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The life of an elephant intern

By Britnee Cheney 4 years ago
Categories Chiang Mai


As soon as I stepped out of the van and onto base I was immediately taken away by the view of the mountains that surrounded me.  I decided right then that I could easily live here for six months of my internship. Everyone, staff and volunteers, were so welcoming and helpful. After answering all of my questions they showed me where I would be staying and introduced me to my home stay (the family in the village that I would be staying and eating with). On the morning after I arrived we set off to meet the first herd of elephants; Thong Dee, Mana, Sah Jah, and Bookah. They told me there were three herds, and this was the largest one. The first elephant I got to feed was Thong Dee although Bookah (our largest male elephant) stole my heart right away. It was the most amazing thing to see these beautiful animals out in the forest where they are supposed to be, they seemed relaxed and content with life. You could see their eyes light up when they saw us coming, they must have known we had food to give them. I always find it so funny how excited they get for the food we bring when they have an unlimited supply of food in the forest that they forage all day long.



My first few weeks I was treated like all of the other volunteers, I got to hike, see the elephants, watch how everyone else got things done and had plenty of time to relax and make friends with the new people every intake. After about the first month went by I started shadowing the other interns. There were four different focuses of my internship: community, biodiversity, foraging and elephants. I wanted to be the elephant intern and staff on project soon caught on to what I would do best. I was able to relax knowing that they were paying attention and would not place me anywhere without serious thought as to what I wanted and what the project needed. Although I was not interested in the other internships I still happily shadowed them just in case my interests changed. After weeks of training on how to take data in the forest for each internship, I was placed as the elephant intern! I could not have been happier with the outcome. I had only a week or so with the old elephant intern and so much I still needed to learn to take over. Once I started the data I learned that a big part of my internship was going to be taking data on a new born baby elephant. This fact made me even more excited, and ultimately busy, busy, busy. I was so excited to be a part of the behavioral study of this calf. To be able to watch the baby, its mother, and grandmother from afar to see how they interact and grow with each other was a privilege. One of the more challenging parts of the internship was how the data piled up each day. Inputting data took up most of my time for the first three weeks but then it slowed down and I got much faster at entering it in. Another thing that helped me get through data was the encouragement and help from the staff; they were always showing me short cuts that unless you were computer savvy, you would never know.



Our baby, Wan Mai, having fun exploring his surroundings.


One of the things that I noticed when I started doing data on my own, people changed. I was not always talking and smiling like I had when I first started, and when I first found out I was the elephant intern. Everyone always told me that they “felt bad” for me because I spent so much more time working compared to the other interns. They thought I regretted getting this internship because it was hard, i.e. time consuming. But they could not have been more wrong. I was quiet because I was learning, and I wasn’t smiling because I was concentrating. It got frustrating sometimes only because I was new and slow, but even on the more frustrating days I was so happy to be learning all that I was, and would never have wanted anything different. THIS is what I had come for, working and learning all that I could was my top priority. Regret was not in the picture, although sometimes I would play it up so someone would bring me a coke. I loved playing that card!



As I got further into my internship other opportunities started to open up, I started shadowing how to lead the hikes, I did presentations to everyone on project, and although I am the elephant intern I had opportunities to lead biodiversity hikes, birding expeditions, and community activities with the villagers. I also learned that I would be teaching the next intake of interns once they got here. There was so much more than I expected to be here, and to top it off, I was able to take a two week vacation to Malaysia! The staff was very easy and positive to work with and even when they needed to give me feedback they did so in a positive and trusting manor. I still have three months left and time is flying by. After everything I learned while being here, the hardest part is going to be leaving!