The Plight of Asian Elephants: Volunteering in Thailand

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My first overseas volunteering experience was in Thailand in 2008 at WFFT with Globalteer. It was the beginning of a year travelling and I couldn’t think of a better start to an amazing year. WFFT is an animal rescue centre about 6 hours outside Bangkok, in a beautiful rural area. The grounds themselves are picturesque. It was like living in the middle of the jungle. I was volunteering as part of the group looking after abused elephants in the elephant sanctuary part of the centre. During the day, the elephants stay in an enclosure and are fed and cleaned. They love to eat pineapples and watermelons. At night, they are walked out into the forest to graze and sleep. Every night they need to be left in a different spot in a bid to outsmart poachers who steal elephants for the tourist trade. In the morning, they are walked back to the centre. The morning and evening walks were amazing.

EVERY year without fail, I see people on my Facebook riding elephants on holiday in Thailand and other popular destinations and it breaks my heart. I often post articles to try and deter them but it mostly falls on deaf ears. (More of that willful ignorance I have mentioned before). Its seems people are more interested in having that quintessential elephant ride or tiger or monkey picture than learning about how the animals are treated. In reality, the animals are captured by killing the parents and stealing the young. To train them, they are starved and beaten into submission to break their spirits and once trained are kept in awful conditions.

Elephants in Thailand.  (from Globalteer.org)

There are only around 2,000-3,000 wild elephants in Thailand

When commercial logging was banned in Thailand there was no longer a demand for working elephants and their owners were forced to resort to different ways to make an income. Unfortunately, in many cases, this meant exploiting the elephants for the tourist industry.

The growth of urban areas in Thailand, has seen the elephants natural habitat become smaller and smaller. 

Many elephant owners took their animals to the big cities and today there are many elephants roaming the city streets at night, the dirty, hectic city environment is far from ideal for these elephants, which are by nature forest dwellers.

The noise and traffic causes them considerable stress, not to mention the dangers posed by the traffic.

Every year many elephants are killed or injured in traffic accidents. City elephants are frequently malnourished and do not consume anywhere near the amount of food that they should eat every day just to prevent excretion on the streets.

In the daytime the city elephants are kept hidden away from view in unsuitable locations such as rubbish tips or disused car parks, often without adequate shade and no access to good food, only leaves from city trees intoxicated with pollutants.

Elephants are frequently drugged to keep them calm in the chaotic city environment.

Many city elephants suffer from respiratory diseases as a result of constantly breathing in polluted air and are at risk of standing on broken glass and other debris on the streets leading to infections.

They are not bathed regularly, as elephants should be, and this often leads to skin diseases.

Thailand has a thriving tourism industry. Unfortunately this has been exploited by people wishing to make money by using elephants as ‘entertainment’ and every day hundreds of animals are suffering at the hands of humans purely to make a profit for their owners.

They are forced to perform degrading and unnatural tricks, often being beaten with spike hammers. Kept on chains 24 hours a day, these animals lose their dignity and freedom and merely exist as moneymaking commodities. The elephants are worked hard, often with out shade, and denied the much needed time for eating, drinking and bathing.

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In many ways, this was an eye-opening trip. I met people from all over the world, many of whom were activists and seasoned travelers. I was exposed to a lot of new (to me) ideas which have stayed with me and had a big influence on my politics and lifestyle. Just last year, I met up with one of my friends from WFFT in Amsterdam and had a ball reminiscing about our days walking the elephants.

Ready for your first experience volunteering overseas?

A friend of mine, Cátia Lúcio, shares her experiences at WFFT here.

Volunteer with elephants through Globalteer in Thailand or Cambodia.

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Volunteer Stories: Cátia Lúcio

Catia Lucio

Cátia Lúcio: Portugal

I met Cátia in Thailand a number of years ago when we were both volunteering with Globalteer with Wildlife Friends of Thailand. It was the first time for both of us to volunteer overseas.

WFFT is about 6 hours north of Bangkok in the Petchaburi province and is a rescue centre for abuse and abandoned animals.  It is a beautiful location and I loved hearing all the sound of nature at night when we were sleeping. Cátia and I were in different programs, I was on the team who worked only with elephants whereas Cátia worked with many other animals. There were bears, crocodiles, monkeys, a horse, dogs, cats, iguanas and so many more I don’t remember.

It was a fairly expensive program, with a large donation to the centre but accommodation and three meals a day are provided. They cater for vegetarians too. Accommodation was shared rooms and pretty basic but you are right in the middle of the jungle and it was an experience like no other. I loved it! Your duties are mainly feeding and cleaning and there was lots of extra time for relaxing and socialising. It is also close to Cha Am and Hua Hin where you can go to the beach on your days off.

Before going: 

Visa: you can get a landing visa on arrival in Bangkok airport.

Vaccinations; I was vaccinated against rabies, typhoid, Hepatitus A and B

Medication: Malarial medication is a good idea in this area.

 

These are some pictures I took while volunteering at WFFT;

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Why Volunteer?

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As a serial volunteer I get asked, often, “why do you volunteer? What do you get out of it?”

Mostly, volunteering is a way for me to put my beliefs and values into action. I have always given to charity but I do not have much to give so the impact I make is fairly small. However, I do have free time and skills I can offer and that’s how I can make a much bigger difference.

The benefits of volunteering are incredible and many not for profits could not exist without volunteers. Volunteering is a great way to get experience in a particular area of work. It is an excellent way to meet new people and some of my best friends and favourite people are people I met while volunteering. It can look brilliant on your CV or university application. Whatever your motivation, get out there and do some volunteer work. You will not be sorry!!

Whereas some of the bigger NGOs can afford to pay all their full time staff, they still need volunteers to fundraise and become involved in campaigns and projects. Many smaller NGOs rely more heavily on volunteers, some operating 100% on volunteers.

There are so many ways in you can volunteer your time and talents. You can volunteer overseas and at home. From walking dogs who live in a pet shelter, to doing a charity run, using your expertise to advise and consult (IT advise is a great example of this). You can get out in your community and plant trees, clean up public areas. You can volunteer at hospitals, support helplines. You can get involved in sports clubs and even local government. The list is endless, and there are so many fun options!(for more information on the types of volunteer work you can do overseas, see my article “Making Your Time as a Volunteer Count“)

International Volunteer Day is December 2013. Whether its an hour, and afternoon, a weekend, or longer, get out there and do some volunteer work!!!

Trafficking in Asia: Modern Day Slavery

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The Little Rose Shelter helps girls who have been sexually abused or trafficked, or who were in high risk situations. I wanted to research trafficking in Vietnam to see how big the problem is. What I found was pretty shocking. Human trafficking is the third most profitable illegal activity, right after drugs and arms dealing, and business is booming.

The Facts

-An estimated 2.5 million people are in forced labour (including sexual exploitation) at any given time as a result of trafficking

56% are in Asia and the Pacific

10% are in Latin America and the Carribbean

9.2% are in the Middle East and Northern Africa

5.4% are in sub-Saharan countries

10.8% are in industrialised countries

8% are in transition in countries

-161 countries are affected by trafficking

-the majority of victims of trafficking are between 18-24 years old

-an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked every year

-95% of victims experienced physical and/or sexual violence during trafficking

-43% of victims are used for forced commercial exploitation, of whom 98% are women and girls

-32% are used for forced economic exploitation, of whom 56% are women and girls

-In 46% of cases, the victims knew their trafficker

-Estimated global annual profits made from human trafficking are US$31.6 billion

-In 2006 there were only 5,808 prosecutions and 3,160 convictions worldwide. This means that for every 800 people trafficked, only one person was convicted.

(data from UN)

Trafficking in Vietnam

Vietnam is known as a “source country” for women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation and labour. This means the women are “sourced” here and then exported to other countries. They are often trafficked to China, Cambodia and other surrounding countries. Some men and women actually migrate willingly and legally for work and subsequently face forced labor and debt bondage. “Domestic trafficking” is also a huge problem in Vietnam, where victims are lured from their rural towns into the city in hopes of a job which will enable them to send money home to their families. Vietnam is also a destination country for Cambodian children trafficked for forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Vietnam, as well as many South East Asian countries is fast becoming a popular destination for pedophiles, with from all around the world coming here.

Between 2004 and 2009, Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) reported nearly 3,000 Vietnamese victims of human trafficking.Traffickers prey on the poorest and most desperate of families, they sell them promises of money, jobs, and a better life and parents send their children with them clinging to the hope that their children will have a better life than they did. Traffickers are skilled liars, and they know how desperate these people are to believe.

Unfortunately, the government response has been to  focus on “awareness” rather than more action on the ground actually rescuing trafficking victims. So many organisations consider this kind of rescue work too dangerous. The result being that many kids remain to be held hostage in factories and brothels.

Someone who IS on the ground, is Michael Brosowski who runs Blue Dragon, an NGO based in Hanoi that has rescued more than 300 kids from trafficking since their doors opened in 2005.Once rescued, they are brought to the Blue Dragon centre to speak with a social worker. They are provided with a place to stay, food and access to education and training. Michael originally came to Vietnam to teach English but quickly recognised the plight of street kids and wanted to help so he set up his own NGO. Blue Dragon has become very well know in Vietnam due to their hands on approach and phenomenal results. In a short number of years, they have sent 2,686 kids back to school and training, provided accommodation to 153 girls and boys and so much more. To read more about Michael and the Blue Dragon you can check out their website, http://www.bluedragon.org.

The Damage done by Orphange Tourism

Orphanage Tourism is something I have wanted to talk about for a while.

Recently, Unicef and Friends International have launched a new child safety campaign and it is EXACTLY what I am talking about;

Children Are Not Tourist Attractions.

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It is a very powerful image and is being promoted heavily, I hope that it will help create awareness of this disturbing trend, and deter potential travelers from part taking in the exploitation of children.

I first experienced “orphanage tourism” when volunteering in Cambodia in 2008 and since learned that the problem has been rapidly growing since then. So called “orphanages” are popping up all over Cambodia, with an estimated 600 currently, and only 21 of these run by the government. And while Cambodia is without doubt the leader in this huge problem, it exists all over South East Asia. I was sad, but not surprised, to learn that is also becoming a booming business here in Vietnam.

I recently read this great article focusing on orphanage tourism in Cambodia, written by a fellow volunteer and blogger.

Orphanage tourism:

What usually happens?

Orphanage tourism can mean visiting an orphanage for a few hours as part of scheduled tour that also includes sightseeing. People read to, play with and photograph the children before hopping back on their bus for the next “life-changing” experience.

Whats the harm?

Most orphanages rely entirely on donations from rich, Western tourists. In so many cases, directors keep children looking dirty and malnourished in order to gain more sympathy, and of course, more money. By donating, tourist’s are merely lining the pockets of the management, and in the worst case scenarios, fueling abuse. Neglecting to properly vet volunteers also leaves the children vulnerable to sexual abuse. Though the (completely misguided) goal is to help, volunteers sometimes confuse their own experiences with that of the children. The emphasis is placed on the volunteer’s emotional response, rather than the effectiveness of the help itself. The “feel-good” factor. In reality, no child benefits from spending intimate time with a total stranger, especially those who are uneducated in social work and education.

In most developed countries this would be a clear violation of children’s rights and there are laws to protect them from such exploitation. Children in developing countries are no different from those in the developed world. They should be afforded the same basic rights.

‘Ask yourself whether a similar situation would be allowed in your own country: busloads of tourists pouring into a children’s home for fleeting visits, being allowed to interact with and photograph the children? No it wouldn’t,’ said Ngo Menghourng, the Cambodia communications officer for the NGO Friends International.

Though Lonely Planet does provide some very good information on how to spot and avoid these types of places , it also has a “Do’s and Don’t of Orphange Tourism” list. My list would be much smaller.

Don’t.

I came across this article in the Sydney Morning Herald while researching for this:

“Orphanage tourism provides a feel good moment but a lifetime of regret. by Jen Vuc”

It is an article written by an Australian woman who, when on holiday in Vietnam, visited one of these orphanages with her husband and children.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/orphanage-tourism-provides-a-feelgood-moment-but-a-lifetime-of-regret-20130721-2qcgm.html#ixzz2iVit9oIS

This story, in typical fashion, starts out with great intentions. Jen and her husband wanted to teach their children the very valuable lesson that they are fortunate and many of the the worlds children are not. They left with a feeling of unease and looked back at their visit as more of a hindrance than a help.

If you would like to help orphanages in Vietnam but don’t have time to volunteer, cash donations or donations in kind are the most practical. They will always need things like, diapers, bottles, blankets, school supplies, etc. Many tech-savvy organisations will have a list on their website, or you can call and ask what they need. With a little research and pre-planning, your good intentions can actually yield good results.