By Margie Maccoll
Don’t ever get between an elephant and it’s bananas. And if one drops on the ground don’t even think about picking it up With a nose as big as theirs an elephant will sniff it out before you can bend down and it’ll only see your assistance as competition.
This was just one of the things I learnt about elephants when I volunteered at the fledgling Erawan Elephant Retirement Park in southwestern Thailand.
I also learnt elephants are incredibly strong but can be very gentle. They are loyal and kind, have strong family ties, are fun loving, assist other elephants for no personal gain and fiercely protect the babies in their family.
I spent a week at the park which began development in September, 2013, with five elephants, 50 hectares of land beside the River Kwai and five small volunteer huts.
As the name suggests the elephants are in their twilight years — having been rescued from working in the tourist trade taking tourists on treks for long hours a day. Since opening the only male elephant in the group passed away, leaving four females aged from 40 to mid-60s. Elephants age at the same rate as humans, some living to their 80s.
The park is an offshoot of the award winning Elephant Nature Park opened in northern Thailand in 1996 and now accommodating 37 rescued elephants on 250 acres with tourists flocking in daily.
In the year since its opening at Erawan a small staff and several volunteers have constructed a group kitchen and dining area, an elephant food store and several bamboo huts for staff which include mahouts (one for each elephant), a cook and their families and a collection of chickens, dogs and cats. Most of the structures were built with bamboo grown on the land.
The families are Karan people, refugees from Myanmar. The young mahouts in their late teens are continuing their family traditions of elephant keeping. The families who built their own homes on arrival, provide a stable, secure base for the park.
The manager is a Thai man named Ging who spent five months at the Elephant Nature Park before embarking on the project which is modelled on its northern counterpart.
At the retirement park, they call elephant paradise park, the volunteer experience is extremely hands-on.
Volunteers provide an essential workforce for the establishment of the park.
I had a clean tile-floored hut with a mattress on the floor and ensuite (cold showers) which was luxury compared to the communal living in the family’s bamboo huts with river bathing.
We cut down banana trees and tall grasses to feed the elephants, built fences, cleared land and planted gardens. With workplace health and safety being non-existent we rode atop loads pulled by tractors, wielded machetes, braved deadly snakes and carried heavy loads through fields of sharp stakes, not to mention the elephant hazards.
You’re never quite sure what an elephant has in mind when it comes lumbering toward you in search of bananas. They were however always gentle and their mahouts were ever watchful when we were around.
The elephants wandered in to our small compound a few times a day to dine on tasty morsels collected by staff and volunteers as well as occasional contributions from neighbouring farmers sympathetic to the conservation effort — one day a man and wife arrived with a ute load of pineapple plants from their farm which they unloaded for the elephants.
At other times the elephants were confined to various areas of the park through food inducements, including a field of tall grass, and (regrettably) chains until, they say, a fence can be built to stop them grazing through local farms and risking steep government fines.
A highlight of each day for elephants and volunteers alike was the afternoon bathing session. About 3pm daily they would wander past our huts to the river. The elephants clearly loved the water, splashing it over and around their bodies.
There were five volunteers in the week I was there and we were told numbers varied from one to 15. Ging has grand plans for the park which include a sky walk built from bamboo — we were just glad he hadn’t decided we were the volunteers to build it.
I did wonder at his planning ability when he decided one day we would create a mud bath for the elephants by carrying buckets of water to an already available area of dirt.
We suggested extending the hose line. The park’s handyman extraordinaire agreed and raced off to find some hoses and attachments — the hoses were set up in about 10 minutes and the tap did the rest. We thought perhaps Ging just wanted to give us something to do.
Volunteers spend one or more weeks at the park. It was an amazing experience working alongside lovely people who are dedicated to giving elephants a better life and learning more about the incredible pachyderm from them and our daily close encounters.
If you’re considering it be prepared for some hard, physical work in hot conditions. The days averaged 35C when we visited at the end of their coolest months and reaches 45C in summer. The park is located about three hours east of Bangkok, an hour from Kanchanaburri, not far from the Myanmar border. More....