During my second week at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s Elephant Rescue and Education Centre, I was starting to feel more comfortable in the daily routines and duties. I had been acting as a ‘Leader’ for a few days, training up new volunteers or those who hadn’t yet worked with a particular elephant I was familiar with. Most of the volunteers I had arrived with were still there, and we were bonding quickly. Many of them would be leaving by that weekend, so we enjoyed our time together – working and otherwise.
During this week I had the pleasure of being introduced to Boonmee and Nam Chok’s routines. I had spent my first week working mostly with Pai Lin, See Puak, Duanphen, Khan Kluey and Somboon, so it was nice to officially meet and work with the final two elephants under the Centre’s care. They are both wonderful ladies with very different personalities – Nam Chok won’t leave you alone to clean her enclosure unless you give her something to eat first (which is fair enough!), while Boonmee is (most of the time) a very content older lady who accommodates just about anyone. Unlike the elephants I was used to working with, you do not need a mahout present to enter their exhibits. This means work gets done a bit faster and you can do more in the mornings (mahouts don’t arrive until 8am and we start work at 6:30am).
I was also getting more used to the bugs, creepy crawlies and other small visitors that you would notice out of the corner of your eye at any given moment. One morning I went to put on the big boots I wear to pineapple harvest and wondered why I couldn’t get my left foot’s toes in properly. I immediately realised I ought to be checking my shoes before putting them on (it would be awful to end the volunteer work early due to an avoidable venomous bite!) – so I swiftly retracted my foot and shook out the boot. Out plopped a big frog! Poor little guy – he hopped off, very obviously unimpressed as I apologised for disturbing him. The following day I checked my shoes and once again he was back in there. I think he got the message after being removed for a second time because I haven’t seen him since.
For our last day off together, the group of friends I had made from the first batch of volunteers decided we would head into a nearby national park to go hiking for the day. We had heard many beautiful things about it, and couldn’t wait to spend the day exploring its forests and waterfalls. Unfortunately when we went to book transport to the park, we were advised that it had just been closed that week for the rainy season – we had just missed out! Secretly I was not too upset; there were other national park options, and we would’ve had to leave at 4:30am if we were to give ourselves enough daylight to go hiking.
Our Volunteer Coordinator asked us how we would feel about going to the Kuiburi National Park instead – it would cost more, but alongside hiking we would get to hop in the back of a truck and search for wild elephants – who could say no to that!? So we signed ourselves up, and for the Wednesday of my second week we piled into the WFFT’s really nice air-conditioned van and drove for a couple of hours to the Kuiburi National Park.A couple of WFFT staff came along for the journey because it was the first time anyone from the Centre had visited this park, including Edwin’s wife Noi. Noi is an amazing Thai woman who utterly adores wildlife; when we arrived we were greeted with a large banner covered in animal pictures taken at the National Park: examples of the species that inhabit the local ecosystems. Tapirs, tigers, elephants… Noi was so excited!
We gathered into our hiking group and were met by a Thai guide wearing a “ZERO POACHING” t-shirt. I noted he was carrying a gun; this made me feel a bit apprehensive even though I understood it was for our personal protection. Killing wildlife for this reason does make me feel a little funny depending on the situation, but nobody wants to be eaten by a tiger! I discovered our guide was truly wonderful – a very knowledgeable man. As we started the hike (which was very laid-back and casual) he instantly began pointing out faint animal tracks in the dirt. Noi translated for us; there were ungulates, species of monkeys and elephants of different ages. He was able to detect the thinnest layer of mud underneath a hanging branch and explained that it indicated an elephant had passed under it recently. He could make out birds’ nests tangled among the scrub and was able to tell us which species had made them, and even if they had been constructed by a male or female. You could tell, if the rest of the staff were any similar to this man, that the park was full of very passionate rangers who cared a lot about the animals and the environment they were hired to patrol. The illegal wildlife trade has a massive yearly monetary value, second only to the global illegal drug trade. It was nice to meet someone local who was absolutely against poaching and the black market; someone who was actively working against it.
Our walk took us around a waterhole popular among the elephants. We were invited to follow our guide down to the water’s edge, but were warned of leeches. After some uncertainty (my pants covered my knees but did not go down to protect my ankles) I decided to follow the guide, Noi and another volunteer while the rest stayed behind up on the trail. We had a little wander, saw some really interesting birds’ nests, waded through long grass and found more elephant tracks, then headed back to the main trail. Thankfully my legs were leechless!
The guided walk did not last very long, and was not what I would have classed as a true ‘hike’ – but it was time for lunch as we headed back to the park’s entry, and very shortly the skies opened on us anyway so we did get drenched but only very quickly.
After lunch, with rain still pattering down on us occasionally, we hopped in the back of a truck and drove down some vehicle trails. Signs in trees and at the side of the roads advised to “Please be quiet to see elephants”, so we all hushed ourselves and tried to peer through heavy scrub for any signs of movement. Noi is definitely an expert at spotting wildlife and was always the first to point out deer, pigs, birds or anything else she could see. Eventually we came to a popular look-out point across a valley and our new tour guide took us across to the edge to have a look. It was like a scene out of Jurassic Park – lush forest, open plains, rolling green hills with layers of fog from the heat.
We sat and waited with bated breath for quite some time, hearing noises in the distance that sounded increasingly like elephants coming closer and closer. Suddenly, Noi jumped up and pointed out across the valley – a black shape, moving slowly across the grass. For a few moments we held our patience until the animal stepped out of the trees; it was the leading animal of a cattle herd, and soon more followed, walking across the grass plain while stopping every now and then to graze. They are definitely more robust-looking than the cows at home!
More of the ungulates ambled into our view, and our guide unloaded some fancy binoculars set up on a tripod so that we could get a closer look at their features. Unfortunately the photo above is the best I have from my little pocket camera.
Suddenly, our guide’s radio began chatting away in Thai – she responded, then said to us, “Elephant!” Noi raced back to the truck and we followed; one of the rangers had spotted a herd near a vehicle trail. Off we went, soon to be joined by several more trucks carrying groups of tourists. We carefully made our way around a few bends dotted with potholes, and finally slowed to a quiet grumble as the truck snuck its way onto a bank by the side of the road, stopped and let us off. Our guide asked us to get down near the ground immediately, so we crept up to the point she was signalling us to reach and again held out breaths. There, ahead of us, through a frame of hanging leaves: an elephant herd of females and their babies. Their faces just seemed to smile as they contentedly grazed in the long grass. I was stunned. It is one thing to see elephants in captivity, yet another to see them like this – with full freedom, doing just as they desire. It was a truly powerful moment.
Now, look at that little baby. See its protective family. I see these ginormous, gorgeous, gracious beings and wonder how people can come along and hunt them, hurt them, kidnap them and enslave them. We sat across the way on a hill, watching them quietly. Everyone moved so carefully, with respect to the natural life these beings were living. We were witnessing something special, something you don’t often get to see; animals in the wild, living naturally. The elephants were foraging, bathing, showering themselves in mud and dust, and once they were finished they meandered off slowly but seemingly content.
I felt so lucky to be able to see these creatures as nature intended. I relate it back to the elephants at the WFFT sanctuary; they were born wild, captured and tortured in order to ‘domesticate’ them, but now that they have been rescued they won’t be slaves to humans any longer. The tables have turned and we are now their willing servants. Seeing the Kuiburi herds does show that none of these creatures should be in captivity, but at least the elephants in our care at WFFT have a better life, good food, company of other elephants, veterinary care and freedom from poachers. Kuiburi National Park was one of the two national parks mentioned in an article last year written by WFFT’s founder, Edwin Wiek, when some elephants had been killed in several different poaching cases in less than a month. The park is huge, it has rangers but it is impossible to keep people away. The babies’ families are killed, and the little ones are taken and sold to a middle man. I remember back to our carefully quiet afternoon of sitting and watching the wild herds, and am absolutely unable to place myself in a situation where anyone would want to hurt or hunt them. The huge expanse of nature’s freedom is where they ought to be; living, breathing, breeding and socialising – yet people want to trap them or kill them for money’s sake. Yet again I reiterate; don’t support elephant tourism in Southeast Asia (riding, trekking, street performing, etc.). By doing so you are supporting the poaching of wild elephants and the capture of babies who will then be tortured and imprisoned for life.
We saw three more beautiful herds that day – one of them was right on the side of the road grazing as we drove past. Unfortunately I had left my camera in the cab due to rain, but it meant I was able to sit and watched them without moving. I’m sure my friends back home would have a bit of a giggle at how excited I was to see those animals – but I really couldn’t ask for anything more. I came to further help rescued animals, learn more about the wildlife trade and just what animals have to suffer for it, but also to see how they ought to be in the wild if I could – and this was it.
Rainy season has been well and truly setting in. Tracks are getting muddier, and it is becoming nearly impossible to push wheelbarrows across the ground; they are forever sinking or getting stuck. By the end of my second week I seemed to have broken several pairs of shoes already – luckily I had a couple more pairs of jandals in my bag to use if need be, otherwise I’d have to pick some up at the next market I went to. The mahouts were utilising the Centre’s only tractor frequently; to flatten mud or push newly collected dirt around problem areas to stabilise things a little better. The humidity was a huge part of every day – rain was often welcome at the end of the afternoon when we were getting near the final stages of a really hot working day, but the humid air does weigh you down! Nevertheless, I was getting more and more used to the working conditions and even stopped getting sun burnt – finally!
The end of week 2 brought many farewells for the people I had grown very close to over the past two weeks. Two weeks does not seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things, but when you are living and working alongside people 24/7 in a foreign country that many of you are completely unfamiliar to, it means something. I still miss everyone so much; it truly isn’t the same without them. I am learning that with every influx and migration of people coming to and from the Centre, the atmosphere and feel of it completely changes. The only consistency is the western staff, Thai staff and one long-term volunteer. I am into my fifth week now and have just gone through another big lot of goodbyes – I don’t think this is something I could ever get used to. Making new friends is great, but constantly saying goodbye doesn’t sit well with me. I look forward to traveling to Canada to hopefully meet up with many of my WFFT friends, and Europe and Aussie too. Miss you guys!!