Bottle feeding leopard cubs and taking a playful lion for a walk were just some of the many highlights to our two days near Kanchanaburi with the Safari Park Volunteer Initiative.
The Volunteer Initiative
The genesis of the Safari Volunteers initiative was formed when Tat and Ned first visited the Safari Park as tourists. Unhappy with some of the conditions and practices at the park they badgered the owners into allowing them to set up a volunteer programme to help bring improvements.
After several years the owners agreed and Tat and Ned moved into the park and set about doing something to benefit the lives of the animals. They began by improving the diets and living conditions of abandoned caged animals. Enclosures were given a badly needed clean – and kept clean – and toys and activities were made and invented to amuse bored captive animals.
Volunteers are recruited to help out, attracted both by the chance to do something genuinely useful and get (very) up close and personal with big cats, leopard cubs, macaques, zebra and deer, among other animals.
The work progressed to expanding and upgrading enclosures, injecting life into the English school for the Thai staff, thinking up fundraising ideas, creating family orientated tourist programmes and ensuring the lion cubs are exercised.
Despite a small budget funded mostly by volunteer contributions real progress has been made but we realised some of the things Tat and Ned have battled against when we received the following email after mentioning the volunteer programme on our sites:
“Please read the reports & reviews of the safari park at Kanchanaburi – the place sounds appalling & terribly sad & cruel – not the sort of place to be encouraging young people to go & volunteer their time.”
Actually, we had already been to TripAdvisor and read the comments left there before we visited the park when we were in the area last year. There were two types of review. The negative ones criticised the practices going on at the park, the same practices the volunteer initiative was set up to improve or eradicate.
We noted that most of the terrible and poor reviews date back to before the volunteers moved onto the park. Many of the increasingly frequent excellent reviews given on TripAdvisor make a point of praising the work of the volunteers and encouraging visitors to talk to them and learn more about their work.
So the owners of the zoo are the evil ones, right? Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. We didn’t meet the owner but encountered his son – a pleasant young man called back from his preferred career to manage at the safari park. Though he has a ready supply of crocodiles there was no trap door in his office to send critics to their doom. I so would have that.
Some of the methods of the zoo are outdated and unacceptable to western culture – but let’s not be too high-minded about that, eh Marius? – but the management has shown willingness to change its practices when a more acceptable and equally financially viable alternative is proposed by the volunteers.
From the point of view of the owners the financial aspect is important. The place is losing money. Bottom line is the zoo is a business and any attempts to change things for the better have to take this into consideration.
Let’s take Blue as an example. Blue is a fully grown tiger kept chained to a table for the amusement of tourists. The volunteers have already had some success in getting another tiger removed from the chain but as long as visitors are willing to pay to be photographed with Blue he will remain where he is.
While treading delicately, the volunteers have convinced all but one of the tour operators that visit the park to remove Blue from their programme. As I write (well, ok, while I was distracted by social media) I saw in my Facebook stream the volunteers are looking for a Hebrew speaking online volunteer.
Knowing the nationality of this last tour operator I asked Tat if this is something to do with Blue and it was. As part of their campaign to convince this last – Israeli – tour operator they wish to know what is being said about the park on Hebrew speaking forums, whether these tourists are learning anything from the volunteers, or if they really are enjoying seeing Blue chained.
Armed with this information the volunteers will have a greater chance of persuading this last tour operator to change their tour and erase the remaining reason to keep Blue chained to a table.
Education is just one part of what the volunteers do. Another part is cleaning up poo. Don’t worry, if you are thinking of becoming a volunteer there is plenty of fun stuff too, but get used to the idea that your day will begin ridiculously early to climb into a leopard’s cage and clean up its poo.
For a bit of variety there is also macaque, gibbon, langur and binturong poo to deal with too. First up though is encouraging the wild animals to vacate their enclosure to be temporarily locked away at the back – a bonzer idea, I think we can all agree – so you can get in the front and at the poo. The animals are also fed and given meds.
For me, this part of the day also involved playing tag with Chutney, a grabby gibbon who seemed to delight in trying to get his hands on me as I walked – no, ran – past his enclosure. He had no problem with any of the women volunteers and Ned had him in his place but Chutney had me marked as his homo sapien bitch.
On spotting me Chutney would speedily swing across the roof of his enclosure and launch a long arm through the gaps in his fence. Keeping away from him meant getting closer to the enclosure opposite and that one housed a leopard.
I considered this an enrichment activity for the little guy and was willing to call a truce on occasion to provide Chutney with a back rub. It seemed Chutney had decided to trust me and though it wouldn’t have hurt if he got his grip on me I always kept an eye on him whenever I got close.
Moments like this pushed forward the thought: “I’m living in a fucking zoo! And living in a zoo is awesome!”
I don’t use this word often. I’m 44, can’t surf and have never been to California, so there really hasn’t been the need. Nonetheless awesome is the most accurate terminology to describe waking up to a day that will involve breakfasting in view of elephants, exercising a tiger and making sure the leopards are fed.
While we were only really just getting a feel for the place in our two days in the Safari Park afternoons will often be spent working on enrichment projects for the animals. Anything that keeps the animals amused or occupied is for their benefit. Food is hidden about their enclosures or within puzzles the animals have to figure out to release their meal.
Costs & Volunteer Requirements
Gap year programmes involving such close contact with wildlife can be very expensive but volunteer contributions to keep the Safari Park Volunteer Initiative going are reasonable at 485THB per day (just under £9 at the current exchange rate). Food and basic accommodation is provided. While skilled volunteers are especially welcomed the only requirements are a level of fitness that can cope with working outdoors in a tropical climate and able to stay at least five days.
I absolutely loved my time at the park. It stands out as a highlight of not just this trip, but of all our travels. Deirdre didn’t enjoy herself quite so much as she thought almost every animal wanted to eat her, but still had a memorable time. She would certainly have loved feeding the giraffes but the logistical problem of getting back to Kanchanaburi with our bags meant she had to leave early and missed this.
This isn’t packaged voluntourism but real, if very enjoyable, work and I felt I was being useful the other volunteers were being of real use in improving the living conditions of the animals at the park.
Want to do this? Find out more at www.safarivolunteer.com