LOCATION: Surin, THAILAND
Valley of the Mool River Basin
CAMP: Wat Ba'Agieng (a Buddhist Temple in Ta Klang)
Ta Klang Village
Once a year, on the third weekend of November, a small province called Surin in northeastern Thailand receives a great deal of attention. This is when the province becomes the venue for one of the most exciting spectacles of the year - the annual Elephant Round-Up. Surin has long been associated with elephants. In fact, Surin is known as the 'province of elephants'. Every year, more than 100 elephants take part in the Elephant Round-up. The event displays the amazing grace, strength and intelligence of these huge creatures in games of soccer, log carrying, and tug-of-war against human teams. The talent and playfulness of the pachyderms never fail to draw cheers from the spectators. The annual Elephant Round-up is by far and away the most popular festival of Surin and perhaps in all of Thailand. It is a unique opportunity to witness the incredible skill and intelligence of the elephant, an animal that just so happens to be Thailand's national symbol.
Unfortunately, the rest of the year in Surin paints a much different picture for these creatures. Most of the domesticated elephants that reside in the area, along with their caretakers (mahouts), are now forced to leave the province to beg for food and money on city streets, as their past employment in the logging industry no longer exists. In order for the elephant-centric community of Surin to survive and thrive into the future, the elephants and their mahouts need a new, innovative source of income. The Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project (AEACP) aims to provide these elephant/mahout pairs with this needed income by establishing the Surin Institute of Elephant Art (SIEA) in the village of Dha Klang in Surin.
The region of Surin that is our focus provides a unique environment in which to foster this hope. Many of the elephant-mahout pairs found on the crowded streets of Bangkok are from Surin. Situated in Thailand’s north-east (Isarn), a region visited by only 4% of all overseas tourists who vacation in the country, economically Surin is one of Thailand’s four poorest provinces. This region of Thailand differs from the rest of the country in part because most charitable efforts made elsewhere can, to some extent, be focused on existing tourist-orientated camps, such as the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang and the Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal in Ayutthaya. At this time, no such focal point exists in Surin.
The mahouts and people of Surin have very limited economic options. Due to their history and cultural background, the people of Surin depend on elephants for their income. Dha Klang and other villages in the area preserve a unique way of life revolving around elephants. In fact, one of the most respected individuals in the village, even today, is the elephant shaman. Other communities may use elephants as entertainment for tourists, but in Surin, even this option is elusive, as there are so few tourists that visit the region. In addition, the farming is not good in this region either. It is subjected to climatic extremes: flooding in the Rainy Season; low temperatures in the Cool Season; drought and searing heat in the Hot Season. Most of the terrain in the Province has been largely denuded of its natural vegetation and given over to rice paddies. In addition, an increasing number of cattle graze on the flood plains, eating what little natural fodder remains.
The loss of the elephant means poverty and an uncertain future for the people of Surin. People and elephants are very much dependent upon each other for survival. The elephants have no habitat if released, and the people have no work without the elephants. The fundamental problem faced by the mahouts, their elephants, and the communities dependent upon them, is a critical lack of employment. The key to solving this problem is creating a new way for these pairs to earn a living.
Meet the Artists of Surin, Thailand: