If you saw our pictures on Facebook (or the ones above) of the elephant village, you saw how close and personal we were with the elephants. We got to feed, wash and exercise them daily. It was an amazing experience of a lifetime. We were there to help, learn and interact not only with the elephants, but with our host family and other people in the village.
We volunteered through Starfish Volunteers, a non-profit organization based out of the UK.
They currently have programs in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and India. Through their programs you can work with elephants, help in orphanages, offer medical care, build, and teach (even if you’re not a licensed teacher). Of all of the elephant projects we researched, Starfish was the one we wanted to work with because it offered us the greatest opportunity to give back to the local village, as well as to the elephants.
Before I let you in on one of our typical days (not all fun and games but definitely memorable), here’s what to know:
- The Starfish elephant program keeps elephants off the streets, educates people about elephants by helping in their care, and gives mahouts a way of earning without begging and harming the elephants.
- Mahouts (maw-HOOTS) are rural neighborhood elephant owners who usually take their elephants to the city to beg and sell rides (think monkey and organ grinder). Thailand has a law against this, but doesn’t enforce it.
- Starfish pays mahouts NOT to take their elephants to the city, because it is cruel, often results in injuries to the elephant, and violates an elephant’s innate need for space and a herd. (Elephants have incredible memories and develop relationships with each other that last a lifetime.)
- A majority of the money we paid to volunteer at Starfish went to support the mahout, his family and the village.
Now for our “typical day” at the elephant village:
We woke up at 5:30 AM and an hour later walked with a hand cart to the sugar cane fields to experience a day in the life of a mahout. For an hour or so we cut down 9+ foot sugar cane stalks, cleaned off the dead leaves, and loaded them into the cart. We did this while fighting off red biting ants who were relentless in their pursuit of fresh places to bite. We quickly learned that sugar cane leaves are very sharp and leave you with what look and feel like paper-cuts on your arms and legs. We also found that sugar cane is very sweet and chewy. Local kids consider it a quick snack.
After the sugar cane field, we walked back to the village and fed the sugar cane to Pulin, the mother elephant. While she ate, we played with Katin, the one-month old baby elephant. We also ate breakfast, cleaned up, and cooled off before heading back to the sugar cane fields, this time to do some planting.
Here’s how we learned to plant sugar cane: Cut the tall stalks, clear them of the dead leaves. Cut off the top leaves (these are used to feed the elephants). Then you stack the long stalks of sugar cane, which are very heavy with water and sugar. Next you cut them into 18 inch segments and carry them to the newly plowed field, where you drop the stalks 2X2 into the furrows, making sure the sugar cane stalks touch each other all the way down the row. Finally, you cover the stalks with a few inches of soil, then wait about 3 weeks for the shoots to appear. It was quite an assembly line, and required sizeable stamina, but we did it. Thankfully, the ants were napping on this second trip to the fields.
After planting, we went back to the village to move Pulin and Katin down to the lower pen out of the sun and fed them again – elephants eat between 300 – 400 pounds of food per day, and a nursing elephant eats even more.
We were ready to eat, too, so we helped prepare lunch, cleaned up again, and enjoyed a delicious lunch of chicken, rice and fresh vegetables. By the time we had eaten and washed the dishes, it was time to exercise the elephants.
In the wild, certain kinds of elephants can walk up to 30 miles per day. This keeps their feet in good shape. They live as a herd and walk and eat along the way. In the village, the daily walk to the river is one way the mahouts try to re-create the elephant’s natural environment. So each day, we exercised and walked the elephants, and rode them, down to the river. The whole trip usually took between 60 – 90 minutes.
Once back in the village, we cleaned up again (this time getting rid of the elephant poop we also swam with), and took another cold shower because the village doesn’t have hot water. Showers consist of a large bucket, a bowl (to dump the water) and a drain. Fortunately, it was very warm outside, so cold showers were actually refreshing, yet very quick.
Next, we rested for a couple of hours then took Pulin and Katin up to the pen where they sleep. We watered them with the hose, played with the baby, and fed Pulin. The feeding continued until dark. When she runs out of food, she uses her trunk to dismantle the fence until someone notices and gives her more sugar cane, banana trees, or whatever food is available.
Finally, we helped prepare dinner and later fell into bed.
Starfish Volunteers provided us a wonderful opportunity to give back and meet new and interesting people. Contact Starfish Volunteer at www.starfishvolunteers.com if you would like to learn more about their programs and volunteer opportunities.
Although we did work hard over the week, we all would do it again in a heartbeat. We went away feeling like we made a difference and helped others.
Like the elephants, we will never forget.