Pink (& grey) elephants on parade

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Pink (& grey) elephants on parade
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand


Well, I was right about one thing – not getting a good nights sleep! I neglected to mention in yesterday’s entry that Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is also sheltering about 100 or so dogs rescued from the floods further south. The dogs have formed packs and loosely divided up the territory. In the middle of the night, a single dog would lead the charge with a howl that would set off a chain reaction in surround sound. Once it reached from one end of the park to the other, it would be sent back along the same bush telegraph. This in turn would annoy the elephants who’d join the cacophony with a round of trumpeting and trunk thumping to tell the dogs to shut up. Just as I’d be about to drift off, it would start all over again.

Whilst on a related topic, I might as well come straight out with it and tell you I have fallen in love. His name is Pet though I call him ‘Sticky’, as in he always carries a stick in his mouth as opposed to being gooey (though his eyes are a bit gunky and he’s lost most of his teeth). He’s our house dog or there abouts. He doesn’t seem to belong to any pack and roams free throughout the day which seems to aggravate the other dogs who see him as an easy target. When he first came up to me with the stick in his mouth, I assumed he wanted to play fetch. I took it from him and threw it. He looked at me with the saddest eyes as if to say ‘why did you take the only thing I have and throw it away?’. He seemed so hurt by it that it was me who chased after the stick and bought it back! Clearly, it’s a security blanket and already I have seen him with a variety of different sticks depending on what’s available at any given moment.

After a buffet breakfast, we reported for duty and were assigned different tasks per group. We were on ‘watering’ which certainly sounded more genteel than ‘poo’ and less strenuous than ‘food’… until they handed us watering cans and led us down to a small plantation surrounded by barbed wire and pointed to the river where we were to repeatedly fill our cans and climb in and out through the spiky fence. It actually wasn’t too bad and many hands made light work. It was harder though once we moved further upstream under the beating sun and had to pass full cans from the river up our human chain to the garden beds at the top. I couldn’t help but think some of our tourist dollars could perhaps be diverted to buy a few lengths of hose! In fact, many of us were sure we’d seen hoses in use and became suspicious that this was ‘busy-work’ to justify the volunteer experience. Once it stopped, we didn’t mind so much.

For someone who’s hands have been soaking in ivory liquid her whole life and who’s mother constantly despaired that she ‘wouldn’t work in an iron lung’, I have to admit, I kinda enjoyed the manual labour and the sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing exactly what you’ve done as opposed to paper trails that have more of a theoretical payoff.

We got back to elephant kitchen just in time to help one of the other teams unload a ton of pumpkins before a bout of free time that was cut short by the arrival of the banana truck. Elephants eat 10% of their body weight per day and with some of them weighing in at around 4 tons – that’s a lot of food and a lot of feeding times which I was quick to enjoy again today!

In the afternoon, we were treated to a walk around the park to meet the different elephants and hear some of their stories. I won’t go into them all, if you’re interested you can read more about them here but there are a couple I found particularly heart wrenching.

Jokia was one of very many elephants who became ‘unemployed’ when the Thai Government banned the use of elephants in logging in 1989. Although the intention was admirable, little was done to protect the fate of these dispossessed gentle giants who are still classified as farm animals as opposed to wild elephants who are protected by law. As with Jokia, many of the elephants owners could no longer afford to keep them and so sold them to less scrupulous enterprises. Jokia was put to work while heavily pregnant. She wasn’t even allowed to stop to give birth which she did while working on a steep trail. Her newborn calf rolled down the side of the hill and was killed. Jokia was not allowed to go to her baby or to mourn her. In her grief, she laid down and refused to work. By way of either motivating or punishing her, her mahout took out both her eyes with a sling shot. When Lek came across her, she could not afford the asking price despite the fact that she was now useless to her owners. Lek continued to raise funds and was eventually able to bring Jokia to ENP and give her some peace.

Mae Do was put to work logging when she was only 8 years old. She was badly injured shortly thereafter making her unfit to work. Instead she was forced into breeding. Elephants socialisation is remarkably similar to our own – they have dating rituals and choose their partners – so when I tell you that her four legs were chained down before locking her in and enclosure with an aggressive and impatient bull elephant, you know we’re talking about rape. She fought him off as best she could but was no match for his strength. He brutalised and broke her so completely that it was a miracle she survived. Her keepers stood by either unwilling or unable to help. Luckily Lek found her and although irreparably and irreversibly crippled, she now lives free from her chains.

These are just two of the many stories of intolerable cruelty. A few of the elephants came to the park as young orphans, others still are victims of land mines – all are victims of human beings. Apparently it’s a true that an elephant never forgets which makes it all the more remarkable that these creatures have learned to trust people again.

What’s more extraordinary is the de facto family groups and friendships that have been formed here at ENP. Left to their own devices, elephants live in family groups their whole lives and form complex social structures not dissimilar to our own. Aside from the two babies born at ENP, the rest were forcibly deprived of that right. In its place, they have formed their own social units. I was particularly moved by the best friendships. Jokia is besties with Mae Perm – the 89 year old ‘grandmother’ of the herd and Lek’s first rescue. She acts as Jokia’s eyes and in return, Jokia keeps her young at heart and helps her get her old bones around. Mae Do is inseparable from Mae Lanna – another older lady with severe cataracts. It’s remarkable to see similar pairings where one compensates for the lack of the other and vice versa. At the moment, Mae Do has to visit the hospital daily to have a foot infection treated. The whole time she’s there, Mae Lanna stays by her side to keep her company though she is free to roam wherever she pleases.

It is not the intention of ENP to rehabilitate these elephants to return them to the wild, they would not survive. Rather this is their home and their haven. A certain amount of training is still necessary to teach the elephants certain commands (such as lifting a particular leg) to facilitate medical checks without having to fully sedated them as opposed to learning tricks to entertain tourists. Rather than subjecting the animals to the barbarous ritual of being tied down in a wooden frame and subjected to extreme physical torture whilst being starved and dehydrated in order to break their magnificent spirits and make them pliable to human will, here they use only positive reinforcement.

Of course it’s very easy for outsiders like myself to waltz into Thailand and condemn animal cruelty in all its forms from my privileged point of view. I have been humbled by Leks compassion not only for the elephants but for those in her community who have traditionally relied on elephants for survival. She and her team work within communities to educate and present alternatives to outdated and cruel practices. She has been hit on all sides by walls of resistance, especially by the Government who prefer to maintain the status quo.

O
n our walk, we were also introduced to Jodie – a long term volunteer and self proclaimed elephant-geek who amongst other things, runs a tattoo parlour right in the middle of the park! We watched her busy at work and whilst I was wondering at the hygiene factor, others were searching out body parts they could get decorated!

We also visited a few of the other residents of the park including a rescued sun bear and a severely physically disabled horse. In most of our home countries, he would have been destroyed but here at ENP, Buddhist principals are applied. It sparked a discussion amongst our group about the ethics of it all but ultimately, he was in no apparent pain and was kept company by his able bodied brother and visited by the vet daily.

At the beginning of the walk, we were each given a bunch of bananas to share with the elephants we met along the way. Although ordinarily strictly forbidden, we were even able to feed a couple of them straight into their mouths but only certain ones with their mahouts permission and supervision. I can tell you that being licked by an elephant is a strange and wonderful sensation that I won’t soon forget! At one point, we literally had to run for cover as Hope, one of the few bulls at ENP, approached. He’s in ‘musth’ which means he’s ready, willing and able to please his lady love. It also means that his testosterone levels are through the roof making the otherwise mild mannered young gent very aggressive and unpredictable. When he picked up speed in our direction, it was advised that we bust a move! He’s passed by giving us a wide berth and I have to say for the record, it did look like he was walking on 5 legs!

After dinner, the Volunteer Coordinators (VCs) had arranged a cultural class for us to teach us Thai customs and beliefs, helpful phrases and numbers and of course a song and dance routine. It was mostly a lot of silly fun but I did learn the all important phrase “I am a vegetarian” though I get the feeling that I’m not going to have a problem in this part of the world.

The team building exercise seemed to have worked as most people decamped to the bar downstairs to socialise in the bigger group. There is definitely a school camp feel to it – the cool kids are just that – kids – or at least appreciably younger. Our largest social conglomerate by far is a group of girls with an average age of 20yo, clad in varying interpretations of short shorts, oversized t-shirts and lazy high buns that seems to be so de jour. They’re all nice enough but as with school, I’ve never been a neat fit with the in-crowd, preferring the company of people with less to prove and more to say.

Aside from those I’ve already mentioned, a couple of others intrigued me tonight. Natalie was the first person I met at the ENP office – she’s bold, brash and bloody hilarious! She clearly marches to the beat of her own drum plus she has the new Florence + The Machine album which she plays loud and proud in her room adjoining mine and Rachel’s. Given there is no ceiling and only walls dividing our little quadplex, I get to sing along in the shower too. By coincidence, the other person of interest is our neighbour across the way, Keshia (or Ke$hia) – a straight talking Dutch girl (I’m yet to meet another kind) who, despite sharing certain key features of the leading demographic, is far too non-conformist or not in enough need of approval to truly be a round peg in a round hole.

Please don’t misunderstand me, everyone I’ve met so far has been lovely and like minded enough to have each paid to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary. That alone forms a far more solid basis for friendship, in my opinion, than people you might be thrown together with on a different sort of holiday. After a day of learning about the complex social structures of elephants, I had a truly enjoyable night observing and participating in a few of our own little rituals.

The group dwindled, the bar closed and we final stragglers went our separate ways back to our respective huts just as a light rain began to fall to pitter patter me to sleep.


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