One of the most memorable things anyone can do is watch Thailand’s elephant population in its natural habitat. These amazing giants have their own language and you’ll see them speaking back and forth with their friends and family. As they bathe, they will heartily trumpet and chirp in constant conversation that sounds so real, you’ll wonder what they could be talking about.
Why do the elephants need our help?
Because Thailand’s elephants are such magnificent and intelligent creatures, they have been used and misused for many years. For some time, the elephants were trained to work in the logging profession in Thailand, a work which they were very good at. Yet, this unfortunately meant that generations of elephants were not permitted to simply be elephants. These beautiful creatures play a crucial role in the Asian ecosystem, creating clearings and water holes for smaller animals as well as distributing seeds through their dung.
Shocking, but deeply embedded in culture
However, throughout this process, elephants and humans formed strong bonds. In Asia, there is deep cultural and religious history that reveres the elephants, going back 4000 years. In particular, the white elephant, which is said to be connected to the birth of Buddha. Being an elephant keeper (or ‘Mahout’) also commands great respect. The role is usually passed from father to son, and as elephants have quite similar life spans to humans, often elephants and humans would be bonded for the majority of their lives. Here’s a quote that elaborates on this relationship:
“[The mahouts] always loved their own elephant, no matter if their own particular elephant was the handsomest and largest or the smallest and ugliest. They adored them and knew the habits and the minds and hearts of their own elephants. The mahouts saw these animals as worthy of the kind of understanding you would have with a fellow human being.”
The elephant-human connections
This can be partially be explained by how much elephants have in common with humans. Elephants are incredibly intelligent. Like us, they have complex social networks. They remember elephant and human faces for decades (“an elephant never forgets”), and, perhaps most movingly, they also mourn their dead.
Regardless of the beautiful friendships that some mahouts and their elephants formed, it cannot be denied that their involvement in the logging industry has done harm. Thailand was approximately 70% forest in 1950. Now it’s around 25% . That’s a lot of forest that elephants can now no longer inhabit.
One problem solved, another created
In 1989, when logging in Thailand was deemed illegal, although this prevented the further habitat loss, and 20,000 domestic elephants were released from work, the mahouts who cared for these elephants lost their income. Elephants eat 200-600 pounds (90-270 kgs) of food per day . With no job, finding the money to feed not only your family, but an elephant too would be no easy feat. In response, some mahouts, with heavy hearts, took their elephants to the nearest cities to beg. Others entered the tourism industry, selling rides to visitors just to afford to properly care for their family and elephant.
So what’s the solution?
Of course the ideal dream would be to get these elephants out roaming in their natural habitat in the wild again. But given the strong cultural roots of elephant-keeping and the bonds that Mahouts form with their elephants, it’s not that simple. Imagine if someone told you that you had to give your pet dog or cat away – even if it was what was best for them, you’d be distraught, right?
As it’s such a complex issue, Bamboo is partnering with a number of different organisations and communities who help the Elephants in three different ways.
- By keeping elephants out of harmful employment.
- By supporting the work of elephant sanctuaries that are transitioning elephants back into the wild.
- By dreaming big of sponsoring elephants in the future.
To help these Mahouts who are still deeply connected to their elephants, Bamboo partners with a number of traditional rural Thai communities in the “Elephant Province” Surin.
Join us: Elephant Village Projects
Bamboo offers several unique volunteering placements in traditional Thai farming communities within the “Elephant Province”, Surin. These villages have not changed much over the past 100 years and today there are still rice and sugar cane fields, along with dirt roads and huts fashioned of local wood. Elephants live in villages like these and are fed healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. They receive loving care and regular health check-ups. The support that Bamboo offers these villages keeps the elephants out of harmful employment.
The most popular project that we run in these villages is our Elephant Village Life project. In this project, you spend five days a week learning to wash, feed, and train the elephants. Whilst there, you’ll also learn a little about Thai cuisine, help with farming the land, as well as assist with some micro-development projects like a sustainable fish farm that give the families who look after the elephants supplementary income.
If you want to view this, or any of our other Surin-based volunteer programs, check out our program page here.
Join us: Discover South East Asia Tour – Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary
For those of you who want to support elephants on Stage 2 of their transition back to the wild, this tour is for you! This is a relatively new project that Bamboo is running where volunteers get the chance to assist work in an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia. On this program, elephants are living in wild-like conditions with acres of large open spaces and other elephants to socialise with. There, you will spend your days observing the beautiful creatures in their natural habitat whilst also volunteering to maintain and develop the site as an elephant care facility.
To learn more about what else this amazing tour has to offer, check out its program page here.
The Dream: Sponsor some elephants
In the long term, Bamboo dreams of helping mahouts that are struggling with debt and ready to release their elephants by purchasing their elephants, and then placing them in a sanctuary. Here, they can be eased into life in the wild. However, a single elephant costs at least US $10,000. We’re still working on a future plan for this, so keep your eyes peeled for further info!
You can also read about another dream we’re working on, (inspired by Bank, the first elephant we ever fell in love with,) right here.
Helping elephants be elephants
All of these projects involve baby (and big) steps towards helping elephants to just be elephants again. On these programs, you will get the chance to see elephants that are fed nourishing food, are protected from the dangers of begging in cities, and are treated with the great love and kindness they deserve.
We hope that this blog post has given you a small taste of why we love elephants so much! If you want any further information, don’t hesitate to flick us an email at [email protected]. In the meantime, check out this video of us having an amazing time at the Cambodia elephant sanctuary. This could be you!
We’re looking forward to helping you on your journey to assist some of the world’s most beautiful and intelligent creatures.
Tessa and the Bamboo Team