thailand. While wild elephants are protected, captive elephants are considered by law to be ‘livestock’, the same as cows or chickens.

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Occasionally, a kind foreigner will try to buy an elephant to save it from abuse, but this isn’t a good idea. Many of the elephants are ‘investments’ and owned by business men who’ll hire mahouts to look after them, much in the same vein that taxi licenses in Australia are considered investments and the drivers have to pay the owners a percentage of their profit.

Buying an elephant creates more demand, and poachers are more than happy to meet it. And the way they meet it is by killing adult elephants in the wild so that they can capture their young, and sell the dead elephants’ body parts – which are believed by a lot of Asian cultures to have medicinal properties.

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None of this is going to change overnight, of course, but given that there are so many people who are so dedicated to the cause, I hope that in the future both Thai culture and the tourists visiting Thailand will change their views towards elephants, and that these magnificent animals will be treated with the respect they deserve.

Want to know more?

Elephant Nature Park: the organisation that runs The Surin Project

The Surin Project: official website

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