Elephants are People Too!
I said good-bye to the elephants today, a week early. I had originally planned on volunteering for three weeks, but after two weeks my body told me to stop. As I have previously mentioned there is a lot of physical labor involved in taking care of such large animals- heavy lifting which includes a lot of bending, carrying banana trees – in all forms – everywhere, being on your feet constantly, either standing still or moving around with it all occurring in weather ranging from torrential downpour to tropical heat and humidity. I consider myself somewhat fit (after all I only just finished hiking around in the Himalayas!) but the combination of long days, intense physical activity, and fitful sleep wore me down enough to terminate my volunteer work at two weeks. Regardless of the aching muscles, sore feet and tired hands, however, the experience was awesome and I am glad that I did it. I was fortunate because during the two weeks of volunteering I had the opportunity to work with all of the elephants at least once, spending several days with some. It was really interesting to get to know them and learn about their various personalities.
Every elephant at the center, except for Pen, the baby, had been subjected when very young to the brutal conditioning program designed to instill fear of humans into the elephants for the purpose of establishing control of the animals. The rescued elephants at WFF, all removed from the abusive situations they had to endure during their “working” years, reacted to their changed conditions differently. The oldest elephant, Pai Lin, at around 65, taken from a trekking camp, after so many years around humans, was not comfortable around other elephants when attempts were made to introduce her to a small herd, and consequently is housed in an enclosure right next to the dining hall. Even though she prefers the vicinity of humans, she still has a mind of her own, however. Part of her routine is to take a daily walk, usually around mid-day. Last Sunday she decided that it was time to go so she plowed right through the gate of her enclosure and started meandering up the drive along her normal walking route. As it was lunch time all of the volunteers were on hand to watch the antics of the mahouts as they tried to steer her back into her pen. Rather than hurting or beating the elephant into submission, which is what happens in the “working” world, offering food and gently trying to push them in the proper direction are the methods used at the WFF. By the way, it takes a quite a few people pushing on an elephant to get it to notice- hence then entertainment value of watching the mahouts. It was hilarious- you could tell she just wanted to go and take her walk and it took quite a lot of persuading (food) and pushing to turn her around.
Another elephant, Boon Mee, is also uncomfortable around other elephants. Boon Mee is a very meek, timid elephant and every time the mahouts tried to introduce her into a herd, she broke away and ran back to the enclosure, which is located near the epicenter of human activity. She basically was afraid of the other elephants. When you consider that elephants are natural herd animals it is sad that because of her experiences the instinctive behavior to interact with her own species has been suppressed to such a degree. She also gets daily walks, but at times, even just walking past the crocodile cage (another rescue animal) spooks her enough to send her back to her comfy home. She is a really sweet elephant and extremely gentle when you feed her banana balls.
I was assigned to the Midlands area for several days, mainly working consistently with two of the ten elephants that are located at that site. The Midlands is a nice assignment, if somewhat busy, due to the number of animals co-located. Most importantly this is where the baby, Pun and her mother, Pin live in a small herd with two other female elephants. The baby, rescued with her mother, has never had to undergo the horrifying “re-education” training so her instinctive behaviors are still intact. She is very playful and always taunting one of her “aunts” or her mother by shoving her trunk in their faces, pushing on them with her body, trying to take food from them or once, when they were all in the water together, I saw her trying to climb on their backs. It is hours of entertainment watching her play. She has formed an attachment to Jele, one of the elephants in the next enclosure, and visits with her across the fence. Interestingly enough, the aunts don’t like Jele for some reason, and when Pen is near Jele’s fence, they go racing over, trumpeting loudly the whole time, and force Pen away from the fence line. Some kind of elephant mystery going on there!
I spent a lot of time watching the mother Pin although it made me very sad. Pun is her third baby, her first two got taken from her almost immediately. Along with the abuses she has had, this loss of her children has left a mark on her. She was a trekking elephant and while waiting for customers had three of her legs chained together so she could not move. This happens to working elephants a lot and they develop this habit of moving their heads side to side and at the same time moving their free leg; it is kind of like a nervous twitch. She still does this; all of the time her head is bobbing left to right, up and down while one of her legs is extending. She cannot stand still. She is also very protective of Pun and the additional two “aunts” nearby providing security, is beneficial for her.
Jele, with her pen-mate Wassana, are the two elephants I spent the most time with. Wassana is a very sweet, placid, “go with the flow” kind of elephant. Jele is highly motivated by food and every time I fed her she snatched the food out of my hand as fast as I placed it on her trunk. I had to pay attention to ensure she did not unintentionally twist my wrist in her eagerness to get the fruit. What was truly hilarious was that when we delivered their “salad”, chopped up banana tree flavored with vinegar and molasses, she would practically chase us across the enclosure to be at the trough as soon as we were. If she could, she would try to dip her trunk in the tub as we walked. Of course there was a mahout right there keeping her in check (with fruit)! Both elephants got walked in the afternoon, although Jele was not too interested in the exercise—she was smart enough to know she was going to get the fruit no matter how far she walked so only put out minimal effort into the activity.
Two of the elephants in the midlands, Alicia and Malai, got walked daily to the new, wide open habitat area called “Project 4” to spend the day then walked back in the evening. The Project 4 area, which supported other elephants as well, is designed to more or less allow them to roam freely around a fairly large area with minimal fencing. Not every elephant was ready for or capable of this kind of freedom. The final pair of elephants in the Midlands had a very close bond and were very protective of each other. When the occasional large truck or helicopter would be in the vicinity, one would wrap her trunk around the other’s, or put her trunk on the other’s head in comfort. When they are communicating they also emit what sounds like a low growl. I was startled the first time I heard it because it makes them sound angry. But apparently the low, guttural frequencies involved can be heard by other elephants over quite a distance. There was a series of other sounds it was possible to hear from time to time and I always wondered what they were saying to each other…..
The remaining two sites that I worked at, Project 4 and the Newlands, were the locations of the more independent elephants. There were six elephants at Project 4, five of whom roamed more or less freely during the day, returning to their night enclosures in the evening. These elephants knew the routine so well that it was not necessary to entice them with food, although that remains the practice. It was weirdly like watching a big dog moving around to see them responding to the mahouts commands to “go in the enclosure” or “go here or there” or “stop”. I found them also very gentle and very easy to feed. The sixth elephant at Project 4 only just arrived at the WFF in January and does not like being around people at all, having actually killed someone in the camp where she worked. There is speculation that she may be pregnant, as she eats everything and anything, but apparently since the gestation time for an elephant is two years, it is hard to tell! She stays in an enclosure the whole day and receives more enrichments than other elephants since she cannot roam free as of yet.
The Newlands site is the location of the most dangerous elephant that the WFF has in residence, a thirteen year old male. He is very aggressive and no one is allowed to interact with him except the mahouts. Volunteers are normally are prohibited to come within 3 meters of his enclosure walls. The exception is when the banana balls are delivered in the morning and the evening. At such times the mahout lures the elephant, Khan Kluey, to the far corner of the enclosure with a few banana balls, and while he is distracted the morning team runs up to set his remaining banana balls on top of the enclosure wall. Once the volunteers are safely away, the mahout finishes with the food and Khan Kluey moves towards the wall to gather up the rest of the banana balls with his trunk. He has a long trunk and is constantly sticking it over the wall looking for things to grab, whether that is people, rocks to throw, or other items to pull into the enclosure with him. Hence the importance of maintaining some distance from the enclosure. He has an adopted mother, Somboon, theoretically who helps to keep him calm, shares the enclsoure although that did not stop him from ripping up all the trees, leaving the whole area completely barren. The groundskeepers are in the process of re-planting trees in the enclosure, accompanied by large metal cages surrounding the trees to keep him away.
Somboon is actually a very curious elephant. One day when Khan Kluey safely locked away, we went into their enclosure to do some cleaning. At one point I stood up, glanced behind me to see her standing one foot away. She had walked over to find out what we were doing (the mahout was right next to her, of course). It turns out that elephants, despite their size, can move around quite quickly and quietly. I was certainly startled, but gave her a friendly pat on the trunk to say “hello” when I found her right there.
Finally there are three elephants that are a mini-herd that have a fairly large, natural habitat enclosure and only interact with people when there is food involved. Two of them are quite close and the the third is another meek elephant who tends to get bullied a bit by the other two. Consequently when you feed them it is important to make sure that the meek one gets finished first so the other two don’t try to take her food. I have seen some of the bullying, in the form of pushing her into the bushes, or biting her on the back. Why they do this is another elephant mystery!
It was an incredible experience to have an opportunity to get so close to such complex and fascinating creatures, especially to observe the differences from individual to individual as well as some group behavior. Elephants, while massive, are graceful and beautiful as well as being a species under stress. Please remember this as you consider how you are engaging with them in your tourist activities.
The next leg of my journey takes me to Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand full of temples and an intact old city center. Most importantly, too, it puts my in a place where I can start watching the World Cup games that started last Thursday! There was no accessible TV at the elephant center and I am pretty sure I missed a couple of outstanding games already. I am also looking forward to a decent shower and having dry, clean feet and clean clothes. (Finally, for the record, I am happy to not be carting around banana trees on my shoulders anymore…..!)