The Surin Project

Fields. That’s mainly what I see. Dry rice fields, bushes and lonely trees. Some houses and more fields. But my motorbike taxi stays on well paved roads until we reach the “Elephant Village” Ban Tha Klang.
After a surprisingly comfortable night on a bus where all of the passengers were even served dinner and snacks, one hour on a second bus from Buriram to Satuek, I’m now in the Surin province in the Northeast of Thailand.
Apart from fields, it has mainly elephants to offer. We’ve already passed one of them with his mahout (elephant handler). There are no wild elephants in this area, but traditionally, pregnant elephant cows are brought down here from the North of the country, give birth and leave without the offspring, which is trained here and then (used to be) sold. Some of the elephants were of course also used for transportation and logging. But as logging is illegal now and many organizations fight to stop the breeding of captive elephants, these NGOs and the government are putting money into the region.
Buildings are being constructed in every corner, we pass fancy coffee shops and restaurants with big glass walls in the middle of nowhere. Construction sites for masses of tourists that will probably never come.
John Roberts of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (located in Chiang Rai) estimates that half of the captive elephant population live in Surin. And today, the elephants are mostly used in the tourism industry. I meet John here, at the “Surin Elephant Kingdom Project”, and he says if you want to make a change in how elephants are trained and treated in Thailand, you have to start here.
He and Nissa, a Thai vet, came here for a target training workshop, together with two vets and animal trainers from Mexico and a surprise guest. They want to show the mahouts an alternative to the violent training based on punishment. The positive reinforcement is so much more effective, but if a white person comes to tell them that what they’ve been doing for generations is wrong, it is doomed to fail. That’s why they brought the local experts – Nissa, the two vets of the Surin Project, and Kan from Laos. I met Kan and Pang, one of the elephant vets here, at the Elephant Care workshop in Myanmar in September 2018.
“I’m in Thailand, can I come visit you and see where you work?” I had texted Pang.
“Sure, it’s not easy to get here, but we have a workshop going on, so it might me interesting for you!”

And here I am, in a region where hardly any tourists go, help cutting bananas for treats, making targets and get involved in treating injured elephants.
Six mahouts show up with their elephants for the workshop, they brought t-shirts and caps for many more, but two years ago, only one had participated, so it’s a huge success already. It doesn’t really matter how many show up, so it also doesn’t really matter that I’m here in addition. That’s how these things go in Southeast Asia, I’m told.
The “Surin Elephant Kingdom Project” covers about 200 elephants of the 300-400 that live in the area. The mahouts are paid by the government to keep them here and take care of them, instead of going begging with them or showing unhealthy tricks to tourists. So basically, as John puts it, they are paid to sit in their hammock all day and do nothing. Every other house has an elephant or two in the backyard. While the mahouts are happy about that, the elephants, being chained and unable to move much, suffer from the boredom and restriction of their freedom. Most of the elephants I see over the course of the four days I spend here, show stereotypical behavior.

But at least, they get very good medical care. The vets are employed by the government (salary, office building, medication and equipment) and supported by NGOs like the Golden Triangle and Veterinarians International. The two vet cars were sponsored, as well as the gas for the vehicles.
So the mahouts are more likely to call the vet when there is a problem than they used to; they have to pay for neither examination, treatment, nor medication.
Pang, Gaa and their vet assistants of the Mobile Elephant Clinic are always on call. In the city of Surin, they have access to an elephant hospital that is equipped for surgeries and has two more vets – of course, they help each other out.
And they let me come with them to irrigate wounds, flush abscesses and apply eye drops. I seem to be labeled “intern” and nobody worries about it.
The target training, which is also presented to a group of school kids with one of the eager elephants, is meant to help with routine medical procedures like foot trimming and examinations, but is also useful in every day care. It’s not just for elephants, but also rhinos, dogs, sheep, horses,… Basically, the animal will be trained to touch the “target”, a stick with a softer tip, with a certain body part on command. This way, it will present for example the flank or the trunk. By using two targets, the trainer can position the elephant on the “wall” for protected contact while the patient lifts the foot. Foot trimming, diagnostic trunk washes and blood draws become much easier this way.

Kan training elephant lady Gim with the targets
 On my third day, we get a call on the way to the first routine patient, and rush back to the hospital. We have to get the dart gun, a bull in musth broke his chains and is running wild!
Musth is a periodic phase in the life of an elephant bull where he is willing to mate. His testosterone levels rise to extreme levels, and in the wild, he will wander for hundreds of kilometers to find a female he is not related to. In captivity, the mahouts try to stay away from these bulls as good as possible, and only feed, water and bathe them, as they become very aggressive. It usually happens once a year for about one month, but can occur up to three times a year, or – Gaa has had a case like that – last for up to six months. For the mahouts, it is highly dangerous to be around their bull in that time, many have died. When a musth bull breaks his chains, everyone is in danger. He may attack people, destroy cars or houses.

Preparing the dart gun
 So Pang and her assistant Toi follow us as we (Gaa, her assistant M and me, that is) speed down the dusty roads twice as fast as usually, and the vets from Surin city are on their way with a second dart gun. The roads become narrower and we stop at a dry rice field about 800 meters from the bull. This one has (so far) not injured anyone and only destroyed a motorbike. Mahouts have already tried to lure him in with a female, but have had no success. People who want to help or just watch have gathered up, driving out here into the fields on motorcycles or pick-up trucks. The elephant has to be sedated now, so that the mahout can get him back home before he produces any real damage. With the dart gun, you don’t have to get as close as with a normal syringe, but still, you have to get as close as 20 or 30 meters, making it a dangerous job for the vets and their team – I have to stay back at the car, while they follow the bull, hiding behind trees. Finally, after almost an hour, the animal gets his xylazine, calms down, and the mahout can lead him back home. 

Meanwhile, one of the cars got stuck in a concrete trench. The people gather around it, squatting there and discussing how to get it back out. It is blocking our way back, too. So somebody brings a big wooden board (possibly a hotel sign), another one has a car jack, John finds a rope and someone comes with a tractor. Eventually, the car gets free, thanks to all these people squatting there and helping out. We can now all go the mahout’s house, where the elephant bull is safely chained again and receive a bottle of water each.
It’s been an exciting afternoon for everyone involved.
I have to admit, Thailand and I didn’t have an easy start. But this day, let’s be honest, is exactly why I like this country.

Now there is so much more to say about elephant welfare and all the things that go wrong, about the people who fight for a better life for the elephants; about the nice little bungalow that I’m staying at; about how much I recommend the region for anyone who wants to see the “real Thailand” without all the tourists, but it’ll be hard without a translator,… but that would really be too much for one blog post.

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