Second Time Around at Kao Look Change Wildlife Rescue
” The gibbons were singing when I arrived. Their lilting music as they call to each other every morning is unforgettable. The gibbon chorus is the signature tune of the Wildlife Rescue Centre. Their welcoming song made me feel good to be back among the Wildlife Friends of Thailand.
But I could hear a new voice singing, one that was there last year. It was a gibbon with a deep throaty voice, but a voice I didn’t recognise. Caroline, one of the volunteers, showed me who it was. The newcomer was a siamang. A stunningly beautiful black gibbon, the siamang has a throat sac that inflates when she sings and amplifies her deep call. I’d not seen one before and on meeting her I had to grapple with the usual mixture of emotions felt by many volunteers working at the Centre. On the one hand I am happy the siamang is in good hands and being well looked after, but on the other hand I am deeply saddened that such a wonderful animal, an animal that should be roaming wild and free in the forest, must now spend the rest of her life in captivity.
I have enormous respect for Edwin Wiek, the Dutchman who set up the Kao Look Chang Wildlife Rescue Centre in 2001. Edwin does a remarkable job, and the Centre is thriving. News of the animal rescue work at the Centre is spreading all over Thailand, and as a result more and more rescued animals are being brought here. This keeps the construction team busy building enclosures and cages to house the new animals. The Centre had expanded since my visit the previous year, with a big new enclosure for the bears. The volunteers call this the “baby bears” pen, an appropriate name because nine youngsters live there. The baby bears are undoubtedly very cute, but one look at their paws with their large claws shows they are hardly cuddly. So why anyone should think keeping a wild bear, either a Malayan sun bear or an Asiatic black bear,
One day Edwin went to the far north of Thailand to bring back yet another young Asiatic bear. This little creature had spent most of her two year life in a small cage and was very excited when released into the large enclosure. She was particularly curious about the pool because she’d not had one before. Gingerly she dipped her paw into water several times to find out what it was, then shook off the drops of water with surprise, but it was a long time before she was brave enough to sit in it. The other bears love to frolic in water, and their pools have to be cleaned out regularly, which is not one of the volunteers’ favourite jobs. The new bear was renamed Shrewy after the school that has adopted her, and I’ve since heard she has joined the rest of the baby bears and is loving their company.
The volunteers spend much of the day feeding and watering the animals and cleaning out their cages and enclosures. It takes a lot of time to prepare and distribute fruit and vegetables to more than 180 primates. Most of the gibbons are white-handed gibbons but there are a few individuals of other species like the siamang, white-cheeked gibbon and Pileated gibbon. There’s an assortment of macaques: pig tailed, long tailed, stump-tailed and Assamese macaques and beautiful dusky langurs. Meat has to be cooked for all the carnivores, among them Meow the crippled tiger rescued from a garage forecourt, the otters, Monty the mongoose, the crocodile, the civets and the curious binturong or bear cat.
The volunteers spend much of the day feeding and watering the animals and cleaning out their cages and enclosures. It takes a lot of time to prepare and distribute fruit and vegetables to more than 180 primates. Most of the gibbons are white-handed gibbons but there are a few individuals of other species like the siamang, white-cheeked gibbon and Pileated gibbon. There’s an assortment of macaques: pig tailed, long tailed, stump-tailed and Assamese macaques and beautiful dusky langurs. Meat has to be cooked for all the carnivores, among them Meow the crippled tiger rescued from a garage forecourt, the otters, Monty the mongoose, the crocodile, the civets and the curioVolunteers also clean out the pens and provide enrichments, interesting things to stimulate animals confined to cages. When that’s all finished the volunteers help out tasks like constructing new pens, clearing up rubbish and painting walls – although there was often more paint on Sarah and Mark, spattered bright green from head to toe, than on the walls. Another major project had been the construction of another new island in the lake. While I was staying a group of gibbons, which had spent most of their lives behind bars, were released onto the islands where they could swing through the trees at liberty. On both my visits I have worked with the elephants. I consider it an incredible privilege to spend time with the four enormous ladies Keota, Tia, Nong Bo and Namphon. They are such characters, Keota can be bolshy, while Namphon is serene, Nong Bo is playful and Tia is easily spooked. The mahouts can persuade these ladies with simple commands to break down trees, delicately pick fruit, accurately throw pineapples at dogs or laughingly shower visiting kids with a trunk full of water – it is an extraordinary relationship to watch. There is no longer much work for domesticated elephants in Thailand, because they have been replaced by machines. So these days many of the discarded giants are condemned to a life in the tourist trade plying the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and many are badly looked after. But the four middle-aged ladies at the Centre are lucky, they are enjoying a happy retirement.
Elephants need a lot of food and the mahouts and volunteers work together gathering food from the fields, pulling up pineapple plants and cutting down banana trees by the truckload. The elephants are also fed bananas, watermelons, sugar cane (but not too much!) mangos and other seasonal fruits. During the day they are kept in the shade under the trees because they get too hot if left in the sun, and every day they are hosed and showered and taken for a swim. Swimming with elephants is one of those things you must add to your list of “things to do before you die”. It is impossible to describe what it is like to scrub an elephant cavorting in a lake like an underwater roller-coaster, you’ll just have to try it yourself! Nong Bo, is a real water baby, she loves water and it is funny to watch her splashing and rolling around in the lake, thoroughly enjoying
At the end of the day, when they’ve done with feeding, watering and cleaning, the volunteers are free to spend their time as they wish. Volunteers come from many different nations, from many different backgrounds and are all sorts of ages – so there is always someone new to talk to. On both my visits Ronald, a retired Dutchman has been there, he adores the animals at the Centre and goes there in January to escape the winter cold in Holland. He told me he’ll be back next year for his fourth visit. Among the others I’ve met I’ll always remember Eva from Barcelona, Diane from England, Lia from Israel and share memories of digging huge holes for the elephant enclosure with Kate and Sim. There are other characters too; Elton is a free-flying hornbill, who loves to play with the poodle belonging to Mama Ki (the cook) and he often has to be persuaded not to empty all the packets off the shelf or throw the kitchen sponges into the garden. In the evening Sam, the horse, takes obvious delight in socialising with people sitting reading or watching videos, and always cleans up the left-overs in the dog bowls noisily clattering them around the floor to cries of “ssshhh go away Sam”.
In a perfect world there would be no need for Wildlife Friends of Thailand or the Kao Look Chang Wildlife Rescue Centre. Wildlife trading is wrong and illegal. It may not be right, but it does happen and in our imperfect world traders can make big money buying and selling wild animals, much as other businessmen profit from trading cars and TVs. This trade will continue as long as people buy wild animals to keep as pets. I can’t do much to prevent it in my everyday life, but when I next have time off I will be going back to Thailand again to help care for some of the victims of the wildlife trade that Edwin has rescued. The Kao Look Chang Wildlife Rescue is a crazy place but I love it. Keep up the good work Edwin! “