How to live and work in the jungle:
- Just accept the fact that you will never be completely dry or completely clean. Its so hot and humid that you will sweat while standing still and even after you shower you will still attract dirt and dust.
- Resources are limited so you share everything; housing, bathrooms, meals, etc. I share my room with two other girls and the occasional gecko, cockroach or spider. We also have a dog and a cat that like to sleep on our porch and good luck filling up your plate if you're one of the last ones to arrive at meal time.
- Animals are everywhere. We awake to the howling of gibbons and the crowing of roosters. We fall asleep to the sounds of dogs barking and elephants trumpeting. The camp is packed full of pachyderms, primates, bears, various domestic animals but the encounters you will have most often (whether you want to or not) are with ants and mosquitos.
- Expect to work. A lot. This is not a holiday. The animals get fed before and more often than you do. Whole orchards of banana trees are harvested four times a week. Your day outlasts than the sun and there is only one day off per week. This is not a vacation. That being said, it's still a unique, worthwhile and rewarding experience. Just don't expect to just take a few elephant selfies and then lounge by a pool all day sipping cocktails.
- Your wardrobe should be all quick-dry everything. It takes at least two days to dry cotton clothes and you will definitely want to master your sink-washing skills. There are two extremes in volunteer attire: those that wear as little clothing as possible (i..e. tank top, shorts, flip flops) and those that go for maximum coverage (boots, trousers, long sleeve shirt, hat). The former are much more succeptible to and often complain about bug bites and sunburn so I practice/highly recommend the latter.
I consider myself pretty fortunate when it comes to my accommodation here. Instead of the majority, traditional dorm-style housing, I was placed in one of three bungalows with a porch and a lovely view of the mountains, the lake and the gibbon islands therein. Within this jungle cabin are three beds a slightly subpar bathroom and three beds. My roommates are awesome. Alex is from Germany and Amy is from England. Technically we're all in our late 20's/early 30's but we feel like the geriatrics of the group. We all have our own ailments, assortment of medications and our room is perfumed with Tiger Balm every evening. We're probably the first ones to go to bed at night. We even have our own retired crime-fighter nicknames: Limpy Gimp, Fairy Bug and Blister Girl.
I spent my first two days with elephants named Thong Dee and Rungthip before being promoted to team leader of the duo for the remained of the week. They are both 'retired' from the logging and tourist industry and are over 60 years old. Rungthip has arthritis in her front legs and Thong Dee has cataracts and is mostly blind, but she still enjoys her walk in the woods every day! I feed them and clean their enclosures multiple times per day. So what does an elephant eat? Several times a day, they are served banana balls, fruits, veggies and banana tree trunks. We make banana balls (see recipe below) 3-4 times per day for these two and cut up loads of fresh watermelon, pineapple and corn on the cob. The mahouts slice up banana tree trunks with a machete and the elephants break through all the outer layers and just eat the tender heart of the plant, kinda like artichokes. They make quite a mess of these, so that's mostly what we clean out of the enclosures in addition to poop of course. All of these leftover go straight to the compost piles strategically placed throughout the camp.
A Day's Activities at Elephant Care Camp:
06:00: (or earlier) wake up
06:30: First Shift; Gather baskets full of food and disperse to different enclosures
07:00: Make and serve banana balls
08:00: People breakfast (make your own)
09:00: Second Shift; Second serving of banana balls, Cut and prepare fruit
09:30: Vet visits and/or showers
10:30: Special Projects
12:00: People lunch (served)
13:00: Third Shift; Go for a walk, probably another shower, compost
15:00: Fourth Shift; Final serving of banana balls, compost, enrichment, transfer to different enclosure for the night
18:00: People dinner (Served) then free time and/or evening trips away from camp ** Check whiteboard to see your location/duties for the following day
Banana Ball Recipe:
- Several bunches of bananas
- 1 bowl bran powder
- 3 bowls elephant pellets
- Once peeled, mash bananas in a big metal bowl with your hands
- Add one small bowl bran and mix by hand until the consistency of sticky dough
- Gradually add three small bowls elephant pellets and hand mix
- Roll into balls twice the size of your fist then feed to elephants
There are several terms here that you learn on the job.
Mahout: a Thai man that takes care of and directs the elephant and gets to play with a machete. Each elephant has one that they more or less listen to obediently.
Enrichment: Basically hide and seek with snacks. We place pieces of fruit and veg strategically around their enclosures for physical and mental stimulation.
Composting: Scooping up elephant poop and banana tree carcasses and transporting them to compost piles via wheelbarrow
Everything gets reused or recycled here. The pigs and dogs eat our leftover food scraps and all plastic, metal and paper gets recycled. Everything else organic gets composted. We also have lots of filtered drinking water available so that hopefully cuts down on the amount of plastic bottles.
And I've yet to broach the subject to the carnivorous majority of volunteers here, but I find it hypocritical that everyone here is so gung ho about saving elephants and other wildlife, yet they complain that the meat dish at dinner is always the first to go. (There are usually three vegan/vegetarian dishes and one meat dish at every meal.) Why is the mass slaughter of cows, pigs and chickens ok (Thai people eat a hell of a lot of meat in light of being a Buddhist country) but killing and eating elephants or dogs is deplorable? (Well it is to us Westerners anyways.) I just don't see how you can consider yourself compassionate towards animals yet still consume their dead flesh on a daily basis...