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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Lunch at The Green Bamboo Shelter

I finally got around to having lunch at the Green Bamboo today and it was so good I plan to go back tomorrow!

“The Green Bamboo Warm Shelter for boys houses up to 20 boys who have been separated from their families due to circumstances including parental imprisonment, abandonment, abuse, and runaways. The goal of the shelter is to reunite the boys with their families within a three to six month period. The shelter works in collaboration with the Ho Chi Minh City Children’s Welfare Association to care for, and provide short-term employment opportunities for boys from all parts of Vietnam.” (http://outreachvietnam.blogspot.com/p/green-bamboo-shelter.html)

Recently, The Green Bamboo was fitted with an industrial kitchen and opened a lunch restaurant. The boys who are interested, have been trained how to cook, how to run a kitchen and customer service skills.

Every day they have a meat option and a vegetarian option for around 30000vnd, super cheap!

Upon arrival we were greeted with smile, the service was friendly and fast and the food was delicious.

veggie spring rolls, noodles, cucumber and yummy dipping sauce.

veggie spring rolls, noodles, cucumber and yummy dipping sauce.

fresh fruit served with ever meal, today we had watermelon!

fresh fruit served with ever meal, today we had watermelon!

The Green Bamboo restaurant is at 40/34 Calmette Street, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, District 1, HCMC and is open for lunch from 11.30-1pm Mon-Fri.

My First Week in Saigon

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It has certainly been an interesting week! Saigon is a sensory overload! The sights and smells, the noises, the sheer volume of people, cars and scooters. It was a little crazy at first, but I now that I know my way around at least one area it is a lot less scary. I’ve always been a big fan of Vietnamese food, my favourite restaurant in Taipei is Pho Hoa so I was very excited to try the local cuisine. And I have not been disappointed, I even tried snails! They were delicious, and go very well with beer! I have had some really good Vietnamese sandwiches, or Ban Mi, vegetarian Pho and some great spring rolls.

So, back to volunteering. My original plan was to ride around the city and try to find places. This, in hindsight, was a terrible idea. The city is HUGE, the traffic is treacherous, its rainy season and I had only one address that I actually knew! So, I did what I do best and went on a Facebook/Wordpress binge. I joined Saigon groups, liked pages, sent messages, collected phone numbers and followed blogs. On Thursday night, I went for some beers with a friend of a friend (who lives here) who gave me some more websites to look at and let me know about a fundraising event with happens every month. Now, I’m making some headway. I also found an event to volunteer at next week where I am hoping to meet a lot more volunteers and find out about placement opportunities.

Yesterday was a tough day. I absolutely went for it on my night out and I paid dearly, with a raging hangover and an empty wallet. I had no idea Saigon had so many clubs, and I attempted to go to all of them :0. More about that in another post ! 🙂

But, I pulled myself together late afternoon and went to meet a girl I’d been put in touch with who used to do lots of volunteering here in Saigon. And, as luck would have it, while I was on my way home, I got an e-mail from another group. So I am feeling good, things are beginning to fall into place.

Today, I went to meet the people at Little Rose House, and they have asked me to teach come of the staff English and also to help them with fundraising. I am very excited to help out and have already started researching the ways I can help them generate more funds. You can help me a little, by looking at the “Blogs I Follow” and clicking on The Little Rose Shelter. Please follow their blog, as well as mine!

I have a possible English class with another group, on Friday morning with a group of first graders and on Sunday I am going to a fundraiser where I hope to meet some like minded people and really get some hard work done!!

Fresh spring rolls with shrimp. I LOVE coriander and there is plenty with every meal in Vietnam, yum!

Fresh spring rolls with shrimp. I LOVE coriander and there is plenty with every meal in Vietnam, yum!

Fast becoming one of my favourite things to eat here. Served with chili oil and lemongrass.

Fast becoming one of my favourite things to eat here. Served with chili oil and lemongrass.