Elephants have always played an important role in Thai culture and society. Yet in recent years, the use of elephants in tourist camps has become more and more common due to an increase in tourism. We offer volunteers the opportunity to dedicate some time to elephant conservation and welfare through a local elephant conservation foundation that does not mistreat the animals. They offer two different programs: a hill-tribe program and visiting their elephant sanctuary. Both aim to ameliorate elephants’ conditions in Thailand but through different means. The ‘hill-tribe program’ strives to re-introduce elephants back into hill-tribe villages, their natural environment, whereas the elephant park rescues and cares for elephants that have been exploited and mistreated in tourist camps. Nevertheless, the ‘hill-tribe program’ week finishes by two days at the elephant sanctuary.
I joined a group of volunteers on the ‘hill-tribe program’ a few weeks ago. We left Chiang Mai early Monday morning with a group of 14 volunteers and 2 local guides. After a few hours drive, we arrived at the Karen hill-tribe village where we would be staying until Friday. We slept in two common rooms, and the beds had small mattresses and mosquito nets, which is relatively comfortable for hill-tribe standards. On the first day, we got to meet the baby elephant living in the village, named Pinsuela by previous volunteers. Her mother had been sold to a trekking camp the previous year but the elephant conservation group managed to keep the baby in the village. She was very comfortable around people, and we were allowed to pet her and feed her directly as much as we wanted. The guides explained to us that there used to be more than 40 elephants in the village, but due to a lack of financial resources the villagers have been forced to lease their elephants to tourist camps. As of today all elephants except Pinsuela have been leased to trekking camps. The core of the program is that the fee paid by the volunteers replaces the income that the villagers would have gained by leasing the elephants, bringing them a sustainable income and permitting the elephant to live in the village. During the week, volunteers help take care of the elephant and get to discover Karen hill-tribe culture.
Activities can vary depending on the needs of the time but usually include: cutting banana trees, feeding the elephant, building community facilities and elephant shelter, teaching English, etc. We went on hikes around the village, walked through forests, swam in rivers and practiced meditation in front of the most incredible sunsets.
At night, everyone helped to make dinner with some of the villagers, a good opportunity to learn about Karen culture and customs as well as a few words in Karen, for example ‘thank you’ is ‘tableu’!
As the week went by, I learned about the complexity of the relationship between the Karen people and the elephants. Each elephant has one ‘Mahout’, a person who takes care of the elephant at all times and who is from the family that owns the elephant. One night, I saw the Mahout gathering some food and going out of the house, when I asked where he was going, he explained that Pinsuela, being a baby elephant (and away from her mother) easily got scared at night by noises or animals. Therefore, he had been sleeping with her every night in the wooden house next to the fields where she stayed. Rarely have I witnessed a relationship between people and animals like the one that exists in Thailand between Karen tribes and elephants. The ‘hill-tribe program’ attempts to reconnect Karen people with their elephants, offering the animals a more natural lifestyle free from abuse. They hope that by having a constant flow of volunteers more elephants will slowly be brought back to the village as their lease to trekking camp finishes
At the end of the week, we headed to the sanctuary park for two days, where some people stay for a week instead of joining the ‘hill-tribe program’. The park is very large, and looks like a strange holiday resort at first glance. It has a gift shop, a cafe and many tables to sit and enjoy the Wi-Fi (which is not available in the hill-tribe). There are approximately 60 volunteers there at all times, mostly Western. More than 40 elephants rescued from exploitation and mistreatment all over Thailand are brought there to be cared for. Elephants are free to wander around the park however they want, and have their respective Mahouts with them at all times. We stayed in very comfortable accommodation, but I should mention the park is also a sanctuary for rescued cats and dogs. It has more than 400 dogs there and probably as many cats. As I arrived in my room, I had the pleasant surprise of finding two cat guests already there!
The days are very busy and start at 8.00am, activities are usually: cutting banana trees, washing and cutting watermelons, feeding the elephants, cleaning the park, etc. The most popular activity is washing the elephants in the river using buckets of water, which regularly ends in a water fight between the volunteers and the guides! We had an incredible guide called Won. As we walked through the park he told us about each elephant’s story, where they came from, how they were rescued, etc. As the elephants have been mistreated at the hands of people, it is forbidden to go too close to them or touch them, as many are still traumatized by their previous experiences working for tourist camps. Therefore, the park does not offer the same closeness with elephants as the hill-tribes but has both hard work and resort atmosphere and is equally as important to their welfare and respect.
Spending a week around elephants, cats and dogs was incredible yet also a lot of hard work and I was happy to go back to the calm of Doi Saket. Learning about the importance of elephants in Thai, particularly Karen culture and how vast the problem of their exploitation is, we all felt the cause was worth dedicating time to. The importance of responsible tourism for our work in Thailand cannot be understated, which is why we enjoy working with this local elephant foundation and hope many volunteers will keep joining in the future. Both programs offer a radically different atmosphere that can satisfy all desires and approaches to animal welfare in Thailand, and you are sure to come back with some inspiring stories!