|Recently we paid a visit to Baan Ta Klang, Surin, Thailand, home to some 300 domesticated elephants. It brought into focus the difficulty of providing adequate care and maintenance to a domesticated elephant population. The Elephant Story supports two native speaking English teachers to give the village mahout children optionality as to their futures. In addition, we provide financial assistance to the veterinarian program of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.
The concept of elephant polo has been criticized regarding potential abuse of the elephants by their owners and mahouts. Although the Golden Triangle Asian Foundation (GTAEF) condemns such abuse and closely monitors the treatment of elephants, any lapses in events to benefit them should not reflect on their activities. Further, the GTAEF has been a strong advocate, sponsor and educator of Positive Reinforcement Training as "the only acceptable" manner to train young elephants. Moreover, John Roberts, the Director of the GTAEF, is the most dedicated elephant conservationist known to man. Nonetheless, habits that have existed for thousands of years are often difficult to break.
In the past, The Elephant Story has sponsored an elephant polo tournament at the heart of the Thai elephant culture in Baan Ta Klang but decided not to hold the event this year due solely to the demands of the "day job" which underwrites our conservation efforts. However, we chose to come to the village to inform the leaders of the school that The Elephant Story will provide funding of $60,000 to support the GTAEF programs in their home this year. Over the past five years, The Elephant Story has contributed something on the order of $350,000 to elephant conservation causes. The villagers asked about elephant polo and we decided to have a "friendly match" with the mahouts which was tremendous fun for all concerned. As the elephants all live nearby, they walked to the pitch, had some needed exercise and went home to their surroundings that afternoon.
We certainly had our hands full with the mahouts who live on elephants and, as you can see below, everyone's eyes are locked on a shot of mine on goal. Therefore, this small event was not "customer" polo. Nonetheless, it was a small gathering of old friends with great camaraderie among all including the elephants.
Moreover, the elephant the author is riding, Orathai, we have known since her birth and witnessed Positive Reinforcement Training at its best versus the brutal methods of the past.
The only bit of mischief from Orathai was when she sprayed some water during a photo shoot of her receiving one of the winter blankets as part of The Elephant Story blanket effort.
The following day we met with Khun Kitimet Rungthanikiad, Chief Executive of the Surin Provincial Administrative Organization, to have a briefing of his Elephant World project. Elephant World will encompass restaurants, craft shops, an elephant museum and an arena for events such as Tam Ball, a variation of elephant polo with an inflatable ball, and pageants. The roughly $2 million project is intended to upgrade the nascent tourism to the village to generate income for the community.
As Khun Kitimet shows below, the project is well underway with an expected opening date of August this year.
Another contributor to the local economy is the relocation of Blake Dinkin's Black Ivory Coffee processing operations to Baan Ta Klang. As shown in the image below, the coffee cherries are shipped from Chiang Mai to be mixed with bananas, rice brand, and molasses to be fed to the village elephants.
The elephant owners gather and remove the processed coffee cherries from the elephant dung to bring to the Chang Boon Wittaya school where they are washed and dried by school children. The coffee cherries in the left foreground have not been processed whereas the ones in the back have been but not yet dried. Some 33 kilograms of 100% Arabica coffee cherries are needed to make 1 kilogram of Black Ivory Coffee.
The elephant owners can earn some $100 per day and the school girls receive spending money of $6 per day for a few minutes of effort as compared to the same amount for seven hours per day in the rice paddies. The coffee cherries are sorted by the number of days they have been drying. Normally, seven to ten days are required until they are to be returned to Chiang Mai to have the external cover removed and the beans roasted.
There is no question that everyone's preference would be to have elephants live in the wild. However, the reality is that option diminishes every day for those that remain whereas, even those in the wild face continued human conflict situations that can be life threatening. Although there is no perfect solution, the objective is to find solutions that neither denigrate, harm or threaten the sustainability of these wonderful animals.
The people who live in Baan Ta Klang have raised and maintained elephants for thousands of years. Elephants define the culture of the people. The objective is to provide better solutions to the owners that benefit them and their elephants. An elephant that has been trained through Positive Reinforcement Training is light years ahead of any elephant "broken" and managed by the arcane methods of the past. Moreover, most elephant owners view their elephants as family rather than chattels, particularly as they live together side by side.
For those who are critical of various means of support to improve the well-being and care of elephants, we would urge them to join others in the philanthropy to improve the lives of the elephant owners and their elephants. There is plenty of room for everyone in this endeavor.
These charming elephant notepads are handmade of recycled paper in Thailand. Each notepad contains blank pages inside to record your notes, to write or to sketch. The double set notepads come with their own pencil.