THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART THREE
There are about 3000 domesticated elephants left in Thailand, down from 100,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. The wild elephant population is down to about 3000 (or even as low as 1000 by some accounts) from 300,000 in the same span of time. This qualifies the Asian elephant as endangered.
Most captive elephants in Thailand are now in tourist camps, a $15 billion-plus industry. When logging was totally banned in Thailand in 1989, the elephant trainers/owners, or mahouts, turned to the tourist camps to make money. In tourist camps elephants usually undergo cruel and abusive ‘training’ to make them perform tricks, give ‘rides’, and pose for pictures.
In Huay Pakoot the elephants won’t have to do any of that. Neither will they be forced to paint, play soccer, or beg in the streets. They will never be completely wild, either. They are here and the mahouts are here because people like me are paying to visit the village and follow the elephants around as they forage in the jungle. The goal is to turn the business of this paid volunteerism over to the people of the village itself. That’s in the future.
In the meantime, the mahouts get paid a wage comparable to what they would make if they took their elephants to the tourist camps. So the real benefit to the mahouts in this program is not the money, but the opportunity to stay at home with their families. The elephants get the best deal, since they get a chance to live better lives, free from abuse and servitude.
In Huay Pakoot, there are eight elephants in this man-made herd. The oldest are Tong Dee and Kam Suk, both in their mid to late 50’s. Kam Moon is Kam Suk’s female offspring, she’s in her 30’s. Then there’s Mana and Sen Jap, also in their 30’s.
There are three baby elephants: Bpee Mai, Mario (the only two males), and Lulu. They are five, four, and three respectively. Kam Suk, Kam Moon, and Lulu, three successive generations of elephants (Lulu is Kam Moon’s offspring), are brand new additions to the herd, and they have been here for only a couple of weeks. All the elephants are from tourist camps except for Tong Dee, who was used as a beast of burden for logging. Lulu has never been in a forest until only a couple of weeks ago.
The first time I meet the elephants I am allowed to feed them, which is thrilling beyond belief. I feed Tong Dee, who looks the oldest, even though Kam Suk is slightly older. Maybe it’s all the hard labor Tong Dee has had to endure. Her skin is saggy and wrinkly, her eyes big and sad-looking. She nudges me with her trunk for the bananas in my hand. A nudge from an elephant is like a shove from a dock worker named Moose. Tong Dee snorts, chews noisily, her trunk poking at me for more. I stare up at her.
In Hinduism and some other disciplines the god Ganesha takes the form of an elephant. He is known, among other things, as the Destroyer of Obstacles.
Later I see the photos of me feeding Tong Dee and I don’t recognize them. There is a strange smile on my face that I have never seen before. It’s like I’m looking at a different person.
I will snap hundreds of photos and videos of the elephants, but every one seems to fall short of what it’s like to actually be in the presence of one. When you see one up close and in person—and not in a zoo cage– you feel like you are looking at an animal not of this time, as if you are suddenly seeing a dinosaur stomping out of the forest.
Elephants are massive, slow, deliberate, and surprisingly quiet. Take your eye off them and they will surprise you. More than once I will pick out an isolated jungle observation post from which to safely view the creatures from a distance, only to turn around to find an elephant on top of me.
They forage at their own, relaxed pace, hoisting their trunks up like periscopes to periodically sniff the air. They are curious about us and they touch and smell each other. They snort when eating, trumpet when frustrated, squeak for who knows why. It is alarming to hear rodent sounds (albeit a large, steroid-gobbling rodent) coming from the belly of such a massive beast. They even growl when agitated or giving warning, but it’s not like say a big cat growl. It has a basso profondo rumble to it, like a giant awakening from under the earth.
Seventy percent of the day they spend eating, so they do a lot of that. Sometimes they take a few steps and just stop, pausing, eyes darting, trunk gliding a few inches off the ground. With their tufts of hair at the fringes of their lumpy heads, they look to me then like wise old men lost in thought. Every time I am near one I am struck with a sense of peace and awe.
Each day there are elephant hikes, some longer (six hours generally), some shorter (about four hours). I go on all of them. This alone keeps me busy, and there are many other things to potentially do, including attending lectures, teach English to the children or the mahouts of the village, help my host family cook, weave baskets, and more.
In 2010 I quit smoking. I had smoked for over twenty years before quitting. Up until this week I had still been chewing Nicorette nicotine gum, usually two pieces per day. I had debated whether to buy another box before I left because I had counted them all out (as an addict will do), and had almost exactly enough for the whole trip, if I kept on the two a day dose.
Quietly, almost without me noticing, I stop chewing the gum. I don’t miss it. I am among the elephants every day and I am thinking about the phrase, Destroyer of Obstacles.