The Surin Project – Helping Elephants by Improving the Lives of People

Surin Project - Mahout Featured

I was very excited to join Save Elephant Foundation‘s Surin Project, wanting to spend time with elephants again. I soon discovered, however, that this was a different sort of elephant project, one that helped people. But I wasn’t interested so much in people; I wanted to help and be around elephants. So, while I begrugedly attended the mahout (elephant care-taker) events towards the beginning of the week, by the end of the week I had come to realize that building good relationships with the mahouts was actually the most important part of the project and was the most effective and long-lasting way of helping the elephants of Baan Ta Klang. As it turned out I was helping elephants through improving the lives of the people who care for them. Plus, I came to really like the mahouts by getting to know them. For a detailed account of what I did every day, click here.

Surin Project - Mahout Family

The Surin project mahouts – those who put down the bull hook even when it was unpopular to do so

History of Elephants in Baan Ta Klang

Baan Ta Klang is home to the Gwi people, whose tradition of trapping and training elephants goes back over a thousand years. The Gwi people are thus known as experts on elephants and are often called upon to go abroad, to Japan for example, to use their skills. In this way, the Gwi mahouts and their elephants also assisted in the building of the famous Angkor Wat in northern Cambodia.

Surin Project - Angkor Wat Elephant Wall

Elephant Wall at Angkor Wat

In the past, mahouts would spend the entire day with their elephants in the jungle, so the pachyderms could eat as much as they wanted by foraging naturally. Training for war back was done slowly, often taking years to complete and even the ceremony of taking a baby away from her/his mother meant that the mother was still nearby.

But logging eventually came to the Surin region, as it did in most of Thailand, and suddenly the mahouts found themselves without food for their elephants. This problem was solved, however, by the villagers, who unanimously gave the elephants their corn stalks that served no other purpose. This meant, though, that the elephants no longer needed to go into the jungle (which was no longer in existence anyway) to get food and thus elephants began being chained for hours, days and even weeks at a time with corn stalks being brought to them. Elephants were no longer used in war and so having the elephants chained all day allowed the mahouts to go out and seek alternative employment.

Surin Project - Elephant Walk

After the land was logged there was no more jungle for the elephant to forage in

Then in the 1970’s elephant tourism came to Thailand. Tourists, Thai at first, came to Baan Ta Klang, searching for the ultimate elephant experience. For many mahouts, who had not found suitable income, this was a welcome change. Their elephants had already been trained to follow commands and so training them to perform tricks for tourists and offering elephant rides became a new way of generating an income.

Surin Project - Elephant Ride

Village elephant forced to give a ride to tourists

Due to this new source of revenue, corn stalks suddenly had value and the villagers began charging the mahouts for them. Having to now buy food for their elephants was an added expense the mahouts had not counted on. The Thai government, in an attempt to curb this problem, created the Elephant Study Center at the village, where mahouts would receive 8000 THB ($250 US) per month to care for their elephant. To earn extra money the mahouts could either keep their elephant chained and work outside the village, or use their elephant(s) in the circus there or for giving rides after the circus.

Surin Project - Elephant Circus

End of the circus show when mahouts solicit tips from the spectators who put money in the elephants’ trunks and it gets delivered up to the mahout

The effects of this new tourism are greatest on the elephants themselves of course. Their lives are either spent in a constant state of being chained or performing and giving rides. No more were the days of foraging in the jungle. As well, the lives of the mahouts changed: where being a mahout was once seen as a noble professional,  it has become a very low-status and low-paying job, leading to low self-esteem and depression, among others.

The Rise of the Pajan

The “pajan” is a practice that developed out of the tourism industry and is a brutal training method which involves a lot of violence. Many of the older traditional mahouts in Baan Ta Klang are very against this rushed training by breaking their spirit in as little as 3 days. Nevertheless, it is the fastest way to begin earning money at the circus as a baby elephant twirling a red hoop around her/his trunk is very marketable. And so, despite public outrage from across the globe and the disapproval by many traditional Gwi mahouts, the torturous pajan continues.

Warning: This video depicts the pajan being performed in a northern Thai village. It is extremely graphic and may be disturbing!

Empowering Mahouts

If a mahout is miserable in his life, the chance of animal abuse will be much higher, therefore, if we want to help elephants live abuse-free lives, improving the lives of their owners and care-takers is a good first step.

Surin Project - Happy Mahouts

Cro and Bun Ma being good sports after coming in last place at the Mahout Olympics

Through the Surin Project all participating mahouts get double their normal salary if they adhere to a few simple rules: they must put down their bull-hooks and resort to more peaceful measures of handling their elephants, they may not participate in the circus at Baan Ta Klang or offer elephant rides and they may not shackle more than one leg at night (most of the elephants in the village have both their front feet shackled together). All mahouts have access to the Mahout Fund, which is a fund designed to help mahouts financially. Mahouts can borrow money from this fund to pay for a child’s education, to renovate their home or for other purposes.

In return, volunteers must dress respectfully according to Gwi standards (no revealing clothing) and are not permitted to yell at any mahout in the village, whether they are in the program or not. All mahouts can potentially lay down their bull hooks and so building nice relationships with them is key to encouraging change.

Surin Project - Ligeia with Mahout

Me with Bun Ma

Knowing this, I made sure to smile and wave and be as friendly as I could be with every mahout I came across, especially those who were known as being particularly brutal with their elephants. Although it was sometimes difficult to be friendly to a person I had just seen hit his elephant, I figured if their path to showing compassion is longer, then we’d better get started right away! And receiving non-judgmental kindness is the first step.

Surin Project - Mahout Relaxing

The very friendly Tong Di

The Surin Project is a very important project to support in order to help elephants and people alike! If you are planning a trip to Thailand, consider spending a week at this project. If Thailand is too out of the way for you, you can also donate or even sponsor an elephant, which makes a great gift for the upcoming holidays.

9 thoughts on “The Surin Project – Helping Elephants by Improving the Lives of People

  1. GiselleandCody

    Great write-up guys!!

    It is very important to educate people on where their money is going. Many people have no idea and think that it is ok to ride elephants or watch them perform tricks. Many mahouts don’t know how to care for their elephants besides the way they were raised. If the owners see that there are more compassionate ways to make money hopefully they will go that route.

  2. jodi

    LOVE this write up! The Surin project is a really great program….. this post is very informative! Love seeing things through your eyes…

  3. Franca

    Great post guys, people need to know about what is best for elephants and what isn’t, they need to be educated. The more we talk about this the more we help raise awareness. Thanks! 🙂

  4. Dale

    I really must admit that compassion is one of the best education methods, that shouting at people that they need to change will change nothing, instead a calm approach and discussing the benefits of change will almost always help to improve things.

    I’d like to think that we’ll be able to visit Surin in 2015 and hopefully be able to help in some way both the elephants and the Gwi people.

  5. Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    Great informative post! I like how you said “if their path to showing compassion is longer, then we’d better get started right away! ” It’s a knee-jerk reaction to be offended, but slowly showing them the light over the long-term is much harder.

  6. Wendy

    What a wonderful project! I can see how helping the mahouts really is the best way to help the elephants. It’s such an important lesson to be able to extend our circle of compassion to include even those who abuse animals, as the reasons why they do so are never black and white.

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