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And the elephants arrived!

And the elephants arrived!

In contrast to the city of Bangkok, from the bus you can see tarpaulins full of rice drying in the sun, wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs, bright green crops, oxen, fruit trees, small Buddhist temples, whole families riding scooters...

The roads in Thailand are generally very good, the driving here is more similar to what we know in Europe, they don't use the horn all the time and they even use the indicators for overtaking. 

I am heading to Surin to visit an elephant project. It is not a sanctuary, they work with the community to try to give the elephants the best life possible, bearing in mind that they are elephants living in captivity. The project is located about 6 hours east of Bangkok. There are more than 200 elephants and their mahouts (keepers) living in the village where it is located, but the project has only 12 elephants plus a new one that was to be added next week. It is a relatively recent and small project and for the moment they cannot afford to work with more elephants, although their idea is that little by little it will grow and so they will be able to hire more mahouts and take in more elephants. There I have shared the day to day with a very varied group of volunteers (of very different nationalities, ages and profiles) but in the days we have spent together we have connected very well. The project coordinators are in charge of giving as much information as possible so that we are able to understand the problem that elephants suffer in general, not only Asian elephants, and the consequences that our behaviour can have on them.

For example, I believe that we are often unaware that by paying for an elephant ride or a ticket to a circus we are feeding the mistreatment suffered by these animals, who are not only deprived of their freedom but also suffer brutal aggression. It is not at all normal behaviour for an elephant to climb on a platform on two legs while moving a ball on its trunk, behind all this there is a hard training that usually involves terrible tortures. Elephants should be accompanied by their mothers until they are 4 years old, who teach them everything they need to know in order to survive. A very common way used by mahouts to teach elephants is the crush method. In this case, the elephants are separated from their mothers when they are 2 years old (or even earlier), put in a very small cage, the size of their body, and tortured with all kinds of sharp objects until the baby elephant stops crying one day and then they stop. It is true that elephants have a very good memory so when they grow up they will always remember the intense pain they suffered when they were small and this makes them more obedient. So when they have to teach him a trick, whether it is for a circus or to learn how to carry a saddle for tourists to ride on his back, every time they stick him with what the mahouts use to control them (called a hook), he will remember it and it will be easier for him to learn and be submissive in the learning process.

The project basically works in two areas: education and awareness raising. Education about the mahouts, to try to convince them that there are other ways of working with elephants and as a consequence to give the elephants the best possible life, taking into account that the elephants are not in freedom, which would be the ideal situation. To give you an example, the elephants in the whole village are chained by at least two legs and some even by their necks for almost the whole day. The elephants in the project only have chains on one leg, they go for walks where they are unchained for at least a couple of hours a day, they bathe in the river and they are allowed to interact with each other. It is hard to see that most of "their neighbours" are hardly ever unchained.

One thing that has really surprised me is that they have their groups of friends and it's wonderful to see the way they communicate with each other. One of the elephants in the project has escaped three times in the last few months just to visit her friend at the other end of the village and when they are together bathing in the river it is really difficult to separate them.
The volunteers help with the day-to-day tasks: cleaning the grounds, cutting sugar cane to feed the elephants (who eat up to 200kg of food a day with the cost that this entails), preparing fertiliser with the elephants' poo, bathing them in the river and accompanying them on their daily walks. Another very important part is to raise awareness, to try to spread as much as possible the elephant's situation and to understand that many times with our behaviour what we do is to feed the exploitation of these incredible animals. Please, when you travel to countries where there are elephants do not buy ivory because every year thousands of elephants are killed as it is a huge business (China is the first ivory market in the world and the second is Thailand), do not pay to have your picture taken with an elephant because the conditions of the elephants that beg are really terrible (poorly fed, over stressed from being in cities, the mahouts make them work long shifts to earn more money, they drug them to make them endure?) and if you go trekking make sure that the elephants are treated in the best possible way or even better, instead of riding them, tell the mahout that you are paying to see how they behave by taking a walk in the forest, without having to carry a saddle and weight on their back because although it seems surprising because of how robust they seem, the elephant's back is not prepared to support a lot of weight.

Here you can see some pictures of the experience... With the machete cutting the sugar cane, some of the elephants of the project in the forest, in the river, walking and bathing with them... I hope you like them!

Next stop: Ko Chang

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