By Deanna Rooney – 1 week volunteer
I came to Kindred Spirit as a vet student to gain some experience with semi-wild elephants as well as to experience a bit of rural Thailand culture. The group of people that work in this organisation are clearly passionate about animal welfare, and about creating as natural an environment as they can for the four elephants they have returned so far from the tourist industry.
Every day we hike up through the forest to find and study these elephants in their natural habitat. The hike is an experience in itself, as the mahouts watch on in amusement while nine girls go flying repeatedly down slippery mud trails or struggle to cross a river. In all, we spend about three hours hiking and two hours with the elephants collecting data. First things first when we find the elephants, it’s banana time! We each bring a bag of bananas to feed them, which of course goes down a treat. They all love them, but Gen Thong most of all!
After the initial greeting, it’s down to work studying the elephants’ behaviour. Not much is recorded on Asian elephants in semi-wild conditions so the team are eager to try get their behavioural data published. We record their activity every five minutes over a ninety minute period based on their interaction with each other, their dietary habits and their general movements. As a vet student, this is great opportunity to get some experience in field research, data collection and general care of large exotic animals. It would be an interesting thesis topic in itself, and good practice for data collection and recording techniques.
The thing that strikes me most in coming here though is the role these elephants have within the village itself. They are a source of income for the locals, as volunteers that come to visit stay in the homestays. They bring different cultures together, as we learn about the Karen, they learn some of our customs and we even teach in the local school for a few hours. The life these elephants now lead further educates the local people on their welfare and how they should live, with many in the tourist industry wanting KSES to take on their elephants as a result.
Lastly, the mahouts. They have wonderful relationships with their elephants, keeping them off farmlands and ensuring they are happy and safe in their environment. It’s touching to see how the elephants respond to them. They’re happy to listen to them and interact with them, especially Gen Thong, the youngest elephant. He loves to play with the mahouts, following them around and acting his boisterous age. With no other young elephants about, he can satisfy his need for social play with the mahouts. They seem really comfortable around and fond of their elephants. The way of life of these people is fascinating. It is simple, but heartening. Family is so important to them, and they are very friendly to all outsiders. They are also big feeders, and we are constantly being pumped full of truly delicious food. So that’s a big plus.
Although short, my experience with this team and their elephants has been amazing. It’s impossible not to be moved by their dedication and drive to try help as many of these elephants as they can. It is an organisation well worth funding and volunteering with to help make possible their plans to bring home many more elephants in the future. The research they are doing, and that we can actively be a part of, will help highlight the previously unknown elements of Asian elephant lives. As they continue to uncover the secrets of the Asian elephant, the awareness of their welfare and their plight within the tourism sphere will spread. A small team, making small positive steps, in a very big industry.