Friday, July 8, 2011

You Never Forget an Elephant

"They say an elephant never forgets, but what they don't tell you is that you never forget an elephant"
I had my own cabin on a hillside at the Elephant Conservation Center.  This photo was taken from my porch.

My elephant and mahout

       We drove up into the hills of Lampang to the Elephant Conservation Center, sort of an elephant rescue place that has the largest elephant hospital in Southeast Asia and where elephants-  who would otherwise die of disease or injury, or would be killed by angry farmers, or would starve due to deforestation - are brought to live out their days in peace.  There are over 100 elephants at the center, some of which are 60+ years old and some newborns.  The old ones have seen it all - they would have been used for farming and logging, they have seen the warfare that has ravaged this region, they have been forced to clear the land of trees - effectively destroying their own habitat - and then tossed aside when no longer needed.  If anyone is interested, you can stay at the center for a night or for a few weeks if you want to take a "mahout" training course.  Mahouts are elephant handlers, but unlike circuses, at the ECC the keen intelligence of the elephants is recognized and the trainers do not use harsh training methods.  None of the elephants had scars, they weren't chained, they walked freely with large happy strides.  People who take the 2 week mahout course are assigned an elephant which they care for for their time at the center.  They bathe "their" elephant, feed it, take care of the elephant's medical needs, learn the elephant commands, clean up their poop, etc.  It must be really cool but we only had one night at the center. 

      First thing in the morning our elephants were brought to us.  Alex, a teacher from New York, and I were to share an elephant whose Thai name I can't remember, but it means "Goldie" in English.  Anyway, our first task was to earn our elephant's trust.  This is done by giving the elephant copious amounts of sugar cane.  Honestly, I don't know how those elephants can put down so many stalks of sugar cane because they don't even appear to chew it.  Tentatively I reached out my hand holding the cane and Goldie did the rest.  Her trunk stretched out, wrapped around the cane, an snatched it out of my hand before Alex could even get a photo!  Luckily we had tons of cane, so we were able to satisfy Goldie's demands for snacks and make her like us.  Feeling very cautious at first, soon I was reaching out to hug Goldie's trunk (of course she was more interested in food than affection but it was still fun) and felt perfectly comfortable around her.

Gaining the elephant's trust by feeding it some sugar cane

If I held out my hand or my camera she'd try to eat that, too.  But this is just what seemed like her 50th stick of sugar cane

Fun fact:  Elephants sweat through their toenails!

Bath time!  She would take her trunk it stick it right up to the hose to get a drink.

I had mistakenly thought that our "elephant ride" would be a few times around the lodge.  Imagine our delight when we headed off into the jungle, crossing rivers and making our way through the tropical terrain

      After getting to know the elephants for half an hour or so it was time to mount up.  Our mahout could do it by giving Goldie the Thai command to lower her trunk, then using that as a foot up onto her neck, but Alex and I got on the old fashioned way with a staircase.  Soon we were off down the road, which was cool enough, but when the elephants turned off the road and into the dense jungle I honestly felt like I was in a movie.  All around us the jungle vegetation was lush and green.  Down the valley below us ran a babbling brook in which another huge elephant waded.  Ahead of us were our Fulbright colleagues on their elephants, just as awestruck as we were at this fabulous experience.  It's hard to aim a camera from atop a moving elephant and most of the photos I was able to take were of Joe and Maeve, who were ahead of us.    (Hopefully they were able to get some shots of us that I can snag off of Facebook later on. ) We went deeper into the forest and I honestly could have stayed up there all day.  The only problem was that Goldie was a little hesitant to go down steep parts of the path, which meant prolonged periods where we were at what seemed like a 180 degree angle to the ground and I had slippery pants on... a couple of times I thought I was going to slide right off the houdah (elephant seat)!

      We lumbered along, up and down hills, through a stream or two, and finally came to a river.  As soon as I saw Maeve and Joe's elephant virtually disappear under the water I knew my feet were at least going to get wet, and they did.  Goldie took some gentle coaxing to go into the deep river, but once she did she was a trooper and she delivered us safely to the other bank - which, sadly, turned out to be the end of our ride.

Random elephant in the forest

The elephant hospital as seen from the back of my elephant

Cool, cool, cool (except this is the part where my elephant was heading straight down, almost dumping me off of her back until Alex saved me)

      After dismounting our elephants we had the opportunity to interact with some more of the center's elephant population, including a couple of babies. Then the mahouts showed us how elephants were used in logging.  Evidently up on the Burma/Myanmar border some elephants are still forced into this type of labor and are given methanphetamines to keep them working faster and longer.  Horrible!  Interestingly, the ECC serves as a "rescue" not only for the elephants themselves, but for the mahouts - who you can tell the elephants really love.  When Thailand banned logging about 20 years ago, that left thousands of elephants and their mahouts without jobs or resources.  Elephants have about the same life span as humans, so there were was a real problem about what to do with the elephants and their mahouts. However, since the ECC opened in the 1990s the mahouts and their families are cared for, the elephants have a safe haven where they're treated humanely, and neither man nor elephant has to traverse the hills which are still dotted with landmines left over from wars long past.

I thought he was gonna suck my face off... there's a lot of suction in an elephant's kiss!!

A two year old and a four year old

Bath time!  A couple of these "mahouts" are actually American or Australian - here for the multi-day training course

We happened to be there on July 4th!!

What surprised me most about the elephants was how loving they were.  The only captive elephants I've ever seen were either in tiny enclosures in a zoo, mistreated in a circus, or working the fields when I was in Asia years ago.  These were free and would come when called and cuddle with human beings they trusted.

You will not believe this, but this elephant painted this picture before my very eyes.  The mahout was talking to him, but did not physically guide his trunk at all.  I know it suspends believe, but it happened.

Yes.  This elephant painted this picture with NO physical help from his mahout.

Happy elephant!  Though a couple of the many elephants I saw at the center had chains, I never saw the chains used.  There are no fences and the elephants were roaming at will.  They responded readily to voice commands from the mahouts, and I may be a victim of propaganda, but the way it was explained to me was that they elephants needed the stimulation of being trained to do things like paint pictures and demonstrate how logging was once done by them since it was no longer safe for them to live the way they were meant to live in the wild.

I read the following in a book and wrote it down, but now I can't remember what book it's from:

"The fact that travel endangers cultures and pristine places more quickly than it used to calls for extraordinary care and on the part of today’s traveler, a keener sense of personal responsibility.  The world is not our private zoo or theme park; we needed to be better prepared before we go, so that we might become honored guests and not vilified intruders." 

      Lampang was our last stop in Thailand for awhile.  Tomorrow we head to the airport to fly to Hanoi.  As Country Joe and the Fish would say, "♪ ♪ NEXT STOP IS VIETNAM! ♫"