When I was an undergraduate student and I envisioned my life as an environmental scientist, I imagined I would be riding in some adventure-movie style Jeep chasing elephants in Africa. However, I soon found myself in graduate school working on an important project to improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The internship and thesis that resulted from that work will hopefully reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. However, there are no elephants.
I want to improve the world around me; I also want to live out as many of my dreams as possible. Through my participation with Global Vision International’s Elephant Conservation Internship, I was able to interact with a semi-wild herd of elephants in Thailand while pursuing my Masters of Science in environmental communication. By doing the six-week program, I gained valuable field experience which will look great on my resume and I had an amazing summer doing something I had always dreamed of doing. I also helped support a program which is bringing elephants to live in the forest where they belong, instead of in tourist camps.
I flew to Thailand and after two full days of travel and an 11-hour time difference, I was transported to a remote village on a steep hillside. The village is called Huay Pakoot and the villagers are Karen people which is an ethnic minority in Thailand. The people are decedents of Burmese refugees, who used to grow opium but now grow mostly corn for animal feed. The people in that region have traditionally owned elephants for logging and warfare, but today the elephants are mostly taken to the city to work in tourist entertainment camps. Almost all of the camps treat these gentle and intelligent beings in an unethical manner, often keeping them awake for many hours, preventing proper socializing, and forcing them to participate in activities which damage their feet and spine. In addition, the Mahouts, the elephant care takers who are usually young boys, must leave their families and often get involved in unhealthy lifestyles in the city.
In this small village, some of the families have chosen to work with Global Vision International (GVI) and return their elephants to the forest. They make their livelihood from volunteers who get to see, study, and learn from elephants in their natural habitat, a rare occurrence in Thailand where the number of domesticated elephants is three times larger than the number of wild elephants. The village has no stores other than a few families who sell candy, beer, and cigarettes from their home. The women weave clothes in traditional patterns, dresses in white for unmarried women and skirts in red or blue for married women. Pigs are kept in pens made from rough cut wood and chickens are kept in baskets woven from bamboo from the forest. Karen meals are cooked over an open flame and often include eating rats, frogs, and snails. However, for the volunteers they cook more palatable meals of rice, eggs, sausage and vegetables. Sometimes we were given treats like fried banana and mango.
Every morning, I would wake up around 5am to a chorus of over 100 roosters screaming “coo coo kaa doo” in a strained and garbled voice. My host family had the most chickens in the village. The Mahouts of the village would lead us on steep and muddy hikes through a mix of humid jungle slopes and quickly eroding corn fields. After crossing streams and livestock fences, we would eventually see evidence of elephants nearby, broken bamboo branches stripped of their leaves, large round flat footprints on the hillside, or the faint sound of a distant rumble.
Seeing my first elephant in the wild was a dream come true. I could barely believe it was real. One minute I was just walking in the forest, going for a hike, then almost out of nowhere came this amazing animal, so large and gentle, peaceful and friendly. It is difficult to think about the hardships they these animals most likely endured in tourist camps. Although they are powerful beasts, they are often too mild-tempered to lash out violently to escape.
I loved when new volunteers arrived to the village. We would take them on their first hike and after a sweaty and exhausting walk out in the thick jungle, they would see an elephant, then another elephant, and soon a whole herd of five to seven elephants. When the elephants saw us, they would come forward, excited to greet us. We were scientists searching for giant beasts in a misty and mystical land. This was my elephant fantasy come true. The look of wonder and amazement, admiration and pure joy on a new volunteer’s face upon seeing their first elephant emerge from the jungle and come up close to touch us with its trunk, made the grueling hike all worth it.
Once we found the elephants we would conduct health checks and collect behavioral data. We would also spend some time watching really fun behaviors like mothers interacting with their babies, mud baths, drinking water by sucking it up into their trunk and then bringing their trunk to their mouth, eating tree bark, using a branch as a fly swatter, and scratching up against a tree.
As part of the GVI internship program I was given several educational presentations about elephant biology, as well as the history of elephants in the area. I got the opportunity to do my own research and presentation on a topic of my choice. I also practiced my leadership and teaching skills by guiding a biodiversity hike for the other volunteers.
I came to Thailand to learn about elephant biology and deforestation, and to gain more field work and leadership experience, but what I didn’t expect was how much I would learn about myself by meeting people from all around the world. I got to know Thai and Karen people and I made friends with interns and volunteers from England, Australia, France, Belgium, Canada, China, and other parts of the United States. Living and interacting with people from such different backgrounds everyday helped me clarify my own thoughts, identity, and goals for the future. I was in awe of all the people who overcame obstacles such as language barriers, medical issues, financial troubles, and leaving their loved ones to come to this remote region of the world which was unknown to them. It became clear that there are things all of humanity has in common: generosity, laughter, courage, curiosity, fear, and apprehension. Despite our differences we can still enjoy food together, play with children, dance, and be kind to one another. The people in the village live a simple lifestyle, they work, and spend time with their families. In the United States, I would sometimes see or hear of someone doing something and I wanted to be part of it because I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity. This caused me to often get distracted from the things I care about most. In Thailand, I got to know the feeling of being confident in my personal intentions. In this state of mind, I felt less scattered when the people around me were doing different things. I began leading and teaching people, which I really enjoy. It made me think of what excuses I might have made up to hold me back in the past. Being so distant from the familiarity of my country, combined with the intensity of our daily hikes, and spending almost all my time outside in nature, I focused on how much strength I had in my own choices and my inner voice. I was reminded that I should try to confront challenges and questions by consulting my instincts and what I consider to be my truth.
In the village, one of the main things that got me out of bed in the mornings (besides the roosters) was Root’s Coffee Shop. Root is a Mahout and he speaks the best English out of all the villagers. He knows the Karen language as well as Thai, and even tries to learn French from the Canadian, French and Belgian volunteers. A few months before I arrived in the village, he built a little shack on the hillside. It has a deck with tree stumps for chairs and a hammock that overlooks the mountains. It was such a dreamy spot, it made me want to open up a coffee shop of my own. There is always a picturesque fog nestled in the hills because the coffee shop is only open 6am to 7am, the hour before we leave for the elephant hikes. Many of the GVI staff, volunteers, and interns would meet there for a pick me up before the day’s hike. There is no running water so he brings water jugs to the shack where he makes coffee on a little espresso machine for 45 Thai Baht ($1.30), he also offers free green tea and cookies. Sometimes when he runs out of cookies he makes white bread and jam paninis. The coffee is grown by his cousin in a nearby village.
Much of the forest in Northern Thailand has been destroyed due to slash and burn agriculture. Many of the hill tribe people grow corn using harsh pesticides and a method of farming which causes rivers of mud to pour down the hillside when it rains. The Asian Elephant is endangered, but if the population were to increase, there would not be enough forest to sustain them. Coffee is grown in the shade, under a canopy of trees. The forest does not have to be burned and the trees decrease erosion, reduce extreme temperatures, and improve soil quality reducing the need for heavy fertilizer application. It is also a more valuable cash crop than corn. Entrepreneurial projects like Root’s Coffee Shop can help people make money without the harsh environmental implications of the corn fields. I am still connected to Root on Facebook and I love getting updates on the elephants even though I’m no longer in the village.
Now, back in the United States, I am reminded that we have a lot of choices here in how we live our lives. We have options for our food, housing, and lifestyle that are more difficult for people in other countries to obtain. I am also inspired by how one person can help a whole community move towards sustainability and how one organization can bring people together to learn and spread knowledge. In the future, I hope to work in conservation public education or citizen science. I want to empower people to reach out and get their hands dirty, to try something new, and to unite with others to improve our communities.