Les Lonsbary is calling his month long ‘work-vacation’ in Thailand, from Jan. 24-Feb. 24, a life restart.
Lonsbary, 53, will be volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary and rescue centre approximately 60 km north of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“I lived in South Korea for a couple years – I was over there teaching English (1999-2001),” said Lonsbary. “In 2010, I went back there for a bit and that’s when I found out about this project, that they have different elephant reserves and orphanages throughout Thailand. I learned a little bit about it, that they have volunteer opportunities, and just said, ‘One day… one day I’ll get back here, that goes on the bucket list,’ and that one day is in less than two weeks. I just can’t wait.”
Lonsbary, who was born and raised in Tillsonburg, remembers his time working at local family-owned farms.
“One of my very first jobs was working at a dairy farm. I just like to work around animals if I can – any type of animal. I’ve worked on all types of farms, cash crop and livestock.”
He applied for his month-long ‘volunteering vacation’ back in October, and to help get an idea of what it would be like he watched the 2019 film Holiday in the Wild several times, which takes place at an elephant nursery in Africa.
“I could superimpose myself over him (Rob Lowe) because he is right on an elephant reserve and he’s working with the elephants. I’m thinking ‘man, that will be me in a couple months.'”
The four-week program has three stages beginning at the facility where the Asian elephants go when they are first rescued, where the elephants are assessed to learn of any impairments and limitations.
“It’s been raised by humans, good or bad, so it’s totally dependent on humans for its entire survival,” said Lonsbary. “You can’t just rescue it from working in a logging camp and then drop it off into the forest and say ‘Live and have a good life.’ There’s a big transition there.”
The Nature Park, situated in a forested, hilly/mountainous region of Thailand, does not aim to set elephants free in open wilderness, but by the third stage the elephants live in an expansive (fenced) area where they can roam.
“If they want, they can come and get food. It gives them the choice how much freedom they want. For the most part, I think it’s impossible to totally ‘set them free.’ The purpose is to give them as much freedom as they can handle or want. Some of them may always want to be beside a human because that’s just where they are comfortable. Some may be okay with being hundreds of metres away as long as they can see (humans). It gives them choices. They can be off wandering or they can be right beside you.”
A typical day for Lonsbary might include harvesting food for the elephants, preparing food, feeding, maintaining the mud pit, cleaning up after the elephants, and taking them for walks (4 km from the main hub to the mud pit and 2 km to the watering hole).
“You are with them every day and the expectation is you’re going to work. You’re not there for decoration.”
His living accommodations in the first week will be a hut – literally.
“It’s not glamorous,” Lonsbary smiled. “You’re not staying in any resort. It’s basically a hut up on four stilts. They tell you it’s not lavish, but it’s comfortable. You have a laundry facility for everybody. Very limited Wifi – there will be times when you get no Wifi, nothing like that. There may not even be internet.”
His four-month term concludes with two weeks living with a mahout.
“We will actually live with them (the mahout) or their family while we care and really learn how to interact with the elephants and really learn about the elephants, not just simply care and cleaning and feeding. In a way, it’s almost training… but you’re not training. The whole idea of this is to take elephants and rescue them, elephants that have been removed from their wildlife and brought into captivity and trained to be in the circus, trained to give tourists in downtown Bangkok, trained to do tricks. So this is kind of reversing that, it’s working with the mahouts and ‘untraining’ the elephants to bring them back into more of a natural setting.”
One hundred years ago, Lonsbary said Thailand had nearly 100,000 elephants. Today, there are between 3,000-4,000.
“There’s a real need for this reserve, trying to bring them out of the entertainment industry and put them back into a natural setting where they can still breed. They are not endangered yet, but they are right on the cusp… highly at risk.”
Elephant Nature Park organizes its volunteer crew taking care of living arrangements (housing and meals) and transportation in the area, but volunteers pay their way.
“The upside is you’re with elephants every day, all day.”
It is vacation time for Lonsbary, who manages Seven Gables Tillsonburg, a bed and breakfast owned by Ed and Maureen McLaughlin.
“It’s time away, and it’s time I needed away,” said Lonsbary, who has lived at Seven Gables since it opened about two-and-a-half years ago. “This is sort of a life restart for me, that’s what I’m terming it. It’s a new starting point for me. And there’s never been a better time than now. I’ve always wanted to do it and this is the ultimate time.”
Lonsbary will be leaving for Thailand Jan. 24 and returning Feb. 25. At least that’s the plan for now.
“I’m starting off at one month, but that’s no guarantee I’m coming back after a month,” he jokes. “I don’t know. It does say if you want to stay longer, things can be re-arranged. So I don’t know, it’s up in limbo. It’s no problem for me to be away, that’s not a concern,” he said, noting he has someone in place to cover at Seven Gables while he is away, even as long as an extra month.
“It just sounds like an incredible adventure.”
FUNDRAISING FOR ELEPHANT PAVILION
While at the Elephant Nature Park, Lonsbary plans to assist building an elephant pavilion, which will provide shade. Other projects may include updating water stations and other shelters.
“Right now there is a pavilion being built and hopefully I get to be part of it. Elephants have inch-thick skin, but they are still sensitive to the sun. That’s why they need mud baths, why they go to the water holes to spray themselves. They need to be shaded, sheltered.”
As a personal fundraising project, Lonsbary is asking people to contribute to the building to the pavilion – or other Elephant Nature Park project as needed. It will not be used to fund his trip to Thailand, he noted.
“Just for a donation to go toward the building of this pavilion, and/or any other infrastructure that may be needed. Maybe they need to dig a new well.”
If you’d like to make a donation, an e-transfer can be made to Lonsbary at 519-688-7752. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
In the last two weeks of the program, while living with a mahout, volunteers might have additional projects in the community and schools.
“Elephants are really revered in Thailand and when you finish they will have a little ceremony for you, for your respect of their elephants, for your wanting to help them. They really, really appreciate that.”