At the turn of the 20th century, there were more than 100,000 Asian elephants living in the jungles and forests of Thailand. Today, the total number of animals is estimated at 3-4,000, with almost half of those living in captivity.
For thousands of years, Asian elephant roamed a huge swath of this continent, ranging from India to Borneo. The species is slightly smaller than its African counterpart and with smaller ears, to boot. Currently, their total numbers in Asia amount to less than 10% of their larger African brethren.
Over the centuries, these mammoth creatures have been used and misused by humans in both productive and deplorable ways. Until 1989, when the deforestation of Thailand ground to a halt due to long overdue government regulations went into effect, they were invaluable in logging operations to move and remove large groves of timber, Teak and Scotch Pine, primarily. After this ecological disaster was halted, the elephants were repurposed for use by the tourism industry. Some, however, were malnourished, injured (landmines and/or work-related, untreated injuries) or sick and needing assistance. Hence the origin of groups like The Thai Elephant Conservation Center and The Elephant Nature Park, a Chiang Mai based facility that I visited earlier this week.
Tours to the park commence at their offices in the old city, where dozens of people gather daily to await the announcements for their specific group’s scheduled departure. There are a variety of tours available, ranging from just a few hours, to full seven-day volunteer immersion opportunities.
The day I went was memorable from the get-go, if nothing more than the fact that it was the chilliest and wettest day in the past year, with temps dropping overnight from daily highs in the 90’s to the low 50’s. The locals have a sweater or jacket on hand for these inevitable, albeit rare, temperature dives. Tourists, on the the hand, had brought little of use, requiring some creative combinations of styles, layers and fabrics. The torrential, yet intermittent, rain added to the discomfort of the 90 minute ride to the park in a packed 15 passenger van, better suited for a group of 10-12. Our tour consisted of visitors from Hong Kong, Australia, Spain and the United States, if I recall correctly (I always feel compelled to ask everyone I meet, at least once). The last 15 minutes were the worst, as we entered the grounds of the compound driving down a misty, narrow, rock-strewn dirt road through rain-filled potholes. To add to the memory, on the return trip we had a flat tire and were delayed an additional 30 minutes while it was repaired, reminding me of the risks of signing up for group tours in the first place (can you say caveat emptor?).
The facility itself is huge and more built-up than I had imagined. We soon encountered a young group of staff and volunteers, known to work long hours to feed and maintain the reserve’s population, as they were unloading and preparing meals for the animals.
The grounds include huge areas of open space, housing for the staff and volunteers enrolled in the residency program, facilities for meals, bathrooms and a small gift shop, a highly sophisticated veterinary building and numerous covered structures for protection from severe weather or searing sun – for animals and humans.
In addition to the elephants, the facility is home to abandoned, neglected, abused, rescued, orphaned and/or distressed dogs, cats, birds, water buffalo and others. The larger animals are kept in specific areas, but the smaller ones wander freely – everywhere. All seemed healthy, well-fed, playful and energetic. We were told to avoid the dogs wearing red scarves, however, as they had come from difficult environments and were still getting acclimated to their new home. Local farmers contribute much of the food consumed, with other products purchased via a variety of discounted and wholesale supplies all over Asia.
A tranquil river snakes through the property, providing ample areas for the elephants to bathe and play in during the predominately warm, humid weather.
Asian elephants are maternal family units, with a strong female as the lead of a herd that can comprise several generations. Males tend to wander independently with non-family groups, but return periodically for briefs visits and to mate (humanoid in that way, n’est pas?). Uniquely to the species, Asian Elephants have an extended gestation period of 22 months and babies are not considered fully weaned until five or six years of age. And you have to love the fact that a “baby” in this part of the world weighs in at around 200 pounds, at birth!
Elephants use their trunks to bring items up to their mouths, to breath and as a tool to show affection, happiness or even displeasure with a rowdy family member (or, as we were told, to park guests). There is a finger-like protrusion toward the end of the tip that allows a unique ability to grab onto food. Speaking of, they eat almost constantly. In fact, on a daily basis, they consume 10% of their total body weight. If they were human, that would equate to a 150 pound man eating 15 pounds of food every day. Hello, Chris Christie!
These huge creatures are extremely sociable and playful. They are also highly intelligent, considered on a par mentally with the most advanced primates and mammals. They’re always eager to wallow in mud, roll a car tire across a field, or race furiously with their canine buddies who are wise enough not to get too close to errant tusks or feet.
The skin of Asian elephants has a furry, tender leathery feel. Surprisingly, they have a refined sense of touch and love to be petted, stroked and rubbed. Up close, I was most impressed and fascinated with the skin colors and textures of their ears. The tails have a scattering of long, fine bristles allowing them to quickly and efficiently swat insects. After bathing, they are known to spray their backs with mud to both protect from the sun and biting flies and mosquitoes.
Our group spent the better part of the afternoon in a sodden, muddy field with all the animals with nary a single complaint from any of us. Watching the playful and social interaction with one another was a treat (the elephants, not our group). Although these photos do not capture their spirited antics as well a I had hoped, it was fun to see how animated they can be. Staff were there to help guide them, if necessary, without once using anything more than hand and arm movements or voice orders. No one shouted or showed a least bit of anger or control – and the animals responded accordingly. Unlike many zoos, circuses and attractions, these animals are trained using only positive reinforcement methods, much like the process with domesticated animals in other parts of the world. Any form of pain, prodding, electrical tool or sharp object is forbidden.
Provisions are made for protected play, and natural and manmade structures that can be used as scratch posts are provided. Trees are surrounded by fences to keep the older animals from pushing them down, a learned behavior from their logging days. Other tree trunks are elevated horizontally to allow for “easy-access scratching convenience” (humans, take note). As we saw while there, just about anything can be used for that purpose – and is.
Fires were being set throughout the park to warm the area, as the animals were being affecting by the cooler-than-usual temperatures. Between the low-lying clouds and the smoke from the fires, it created an eerie atmosphere as we walked around the park. It helped seeing the spirit houses close to the main lodge, however, especially after having learned about their purported ability to ward off bad spirits and bring good luck and health to the area!
Getting as close to the animals as possible was a treat and an honor. Some of the other tours include an “opportunity” to bathe the animals in the river. Surprisingly, not an experience included on my current bucket list. I was just as happy to see them up close and personal on such a rare cool day in Northern Thailand; to capture their beauty and majesty and…dare I say it….soul.
If you’d like to read more about the Elephant Nature Park and the important work they are doing to provide sanctuary for a variety of hurt, abandoned and/or endangered species, particularly Asian Elephants, click here: Facts – Elephant Nature Park. For further background on the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, click here: Facts – Thai Elephant Conservation. Both are doing astonishing work to save and nurture Elephas maximus.
Special thanks to my friend Mark Gaulding (of the Lubbock and Palm Desert Gauldings, as I’m fond of saying) for suggesting this update. Honestly, I had avoided seeing the elephants because I had become aware of their historically dismal treatment by idiots of the human kind. Even now, in parts of this very country (and around the world), the inexcusable abuse, ultimately for financial gain, continues. I’m glad I chose to go, however, and thank Mark for the nudge.
I’d like to end with a couple of quotes relating to both the elephant and to our relationships with animals overall. First, from American writer Alex Shoumatoff:
Elephants are not human, of course. They are something much more ancient and primordial, living on a different plane of existence. Long before we arrived on the scene, they worked out a way of being in the world that has not fundamentally changed and is sustainable, and not predatory or destructive.
And finally, as an appropriate wrap-up to what I discovered and witnessed first hand about the Asian Elephant this past week, from British veterinarian and writer James Heriott:
If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.