By Aileen Scarim (1 week volunteer)
Here at Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, there are four elephants which makes the experience here much more intimate. Every day we hike out to the forest to locate the elephants. There is nothing like coming around a corner of the trail and seeing an elephant foraging out in the open. This was my initiation to the pack. The elephants saw us coming forward and they start walking to greet us – excited for the bananas they have come to expect. When these giants hurriedly strut over to you, it can be a nerve wracking feeling. Maybe too quickly I felt right at home looking an elephant straight in the eye as their trunks reach into your bag hoping to grab themselves a bunch of bananas. The mahouts hope that once the elephants devour all our bananas that they will hike up into the forest to forage like wild Asian Elephants do.
The young male, Boon Rott, is not always so quick to follow the pack; he is a curious fellow and loves to hang out with the humans, making us all laugh as the throws things onto his head. This is what I mean when I say this experience is intimate and genuine. You really get to observe individual behaviors and the close relationships between them. The elephants learn to recognize you by scent. If you’re lucky, Boon Rott will take his trunk and blow on your chin. There is non-stop photo opportunities, and of course, taking in the natural beauty of a free animal. If you have any interest in animals, this is the place to be. The gentle giants approach you, but then also have the ability to CHOOSE what they do. This is how animals were meant to live their lives. Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary makes it possible to enjoy that alongside the elephants.
There is research being collected here regarding elephants’ social memory. Volunteers are invited to help collect this data. Every five minutes, record is taken of who each elephant is closest to them, the next closest, and whether or not they can touch their neighbours with their trunks. When collecting this data, you notice patterns. Three of the elephants are related with only one non-relative. Noting their preferences helps you get to know them more and start to understand the deep relationships elephants create. Just like humans, not all elephants get along. Having only four elephants is another bonus for them because overcrowding can lead to stress, especially when adding new elephants.
Watching free range elephants keeps us as the observers on our toes. On our first day, the elephants started in an open field then worked their way into the forest. We got to hike right behind them; no trails necessary as the elephants knock over trees and crack branches in their way. After a morning of elephants, volunteers eat in the forest with the mahouts. The mahouts are quite handy with a machete; they chop up bamboo to boil water in and cook eggs and noodles to share in addition to the home cooked lunches your homestay sends you out with.
The great thing about eating in the forest with free range elephants is that sometimes they aren’t finished hanging out with us! Boon Rott slyly walked out of the woods and up to the river. Conveniently this was where we were all sitting for lunch. As an excited guest here, you can’t help but be thrilled that an elephant WANTS to spend time with us. On the second day, the elephants all stayed in the open rice field. This made data collection very easy with no trees to camouflage them. The elephants stayed very close together for much of the day. This was a great photo-op day.
It fills my heart that they all get along so well. I can’t imagine the alternative after being here; elephants unfamiliar with each other in close quarters as they are made to entertain tourists for hours. If any of the four did not get along, they have an entire forest to themselves and plenty of space to fill. I can’t say enough about the genuine experience here. You can see the happiness in all of the elephants’ eyes with your reflection shining right back you. These are beautiful animals and need to be treated with love from beautiful hearts like the friends at Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary.