All kinds of people volunteer at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s different animal centres – The Wildlife Rescue Centre or the Elephant Rescue and Education Centre. It’s a definite trend that people prefer to have hands-on contact with animals even if it isn’t entirely in an animal’s best interest. I guess that’s just part of human nature; wanting to feel like we’re connecting with something. And, of course, many people want to be able to say “I cuddled a monkey” or “Here’s a picture of me with a bear cub.” Most volunteers were about 18-20 years old, and I would often hear different Wildlife Rescue Centre volunteers admit that they were disappointed they didn’t have the same contact with the wildlife rescues that the elephant volunteers had with the bigger animals. If you ask any EREC volunteer what their favourite parts of the job were, I can guarantee that ‘walking the elephants’ will be one of the top responses. Potentially this is why the mahouts seem to view elephant walks as having the point of pleasing the volunteers as opposed to benefiting the elephants themselves.
One of the biggest problems I have with captivity is that animals are extremely restricted in the physical ground they have available to cover. So many animals in the wild roam large areas or defend huge territories. In a good captive wildlife establishment animals will have no lack of nutritious food (preferably that which mimics their natural diet), protection from parasites and disease where possible, veterinary care, freedom from poachers and other potential dangers, supported breeding programs and other pros. Of course, the major downsides are that animals are not able to form natural groups at their will if they so desire, they have no way to escape negative situations and this can lead to a problem with individual animal management if an organisation is not equipped to deal with conflict between animals etc., they are not leading natural lives and can develop stereotypic behaviours due to boredom or stress, their lives are completely dictated by humans and often involve being surrounded by tourist groups, and of course they do not have the ability to roam freely as they would in the wild. There are pros and cons for everything, and while animals in captivity are as safe as possible, I can’t help but feel like the ability to move freely across as big a space as desired is a very important factor to many creatures.
Maybe it’s just because I tend to go a little stir-crazy in the same place for an extended period of time, but I feel like there is a huge enrichment value of venturing across a different place. We walk our dogs so they can get exercise, but I also let any dogs I walk stop and sniff at what they like, mark what they like (within reason) – it’s all part of being a canine! Wild wolves will roam their territories, ensuring they methodically mark boundaries and check for visiting strangers. Travelling is very important for finding prey and having a successful hunt. Elephants are completely different, of course – they are not territorial but do ensure they are never far from a body of water, and may use ‘home-sites’ for particular parts of the year. Elephants are constantly moving though; female-offspring groups will use their days to forage, bathe, forage and forage some more. Individuals in groups will not all sleep at the same time. The same can be said for male ‘bachelor’ groups, but they usually roam more in search of viable mates. When walking the elephants at WFFT, the point ought to be to allow the girls to roam and forage at their will – but this requires cooperation from the mahout. The mahouts in general will walk an elephant around a short circuit then head back to the enclosure. Often it is up to the elephant volunteer to ask the mahout to stay longer out in the bush or forest so the particular elephant can browse for a longer period of time.
The girls at WFFT (Khan Kluey, the only male, is far too aggressive to have anyone near him let alone to be allowed out of his enclosures) will be lured out with a big basket of fruit. Some of the elephants are more confident in heading out than others – a mahout will always be present, often at the elephant’s side or ahead of her to show her the way. Sometimes the girls are led out to a large open clearing to graze, in which case mahouts can get on with their work while still watching the elephants.
Bullhooks are rarely used at WFFT – and if they are, they will be rested above the elephant’s ear; it serves as a reminder of their former training, which would have been an extremely negative experience, but that’s as much as the tools are utilised at the Centre. If more control is needed during walks, a mahout will simply hold his hand on the elephant’s ear lobe – again, it is by no means a painful gesture but works in two ways; 1) it’s really one of the only parts of the elephant you can get a decent hold of, and 2) it is a psychological reminder of the elephant’s previous training. Mahouts will tug if need be, but never aggressively. As much as I would love to see the animals doing whatever they want, I understand that they are huge, potentially dangerous beings, and some form of control is needed for safety. I often am in awe that no major accidents have happened – so many people have very intimate contact with these animals that have had very painful lives; the potential for serious accidents is there, but so far all has been well.
Walking the elephants is used as a big draw for tourist groups that can come to the Centre and have a day-long experience where they have a full tour of the complex, meet the different animals, walk the an elephant (usually Boonmee) and bathe her. Groups range in numbers from one person to dozens – Boonmee seems to cope well with groups and you’ll often see her in the trail of a number of visitors – with her mahout right next to her, of course.
On the left is a photo Boo and Namchok on a walk together despite not being housed in the same exhibit. Sometimes the girls are walked at the same time. Social interaction is rare, but mixing up the dynamics of a walk is enriching in that it’s something they don’t always experience – and I think this is positive.
Some elephants (namely Pai Lin) need some constant encouragement – even once arriving right out in the bush. Mahouts will throw fruit around, scatter it on the ground, hide it in tree stumps or branches; anything they can to keep the particular elephant occupied. Other elephants go ahead and lose themselves – nothing beats the sound of an elephant crashing her way through the forest, and the sight of her reaching as high as she can to reach the tastiest leaves. When I left the Centre I asked the newer volunteers to continue trying to get mahouts to allow the elephants to stay out for longer periods of time. The first walk I went on we actually sat down for about an hour while the elephant we were walking just foraged around us. It should be like this every time – the girls get walked once every second day, and there is always time to allow for a decent experience.