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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Senior trains elephants in Thailand during summer


Senior Suzannah Osekowsky holds on tightly to her elephant, Pang Yom, as it picks its way down the mountain, avoiding the rocky juts and leafy bushes. The pair reach their destination, a lake near the Mahout Training Center, and she scrubs its hide as it bathes in the water.

This was one of the many activities Osekowsky did daily on her summer volunteer trip with Rustic Pathways, an international high school travel program that took her and 27 other high school students to the Thai Elephants Conservation Project in Thailand for one week and taught them the ways of a junior mahout, or an elephant trainer.

“This summer, my friends and I were looking for something out there, something cool,” Osekowsky said. “Something we could do to get rid of stress before our senior year, and we were like, ‘Oh, look! Elephants!’”

The Thai Elephants Conservation Project serves to rescue elephants from poachers and puts on a variety of elephant shows for tourists.

According to Osekowsky, the volunteers did not have a solid schedule every day, but changed up what they did. After washing their elephants in the morning, the students’ days consisted of activities like sightseeing, learning songs in Thai and watching elephant shows. They were exposed to the different kinds of culture in Thailand.

Because they were training to be mahouts, much of their time was spent at the center either visiting sick elephants in the infirmary or learning how to work with elephants themselves.

Professional mahouts taught the volunteers commands to use on the elephants such as sit, stop and go.

"We started with a couple of basic commands,” Osekowsky said. “They handed us a card and showed us how to mount the elephant and ask it to sit, lie down and bow down so you can get on and off by its trunk.”

Most of the trip was a “learn as you go” experience, which complicated things, Osekowsky said. Because the instructors spoke little to no English, communication between the two groups consisted of charades or simple phrases in Thai.

While in Thailand, Osekowsky also ventured outside of the elephant conservatory to the different night markets and bazaars in their free time and shopped often.

“There are streets with a bunch of stalls people set up, which sell everything,” Osekowsky said.

Another aspect of Thai culture she experienced was religion. Upon the students’ arrival at the Mahout Training Center, several Buddhist blessing ceremonies were performed on all the volunteers such as tying ropes around their wrists.

“We did see a lot of culture. It was an isolated section of the culture, but it was a very rich isolated section,” Osekowsky said.

They may not have gone to the average tourist attractions in Thailand, but they experienced something not many people have the chance to.

“I might go back to Thailand because the country is just so beautiful,” Osekowsky said. “The jungles and everything are just amazing.”

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