The Life of a Surin Project Volunteer

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Trumpets! I could hear them right outside my front door. 

This is what I woke up to on my first morning at Elephant Nature Park’s newer program the Surin Project. I laid there in bed listening to the sounds of the elephant across the street from my host family’s house. I could also hear the sound of water hitting the hard dirt, so I could only guess she was getting a bath.

She let out another trumpet.

I got up to see what all the fuss was about, and sure enough she was getting hosed down while her mahout was scrubbing all the red dirt that had become caked on her tough skin away.

I sat there on my balcony for a few minutes watching the elephant. She would move her body so her mahout would scratch the right spots with his scrub brush. Behind her ears, her shoulders, and her big ol’ rump. 

Feeding elephants
Feeding a couple of hungry ladies

This kind of wake up call was not uncommon for me while I was at the Surin Project. If it were not an elephant getting bathed, it was my host mother with their family elephant. She would talk to her elephant while she raked out old sugar cane stalks. Or it was another mahout walking their big tusker down the road the clanging of his chains hitting the dirt echoed up to my room. 

No matter what time of day it was I was surrounded by elephants.

To say that it was all happiness and fun would be a lie. There was plenty to be happy about, but there is also a sadness that surrounds this little village I was staying in. 

Elephant Nature Park sanctuary opened my eyes to the abuse elephants go through, but working at the Surin Project made me live through some of it.

Inside my room at Surin Project
My room
My balcony at Surin Project
My balcony

What is the Surin Project

The Surin province of Thailand is well known for elephants with over 300 registered in the area. The project runs out of the small village of Baan Tha Klang where the Surin Elephant Study Center is located.

The elephants in this province were once used for logging and tourism, but many of their mahouts found it hard to make money, so they started to use their elephants to beg on the streets. 

They would take their elephants into the city to walk the streets and try to entice tourists to pay for photos with the elephant or to feed the elephant. 

In 2009, the Thai government banned elephant street begging due to the numerous problems it would cause. Once that happened the mahouts really had a hard time making money with their elephants. 

3 elephants walking
Out on a morning walk

That’s when ENP was asked to come in and join the effort in helping these beautiful creatures. Right now out of the nearly 200 elephants living in the village, 9 of them are in ENP’s Surin Project. They have provisions for 12 and are looking for new mahouts to bring in their elephants, but participation in the program is completely up to the mahout.

Most of the elephants in the village are left with their feet chained together majority of the day. Some have a shelter from the sun and rain but most do not. Their mahouts still use bull hooks, and a few were loaded up to go to some tourist location for people to ride them. There is also a ring for an elephant show right in the middle of the village.

Baby elephant Anda from Surin Project
Baby Anda being mischievous as usual

The 9 elephants in the Surin Project have a much different life than their surrounding  pachyderm neighbors.

By signing up for the program, the mahouts are agreeing to abide by ENP’s rules which are:

All the elephants must have a shelter

While the elephant is in the shelter they can only chain 1 leg

The elephant must be let out to walk at least 4 hours a day

The mahout cannot use a bull hook

The elephant cannot be used for riding or any other type of attraction

The mahout is not allowed to consume alcohol until the end of day after their elephant has been secured in it’s shelter

9 elephants getting a bath
Afternoon bath time for the herd

I have to commend the mahouts who have signed up for the program. To someone looking in from the outside, it might not seem like a lot, but we have to understand that the people in this area have been using the same training methods for many many years. 

These mahouts are willingly saying that they want to work with ENP and make a change to better the life of their elephant.

Where Do the Volunteers Come In?

As volunteers, we are there to help the mahouts with various tasks during the day.

In the morning, our different groups will either clean out the shelters or clean the enclosures and separate the waste. The left over sugar cane will go to mulch the fields, and the elephant poo is taken to a small paper making operation.

Sadie going to collect sugar cane
On our way to collect sugar cane for the elephants

Once our morning chores are done, we head out for a nice long walk with the mahouts and their elephants. 

If there is a project to be done, the volunteers will jump on that either right before or right after lunch. This could be cleaning the pond, fixing the road, planting bamboo, pretty much whatever needs to be done.

The afternoons are spent either walking with the herd again or sitting up in the viewing platform while the elephants swim in the pond below. 

I’ve definitely worked more labor intensive programs, but the Surin Project volunteers are very important.

Not only were we helping out with the tasks that they gave us, but by us coming to the village and showing the mahouts that we cared about the wellbeing of their animals, that prompted them to care as well.

3 elephants swimming
3 best friends enjoying their afternoon swim

Also the weekly fee the volunteers pay goes back into the program and helps keep the elephants and their mahouts in the program. 

If I didn’t already have something scheduled back in Bangkok, I would have extended my stay at the Surin Project without a second thought. I loved being there! 

I hope someday they will be able to work with all the mahouts in the village and teach them how to give their animals a better life. Until then it’s good to know at least 9 elephants are being treated better. It’s only a matter of time before more volunteers start signing up and more mahouts join the program!!!

If you want to help build a better life for elephants, check out the Surin Project’s website for more info.

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