When I was making preparations to come over to Thailand and volunteer with Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s Elephant Rescue and Education Centre, the volunteer organisation I traveled with (Globalteer) advised I ready myself for hard work. I have had years of experience in zoos and rehabilitation centres so I felt confident in any aspect of animal husbandry – although I did anticipate that the heat and other working conditions would be very different to what I had been use to until then.
I have found the work tiring but immensely enjoyable and rewarding. When everyone works efficiently jobs get done quickly and there is more time in the day to spend with the animals. One thing I hadn’t foreseen was a Special Project called “Harvest” that we do twice every second day or so. At 9am every morning we have a ‘Special Project’ and over half the time you can bet that we will be attending an essential harvest. On my second day I looked at the job board and saw that it read “HARVEST – BANANA. To stay: Sam…” and a few other volunteer names. Elephant volunteers participate in harvests, but three or four are asked to stay behind to care for all seven elephants while everyone else is away. I was asked to stay behind for the first few harvests, so it was only into my second week that I was officially introduced to what it all entailed. By this point I had heard a lot about it from the other volunteers – from what I gathered I wouldn’t be very useful. It seemed strength was a requirement, and at 6-feet-tall with a very slim frame I have little to no arm strength. However, it was all part of the job description so at 9am one morning away I went for my first banana harvest.
Generally at least a handful of volunteers will jump in the back of the WFFT’s food truck and wait while the mahouts drive us to a local plantation. The mahouts use machetes to fell tall banana palms, leaves and all, and volunteers will carry them from the field and hoist them into the truck. I most certainly am lacking in strength in comparison to other participants of this exercise, but I give it a go and take what I can. A month in and I still haven’t mastered the technique of lifting a trunk onto one shoulder – the mahouts always get a good laugh but it’s all in fun humour. The mahouts, by the way, are not to be underestimated! Some of these guys are at least a good head shorter than me, but they can carry a lot! They often come to the rescue if they see me walking up to the truck with a banana tree that looks as though it’s going to topple over in my arms.
Once the truck is filled, volunteers all climb to the top of the banana tree pile and hold on for the journey back to the Centre. I love this part; it’s so much fun. Never, ever, ever in New Zealand could you get away with anything like this. People toot their horns and zoom past on scooters with massive smiles as they wave to the foreigners atop the truck. It has also been a great way to see rural Thailand. We are always taken through windy hidden paths, through fields, past little villagers, around lakes and gorgeous forest, and under lush covered mountains. On one particular street there is always a monkey troop sitting on rocks at the side of the road with their offspring hanging upside down peeking shyly out at us.
Once the truck arrives at the Centre, it drops volunteers off before the mahouts unload the banana palms at each elephant’s enclosure. We seem to be going through food very quickly – harvests every second day almost don’t seem enough sometimes. The elephants love fresh banana leaves, so it’s always exciting to give them a meal we only just harvested a couple of hours before.
We are also required to harvest pineapple tops, and at times corn. Pineapple tops are imperative to most of the elephants’ diets, and Pineapple Harvest is not as work-intensive as Banana Harvest. The pineapple tops grow in the ground with the leaves and fruit sticking out of the dirt. No machetes are required for this task; you simply kick or push the plants to loosen them from the ground, then pick them up and throw them into the truck. The main downside with this harvest is that pineapple top leaves are extremely spiny – they can do damage if you don’t have correct gloves or protective clothing. The first time I went to feed the elephants pineapple tops I had no idea about this, and ended up cutting one of my hands after just grabbing the leaves of a plant without hesitation. If you don’t wear long sleeves or long pants to a pineapple harvest it is inevitable that you will receive some kind of war wound(s). One of my friends has a particular habit of being very enthusiastic and hard-working during harvest, but always comes out with scratches all over her hands and legs.
This is something else to keep in mind for the ride home. Again, we pile on top of the loaded food truck, but this time sitting can be rather painful because there are sharp, spiky leaves digging into you from all angles. Usually the mahouts bring a tarpaulin to throw over the uncomfortable plants, but a couple of times I have come home with no extra barrier between me and the leaves – it can be a very bumpy ride and this doesn’t bode well when you are sitting atop pineapple plants.
Corn harvest has got to be the quickest and easiest job. You get a machete, slice the thin stalks, put them in a bunch and throw them into the truck. They aren’t heavy, they only take one whack with the machete to be cut through, and when so many of us are doing the same job it is always a breeze. The elephants have so far have loved corn plants – I think it’s something they don’t get very often because we do this harvest only when we seem to be running out of other foods. It’s nice for them to have some variety, though.
Harvest may be difficult work, but I find it less mentally-intimidating than staying behind – where you have to plan what you’re going to do next, and you are always faced with a many number of chores to ensure each elephant’s routine is carried out appropriately. The upside is, of course, that you get to stay with the animals. Either way you are working for their benefit, and I have been having fun in every job I’ve had to do so far – so as long as you are willing to work, everything gets done pretty quickly.