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Experiencing a period of reflection is common for me when I know I’m about to walk away from something big. I still had a whole week left, but in those final days of working at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand I was already beginning to miss it. There is nothing like falling into bed at the end of a long, productive day of actually doing something meaningful. Going to care for the elephants was not a selfless act; I am one of those people who feels a huge sense of satisfaction when I believe I’ve done something good by my ethical standards. But obviously that’s not why I went over. I wanted to learn, for myself and for those I would end up telling stories to. Awareness is a cheap but powerful tool, and I am a sucker for putting myself in situations that have the potential to raise my awareness in regards to something I care about. And of course I went over to dedicate my time and energy to this sanctuary and the animals in its care. These intelligent creatures that had long been abused are now free from those burdens. Sanctuary life is not perfect – no life in captivity is perfect, in my opinion – but the animals are no longer slaves, and I wanted to support that.
I hadn’t known what to expect when I got to the Centre. I wasn’t sure if I’d be the only one, if I’d struggle to find English speakers around, and I didn’t have any idea about the extent of required work. My WFFT friends and I were always talking about how much more social it was than we had expected – it is so easy to feel safe in a big group surrounded by friendly locals, and when we weren’t working during the day we would explore everything around us that we could. I was probably more relaxed than I should have been – you ought to never take anything for granted, especially when you are in a foreign country you have no experience with. But I did feel an affinity for many of the people there. It is incredible how in our fast-paced western world we seem to lack so much. Going to harvest with the mahouts would see us exploring the rural countryside in our rattling truck – I can’t count how many tiny shelters I saw that were home to many people. And just at first impressions, by our standards we would say that these people have nothing – yet they were always smiling. We would say that they are lacking – in money, material objects, sophistication, technology – yet we obviously lack the secret take on life these people have that keeps them smiling so very often. I had never had a huge desire to visit any part of Asia before I decided on this trip, yet I felt so at home out in the fields of Petchaburi province, eating pineapples in tropical rain with people whose language I didn’t even speak, swimming in the river with villagers after a long afternoon’s harvest, taking in the calm of the local temple. I had thrived in Bangkok, revelling in fast-paced adventures and constant sight-seeing, but rural Thailand gave me a deep sense of home and peace.

A big tradition for Centre volunteers during my stay were the ‘Hua Hin Thursdays’, where groups of us would pile into taxis and travel for almost an hour to the heart of Hua Hin’s bustling town. Thursday nights would be a rush of roaming the walkways in search of traditional street-food, bartering at the very tourist-oriented night market, talking ourselves into or out of getting tattoos, and spending the rest of the evening at the Sam Sam Bar until our taxis came to pick us up again at midnight. Hua Hin Thursdays took us to a whole other world from the rural rescue centre. It was teeming with nightlife, crawling with tellers calling to you to buy their wares, and you would always see a mixture of native Thai and foreign travellers on every street. In Auckland, where I come from, there are homeless people dotting the city but it is not such a prominent matter. Hua Hin saw a complete lifestyle transformation from the rural setting I was used to into this accelerated hustle of crowds, with people hounding you to give them money one way or another. I am definitely no good at bartering, and I always give in to people that make eye contact with me to purchase goods or donate. Hua Hin was a terrible place for this; every few paces you would be hailed by someone new. I remember during my last Hua Hin Thursday we were yet again over at the Sam Sam Bar, and two young kids – a boy and a girl (who only had one eye) – walked in with a bunch of wilting red roses. They went around to all of the volunteers, asking them to buy some flowers. Most of us were used to this by now and had developed a skill of brushing such advances off. You begin to detach yourself from this select group of people who ask for money, no matter their age, race, disability, etc. I got talking to the young girl, though, as I was still completely taken aback by the fact that children their age were out doing this at night – incredibly naive of me, of course, because each of us come from entirely different lifestyles. The girl told me that she and her brother were out there every night as they weren’t allowed to return home unless they had sold all of their roses, otherwise they would be beaten by their mother. I didn’t know what to say to that, and I can’t remember where our chat went afterwards, but I know just then my perception of the world around me was instantly different.

A night after this, when I was in Phuket following my final work day at WFFT, a girlfriend from the Centre and I were at a pub on the beach near our resort. We were talking to a local guy who spoke great English (and knew all about New Zealand’s reggae bands, which really surprised me!) about the work we had been doing – we were both incredibly proud of the cause we had supported, and would speak about it without thinking twice. This guy scorned us for our elephant rescue work though – we were interfering with peoples’ livelihoods, he said; people who had families to feed and homes to support. To him, an elephant was a piece of property to be used – abuse was not a real term because what you do with your property is your own right, and you do what you need to do to survive.

I hear what he is saying, and I understand. I think back to those children sent off into the city of drunk foreigners every night to sell flowers. Again, they are treated as property, but with their brain capabilities are able to speak with free will about it. They accept their situation because they must, and to them it is normal, standard life, and they know that money must be earned. Enslaved elephants are also trained to understand that undesired behaviour brings about harsh punishment, but they do not associate their behavioural requirements with the fact that they are earning money for their owners. They do what they are told because they must. And perhaps one could say that for the families who own these elephants and have these children there is no other way. But me, with my moral code and interfering nature, I refuse to believe that. And so I won’t stop pushing for abused animals to be rescued and taken out of human enslavement. And I won’t agree with or support the use of children as money-making tools when they are threatened with cruelty or violence. I will be the first to admit I have a limited knowledge on world economics and how the use of such ‘property’ aids a family and a community – someone has to stand up for the individuals, and that is what I am going to do.

Heading to busy cities was not the only option for volunteer free time in the evenings. I have already talked about the Kuiburi National Park we visited during my second week of WFFT work where I saw my first herds of wild elephants, and during my final week at the Centre we headed out to another national park that was very different to Kuiburi. I wasn’t told the name of this other national park, and can’t remember it to date (possibly Khao Yai?). All I knew was that we would be sitting in the back of vehicles as we drove up and down a long road where we would have the chance to see more wild elephants (in a much less natural setting). I heard the trip could be dangerous and that we had to be careful to remain in the vehicle at all times, even when stopped.

About a dozen of us volunteers hopped in the back of the WFFT trucks and we made the hour long journey to the national park through beautiful countryside and jungled landscapes. There were a couple of signs, but on our approach I hadn’t even realised we were truly at the park until all of a sudden we rounded a corner and there was a magnificent bull elephant standing on the side of the road. He was just standing there as cars zoomed around like it was a very normal day for him.

I had thought people would be a lot more careful driving past these massive creatures. The WFFT drivers were very cautious to pass by the elephants only when they felt safe to do so, but so many other cars would take corners at a very high speed and have to skid to stop. It seemed to be the norm, though – drivers would race around these big elephants like there was nothing in their way. Some would even lean out of the window on the way past and outstretch their arms – whether they were showing off to these white foreigners in the back of marked trucks I’m not sure. I don’t like to think of how many accidents there would be involving young elephants along the roads. It was a good experience however, even though it didn’t quite feel as ‘wild’ to me as the herds at Kuiburi National Park that we watched with hushed voices from the cover of trees and scrub from far away. And I did not like how there seemed to be a big lack of respect for the elephants from people who obviously travelled the roads frequently. I was sitting with like-minded people, though, so it was good knowing there were many who felt the same way as me.

I had seen a lot of people come and go from the Centre, and made so many friends. The last few days of work went far too quickly, and my final day there was very difficult – packing was a slow process, and it was as hard to pull myself away from the people as it was from the elephants. You share something great when you are all working so hard towards a common goal, and it makes you realise that despite how dark the world can seem sometimes, there are always going to be people in it that care about something great.

Since I left the Centre beautiful Nam Chok has passed away. She was a great old girl; wonderful with a fiery personality. It is hard not being at a place where you care so deeply about the inhabitants, and I am planning on not only heading back to WFFT next year but also to the White Wolf Sanctuary in the USA, which has also had some major changes since I was there a few years ago. Until I get there, though, I remain in touch with the fantastic people I have met on these journeys, and look forward to meeting more in the near future.