The Surin Project: The Flipside of Asian Elephant Tourism

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After six unforgettable weeks two summers ago volunteering at The Surin Project, I made it quite clear to anyone who would listen that I was not yet ready to leave.  Fortunately the project manager did not take much persuading and before I knew it I had received the blessing of my tutors at University to take a twelve month sabbatical, said my goodbyes and packed my bags in anticipation of a year-long adventure living with elephants in Thailand. This was to be a journey on which I learnt many things. Not least, the way we humans are ingenious at using the natural environment without a second thought as to the unintended consequences but equally important, how it takes exceptional people, passion, resourcefulness and compromise to face up to the cruel realities of our limitations in countering this abuse with successful conservation.

These magnificent creatures are listed as endangered by the IUCN and rapidly in decline. Population estimates are fairly crude and outdated but indicate the current world population is well below 40,000 elephants. As is often the case we are at the root of the problem; widespread deforestation has destroyed much of the elephant’s natural habitat. The situation in Thailand however is quite a bit more complicated in that the majority of the Asian elephants found here are in captivity.

The incorporation of elephants into the military in ancient Siam marks the beginning of their exploitation. A boom in the logging industry meant the demand for domesticated elephants skyrocketed as their characteristic strength and agility made them well suited to the type of work required. Mistreatment was rife as mahouts (literally – elephant keepers) pushed these animals to the brink in order to fill quotas and make ends meet. Eventually Thailand initiated a ban in 1989 on all deforestation activities. No longer generating income, overnight thousands of captive elephants became a costly burden to their owners. This was the catalyst for the development of elephant-related tourism in Thailand.

When wandering the streets of Thailand’s biggest cities it is not uncommon to encounter a begging mahout and his elephant. Although street begging is illegal in certain parts of Bangkok and Chiang Mia and it is in no way a comfortable existence for the mahouts, it is often too big a business opportunity to pass up as the fine is minimal compared to a potential days takings. Furthermore, despite forced breeding practices the captive population is slow to grow, with a surprisingly low birth rate. Yet the streets of Thailand and its tourist camps seem to be overflowing with young elephants, which suggests that elephants continue to be captured from the wild.

Riding an elephant is a popular activity with tourists, as are circus shows. Near to my home on the project a circus ran twice a day every day of the week, showcasing elephants playing football, darts and creating paintings. What was particularly disturbing is why the audience had obviously failed to question how these huge, powerful animals had been taught to use a paintbrush. It’s all in the training of course.

Training the second largest land mammal is no easy feat. It can take several forms depending on region or tribal traditions but most focus on breaking the elephant’s spirit. This is achieved by separation from its mother, confinement in small pens and a regime of severe beatings. More and more amateurs are now taking on this profession in the quest for some fast cash; without a mahout background these amateurs have little understanding or experience with elephants. Normally such brutality is carried out far from any tourists but I certainly saw my fair share.

With little forest left and hundreds of captive elephants, Thailand faces a major challenge. The solution? Elephants are chained to a post in the ground for the majority of the day, frequently without shade and most importantly, isolated from other elephants. In the wild, females travel in blood-related herds and collaborate to rear the young; hence elephants are incredibly tactile and interacting with their own kind is essential to their wellbeing. Often the outcome of separation in captivity is long-term neurotic behaviour patterns. Restless pacing or swinging of the trunk are examples of this, and can have serious impacts on an elephant’s bones and growth.

In 2009 The Surin Project was born, a non-profit organization dedicated to solving these pressing concerns with goals tailored specifically to improve captive Asian elephant welfare in conjunction with the local community. Core ecotourism principles are incorporated into the daily running of the project, and the philosophy upon which the model is based is completely unique for several reasons.

As the name suggests, the project is located in the Surin Province and operates within the ironically named The Surin Elephant Study Centre; this centre consists of set-aside land for elephants displaced by the ban on street begging and their mahouts. Nearly 200 mahouts and elephants are now a part of this scheme. Unfortunately the difficulties described earlier seem to be epitomised here.

The Surin Project, separate from but located within The Surin Elephant Study Centre, invites volunteers to work together with mahouts and the wider community to provide a healthier existence for captive elephants. Run entirely on volunteer fees and donations, the project aims to facilitate the release of elephants from their chains for extended periods of time throughout the day allowing participating animals to form vital social groups and forage in the surrounding forest. In this way project elephants regain a fraction of their freedom and have the opportunity to behave as an elephant would in the wild. I learnt a great deal about elephant behaviour from observing the dynamics in certain groups, and it soon became clear how human-like these are animals are, with very individual personalities and in their need for constant social contact. It really was a privilege to walk amongst them and to feel their excitement and relief when those chains came off.

Volunteers travel from all over the world to stay at The Surin Project but are often a little taken aback upon first arrival to see so many elephants tied up and in poor condition. Many are entirely unaware of the plight of the captive Asian elephant. Just by observing the obvious differences between the treatment and wellbeing of the project elephants compared to those that remain in chains for most of the day, volunteers discover a great deal. With only 12 out of a total 200 elephants on the project, the volunteers are bound to be able to see contrasts between the two different systems and see examples of abuse and neglect that will unfortunately open their eyes to the reality of the situation.

After only a week’s stay most volunteers are able to remember the Thai names for all 12 elephants. The experience had with project elephants is in itself a form of education as the volunteers have the chance to become familiar with a herd of elephants; the connections formed often have emotional impacts on volunteers that inspire them to help the cause. Ultimately, through this experience and with an improved understanding of the situation past volunteers have the tools to spread the word at home (which also sustains the momentum of volunteers visiting the project) and increase international awareness.

By providing an alternative form of employment, The Surin Project assists mahouts in obtaining a better quality of life. This is another unique aspect to this project; the participation of the local community who then benefit alongside their elephants. This participation positively reinforces the long-term sustainability of the project.

On account of the nature of the project itself, the mahouts regain a semblance of their traditional lifestyle. The Surin Province is home to the Gwi people; it was individuals from this tribe that were employed by the kings of Siam to capture, train and care for military elephants. Those employed by the project are better able to provide for their elephants, and have a huge say in the running of the project.

The project mahouts, local community and government need to be persuaded that The Surin Project is a feasible tourism alternative to street begging and rides, that it has the ability to attract viable numbers of volunteers and draw money into the region. By showing mahouts that foreigners are willing to donate their time and pay for the experience of helping them and observing elephants in their natural habitat, the project hopes that over time mahouts will adapt their husbandry methods to be more considerate of welfare.

This is far easier said than done. As Westerners it can be very easy to adopt a ‘we know better than you’ attitude. This kind of mentality is not only insulting, but discourages locals from becoming actively engaged in the project. The notion of allowing elephants off their chains around volunteers without the backup of a hook is initially to them quite literally mad and unnecessary.

The project is still a long way from changing the Gwi mahout mentality on elephant wellbeing and this will inevitably be a very slow process. The hook, nails or sharp objects are prohibited and yet I often saw mahouts carrying these in bags or in a curled palm. This can be a grey area as understandably mahouts are concerned with volunteer safety and believe this is the best way to control their elephant. A fine for every violation is the punishment but enforcement is difficult due to the presence of personal loyalties for example, Thai staff not wanting to get friends or family into trouble.

But what really makes The Surin Project special in my eyes is this: it does not buy elephants. The project effectively ‘rents’ them from the owner. Purchasing elephants only throws fuel on the fire by encouraging the trading of captive elephants. The profits acquired by selling an elephant give owners the opportunity to simply go out and buy a new one. However, because the project does not own the elephants it has no legal rights over them.

This became a problem in January of 2012. By this time I had become very attached to one of the project elephants, a cheeky two-year-old female named Imboon (meaning ‘full of mirth’). On walks she would single me out of the crowd of volunteers and hold my hand with her trunk. I was honoured to have won her affection, and was fiercely protective of her. It did not take long for the mahouts to nickname me ‘Imboon’s mum’. But then we heard rumours that Imboon’s owner had new plans for her. A circus in the north was to be her destination. Immediately I thought we should buy her so that she could remain at the project. Surely we owed her that? But then I realised this meant the owner might well take the profit on offer and simply replace Imboon with a new young elephant destined for the same fate. It was a catch-22 situation.

In the end we had to let her go. Several volunteers were angry that the project had let this happen, but I think it was important that we did. Not buying elephants is so fundamental for their long-term conservation, even if not doing so results in frustrating sacrifices and endless compromises. We have to look at the bigger picture.

The Surin Project is by no means perfect. Progress is slow and its influence is relatively small-scale. But I do believe the foundations are solid. Volunteers see the flaws and I think appreciate that it’s a work-in-progress, that its realistic and taking the right approach. It is impractical to call for the ban of elephants in the tourism industry in Thailand. Instead, The Surin Project offers the prospect of a win-win situation, a two way street for man and beast.

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Discussion2 Comments

  1. avatar

    Loved your article, very sensible and well written.

    You seemed to have captured the problems that face elephant exploitation vs the economic realities faced by the local thai population very well.

    One of a very small amount of articles that seek not to preach but offer realistic advice on how best to to improve the situation for tourists, locals and the elephants.

  2. avatar

    Congratulations Josie, nice article! My niece Kaylee and I were volunteers while you were there in 2011. Thanks for bringing attention to an important project.

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