Elephants have always fascinated me. With their magnificent, floppy ears, long trunks and deep dark eyes. I dreamed of encountering these gentle giants since childhood.
However, as a wildlife photographer and conservationist, I also knew that I had an important responsibility besides portraying these beautiful creatures with my camera. I wanted to tell their story. To illustrate the issues that they face in Asia, which to this day remain unknown to many people. This became my mission.
Following exhaustive research, I discovered The Surin Project – an organization run by a group of dedicated people, working hard to improve the life of captive elephants. Instinctively, I knew that this was the place to be. This is how my journey began.
IMAGE: Baby Anda is one of the first elephants born at the Surin Project. In this picture, she and her mom were chained while waiting for us to build a fenced place for them to roam freely without chains. | © Déa Starlling
An Eye-Opening Encounter
Upon my arrival in Baan Tha Klang – locally known as “the elephant village”– I was baffled. At every corner, elephants were burdened by a heavy load of tourists riding on their backs. Lifeless bodies, laden by smiling faces. Deep scars lined the wrinkled skin of the elephant’s heads. The desolate look in their eyes is something I will never forget. My childhood dream of encountering these gentle giants was shattered. In its place came an inevitable feeling of sickness. A repulsion and disappointment at the sight before me. I felt powerless and helpless. These animals belonged in the wild. And I was unable to release them.
IMAGE: Elephant circus with daily performances at Ban Ta Klang village. After the shows, elephant rides are available for all kids and tourists. | © Déa Starlling
An Endangered Species
Historically, elephants have faced numerous challenges in Asia. Among other problems, they have been forced to fuel an insatiable logging industry, exploited in warfare, poached for their ivory, and are still used as cash-machines for tourism.
IMAGE: Chained elephant at Ban Ta Klang. When they are not working, the elephants are chained by the legs and neck without being able to move. | © Déa Starlling
Besides these problems, deforestation and a resulting lack of food have continued to degrade the elephants’ chances of survival. In 1900, it is estimated that around 100,000 elephants were present in Thailand. A century later, this number has drastically decreased. Now deemed an endangered species, there are currently less than 2,000 elephants left in the wild.
Aside from government action and regulation, a change of scenery highly depends on the demand from tourists. This is where The Surin Project comes in.
IMAGE: Mahout taking his elephants to bathe in the river. This is part of the Surin Project’s activities to improve the lives of the elephants. | © Déa Starlling
The Surin Project
By virtue of The Surin Project, elephants whose lives entailed performing in shows or hauling backbreaking tourists are now given a chance. The sanctuary enables the gentle giants to take long walks during the day, bathe in the river and play in the mud. Essentially, they are allowed to behave like elephants, instead of being deprived of their natural instincts.
All of this is made possible with the help of volunteers, who pay to work on the project. Tasks involve cleaning the elephants’ sleeping and eating dens, cutting sugar cane, feeding the elephants, planting trees, building shelters and play-areas. Helping stray dogs in the region is also an important task. Lastly, volunteers also work with “mahouts” to support them in any duties they may need help with.
IMAGE: Mahout and his elephant posing for pictures. The Surin Project also aims to improve the lives of the mahouts, by providing them with an income, without the need to harm an animal. They appreciate this initiative and they really enjoy the presence of volunteers. | © Déa Starlling
Working with the Mahouts
The goal is to demonstrate to the mahouts that people are willing to help them, while observing elephants in a natural setting. The Surin Project works hard to provide tools to adapt the mahouts’ husbandry methods to consider the elephants’ welfare.
Working alongside the mahouts was a challenge at first. As a conservationist, I was unable to ignore the fact that they had performed the “Phajaan” on these gentle and loving animals. The “Phajaan” is a barbarous method, intended to break a young elephant both physically and mentally. The “training” process lasts approximately seven days. Throughout, an elephant calf is exhaustively tied up. Unable to sit or lay down, the calf is brutally whipped and beaten with a bull hook and sticks for the duration of a week. I cannot fathom the cruelty and torture that these calfs must endure.
IMAGE: Once a day, all elephants part of the Surin Project go for a long walk with all the mahouts & volunteers. | © Déa Starlling
My perspective about mahouts was challenged upon meeting their coordinator, Sarot. His love for elephants undeniably shone through. I felt immense relief upon questioning him about the “Phajaan”. Following my inquiry, he simply replied that he would never be able to perform such cruelty on an animal. Throughout my stay, there were multiple times when I caught him petting and talking to the elephants, feeding them cucumber, caring for their well-being, and helping stray dogs in the area. Sarot opened my mind by inviting me into his world. As a result, this changed the direction of my photography. I strived to capture compelling images of the connection between mahouts and the elephants. To portray how The Surin Project was having a positive impact on both of their lives.
IMAGE: The elephants are also scrubbed and bathed to get rid of dirt and parasites. | © Déa Starlling
A Bittersweet Ceremony
To make matters worse, more than three journalists were documenting the ceremony for local TV channels. Filmmakers, with colossal cameras followed us throughout the entire procession. Speedlights blinded us, as they continuously flashed. I felt discomfort, unease and anxiety running through my veins. This intensified, as I imagined the horror that the elephants must have felt in that moment.
At the end of the procession, the elephants were positioned side-by-side, while the mahouts fiercely posed on top of them. Suddenly, one of the elephants startled, standing up on its hind legs. I will never forget the piercing sound of the mahout’s bull hook, as he whipped it out and started forcefully beating the elephant’s head with all his strength. Instantly, I had tears in my eyes. But more so, I was completely shocked. Did a Buddhist ceremony not intend to promote peace and positivity? While celebrating a religious holiday, unimaginable cruelty and pain echoed in the sacred temple. I escaped to my room, unable to bear witnessing the suffering of this poor creature any further.
IMAGE: Elephants waiting for their turn to perform at the circus. | © Déa Starlling
The Future of Elephant Conservation
Besides changing local perspectives, tourism and the media also play a significant role in financing the continued exploitation of elephants. As long as there is a demand for elephant rides and shows, locals will continue forcefully taking them from the wild to use them as a working tool.
IMAGE: Another portrait of a mahout and his elephant. This shows they really care about the animals. Yet, since childhood, they were taught to use them as a working tool. | © Déa Starlling
At the end of my journey in Surin, I learned that we need to see both perspectives of the problem before passing ultimate judgement. To get to the root of the problem, instead of providing a band-aid solution. The tradition of elephant rides is passed from father to son due to a lack of alternative opportunities. By helping the community, we can help elephants. And with that, we create a perfect balance between humans and nature.
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