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The Elephant In The Room (in Thailand)

by Claudia Lifton-Schwerner

Nyack High School and SUNY Oswego graduate Claudia Lifton-Schwerner won a Facebook contest last Spring to blog on behalf of Global Vision International (GVI) about their animal and environmental protection projects around the world. Her first stop was the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Her latest blog post is from Thailand.

The first time we saw the elephants my jaw dropped as far as it could drop, and it stayed that way for the entirety of our visit with them. In order to get more acquainted with the elephants and learn their different physical characteristics and personality traits, the staff took us to feed them bananas and sugar cane. Being able to interact so closely with one of the most intelligent, majestic, and emotional mammals on this planet was a life changing experience.  The first time I looked into San Jeps kind, wise eyes and stroked her trunk was the best moment of my trip so far.  During most of our hikes we try to disturb their natural behavior as little as possible, allowing us to collect accurate data on them, so the banana feeding was an extra special experience.  Twice a week we carry out health checks to ensure that each elephant is in good condition, and for the rest of our time, we observe them.  I must admit – the five to seven hour hikes up and down incredibly steep mountains, in this overwhelming heat and humidity are intensely strenuous.  There are some moments that I feel like keeling over with exhaustion, but when we finally find the elephants, all of the frustration seems to melt away.

Seeing elephants roaming freely in their natural habitat is not something that happens very often anymore. Most of Thailand’s elephants are living in “camps”, used as tourist attractions.  They are unable to forage and roam freely through the forest.  They cannot teach their young or interact with their friends and family. They are simply commodities used to attract uneducated tourists who want a picture of themselves posing with or riding an elephant to show their friends back home.  GVI, with the help of the villagers of Huay Pakoot, has successfully rescued eight elephants from these horrific camps and reintroduced them back into the wild.  Our hope is to continue to spread awareness amongst the Thai people and tourists that seeing elephants just being elephants in the forest is a much more humane way to experience these magical creatures.

The elephants aren’t the only thing that makes this project so special.  Every day, we are exposed to new traditions of the Thai people.  The project is placed directly in Huay Pakoot, a traditional Karen village, and we work very closely with the villagers.  During our first meal on base, several of the villagers came to welcome us with a traditional ceremony called a Geejoo. They went around the circle of volunteers tying string around our wrists whilst saying a prayer for our well-being and prosperity in the village.  Our hiking guides are Mahouts –the traditional Thai occupation of an elephant keeper.  The Mahouts can find their elephants in the massive forests without a trace or a sound.  They have a strong connection with the elephants based on love and trust. Their knowledge about elephant keeping and the forest is truly unbelievable.

ClaudiaElephants201306Every volunteer stays with a different family in the village.  We are all given our own little bamboo huts to call home, and are fed delicious food for every meal by our “families”.  The families are so kind and welcoming, and it is always fun to teach one another our different languages over delicious, traditional Karen meals.  We spend a few hours a week teaching the local children English, and on our days off from hiking, we visit the nursery to play with the adorable village children.  I already feel a deep connection with Huay Pakoot village and its people.  Everything about this place is beyond anything I could have ever hoped for.

Claudia’s worldwide journey for Global Vision International includes stops in Mexico, Fiji, Thailand, South Africa and Kenya. Read her previous posts on NyackNewsAndViews and follow her adventures around the world at

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