The morning of our elephant tour, we woke bright and early without an alarm clock. We enjoy a quick coffee, then we are whisked away for an hour and a half drive in the bed of the small pickup truck. Exhaust fumes tickle my nose and burn my eyes, but I’m too happy to care. Today, I will meet an elephant.
As we arrive at our chosen elephant sanctuary, I am met with the smell of warm summer grass, sunflowers, and dust. We park next to a row of bamboo huts - homes for the Mahouts and their families to live nearby their elephants. It isn’t long before I spy an elephant swinging a tuft of grass over its head to shoo flies away or maybe brush an annoying dead leaf caught in the bristles of her hair. ELEPHANTS!!!
We are shuffled with our group into a waiting area with picnic tables. There, we are given new clothes to wear. Did you know Elephants have poor eyesight? They can only see clearly up to about 30 feet. Apparently these clothes help the elephants see us better, and therefore remain happy and calm. Andrew looks so handsome in bright yellow scrubs, don’t you think?
Next, we are shuffled over to a bamboo shade hut where we learn additional fun elephant facts. Elephants have a better sense of smell than any other species of animal. They also have excellent hearing with those big floppy ears, and they are very talented with the use of their trunks! While we learn, we mash together a glop of healthy food into an “Elephant Vitamin” to help with digestion.
We are each given a tub of bananas, we add our Elephant Vitamin to the pot, then toddle down a footpath into a different area of jungle where we meet our group of elephants for the first time. A baby peeks through the trees to see us coming - she has big plans for how to acquire the most bananas first!
As soon as we reach the open area where the elephants wait, the baby squeezes herself beneath the barrier log and helps herself to whichever pot of banana is the closest! “Going in on the drive by!” She says as a little girl romps past with a bucket of bananas.
The next pot she spies happens to be Andrew’s. “Hey, there little one!” Andrew says. But, before Andrew can finish his greeting, the baby has pinched three bananas in the very end of her snout and curled them into her mouth.
The baby offers a toothy grin as she reaches back in for more.
Baby clears Andrew out of bananas in the span of seconds, then wanders away to find someone else with a good stash. Andrew takes his bucket of sugar cane and offers it to one of the BIG MAMAs.
Their dexterity with the tips of their trunks is astounding. I pass over the camera and make my own offering.
The Mamas hang back with their Mahouts behind a railing I know they could smash in a matter of seconds if they so choose. They don’t need to, though. They reach out to me with their long, long trunks and pick and feel blindly through my bucket to find what they are looking for: MY ELEPHANT VITAMIN. Mama curls her trunk around the Vitamin and flings it backward into her mouth in one swift move. Then, she’s back in, grabbing bananas and sticks of sugar cane. She can hold many in her trunk at one time - pinching them in the end then deftly rolling them back into a curl that she holds for later. Like a kid gathering armfuls of candy from a Trick-Or-Treat bucket, she doesn’t waste time reaching back and forth to her mouth until she can no longer hold anymore.
Why waste time putting them in her mouth one at a time???
Every once in a while, the trunk brushes my hand. The end is slobbery and snotty at the same time, with bristling whiskers. Their eyelashes are thick and long, fuzz bristles atop an otherwise bald head and collects little bits of dust and leaves as the day goes on. Their ears flop forward and back, continuously in time with a slow waltz; they play the same percussion you’d expect from the flap of a heavy, leather flag.
What is even better, they seem pretty happy to have us around. A wide smile often pulls at the corner of even the be-tusked mouths of the gents…at least as long as we keep feeding them!
When they clear us out of bananas and sugar cane, we are instructed to fetch long fronds of greenery from the hillside for more Pachiderm-Culinary-Delight. All the elephants - except the baby - wait patiently for us to return with more food. “SCMONTCH, SCMONTCH, SCMONTCH” This is the sound they make as they swing whole tree branches from my hand up to their mouth, chewing, chewing, chewing.
After they are happily fed, it seems they are willing to mill about and let us touch them, pose for pictures, and get up close and personal. The Mahouts encourage us to get closer and play, but I am a tad nervous. These guys are big. I edge closer to one of the elephants in hopes of getting a photograph, but I can feel another big guy coming up behind me on my other side. Even Andrew gets nervous “Les…uh…Les!” He says as I am getting squeezed between these two half blind dump-truck sized animals. I scurry away, but Andrew cautions me “don’t move fast!”
They aren’t aggressive, and this group seems pretty relaxed. But just one errant footstep with one of these big feet could crush my own! Luckily, elephants have an extremely developed tactile sense and their feet are very sensitive. So, apparently, they know where they plan to step.
After a while, we give the elephants some alone time while we humans eat a nice lunch.
Next up: Mudbaths!
The elephants were lead into a mud puddle and instructed by their Mahouts to sit down. Once they were settled, we were instructed to scoop up some mud-goop (and doubtedly POO!) from the bottom of the mud puddle and use our hands to smear and scrub the elephant from top to bottom. My elephant, (introduced to us by his Mahout as “Lady Boy” because of his less than fully developed tusks*) waited patiently, flapping his ears, while I scooped up mud, smeared it on the top of his head and down his neck. “Oooh, those are some bristly hairs you have atop your head, Mr. Lady!” I say. The skin feels exactly as I imagined: thick and leathery with wrinkles that rumple under my hand as I apply the mud-mask. “Excellent for your pores!” I tell him, rubbing in circles to make sure I exfoliate properly. Even with Lady Boy plopped down in the mud and me standing at full height, he is taller than me. “Now, don’t you roll over on me.” I say, feeling uneasy as I think about myself as a Leslie Mud-Pancake.
After the mud bath, we follow the elephants down to the river to clean off. Again, the elephants are guided to sit down and we take large buckets of river water to rinse off the mud. The river is cold, and feels great on this hot sunny day. Lady Boy sticks his trunk in the water and helps me wash the mud off until….
“Sllluuurrrrrppppp!” He sucks up a load of water, cocks his trunk at the perfect angle and douses me! I’m SOAKED!
“HEY!” I whine. He turns his head to look at me, and I swear his eyes sparkle with the sugar crystals of mischief.
“Everyone get together for a group picture!” We all squeeze in and smile until the Italian girl starts a water fight. There is screaming and water being flung into the air. One or two of the elephants join in, spraying water into the sky with their trunks. But, Mr. Lady Boy gets nervous, and his Mahout leads him away for some alone time. He obviously became stressed.
To be honest, the water fight made me stressed. Andrew and I both wanted to shout: “PEOPLE! We are standing with 4 ton animals behind our backs!” But I didn’t know how to say this in Italian.
Out of the river, we take turns getting photos with the elephants with their trunks up. This is one of the first tricks a Thai elephant will learn. Most Thai elephant figurines are made with their trunks up. Trunk up symbolizes victory over the selfish use of will; trunk down symbolizes docility in use of the will and is mostly considered unlucky. It is so cute, but how were these elephants trained to strike this pose? They are rewarded today with yummy banana treats. Maybe that is all that it takes.
Try as I might, words and photos cannot express the magic I felt meeting these elephants. The experience gave me a one-day taste of the observations now emerging in science that these animals are capable of creativity, thought, love, mourning, and even self-awareness. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-is-in-elephants-are-even-smarter-than-we-realized-video/ I enjoyed the experience very much. But what about the elephants?
The sanctuary we chose seems to treat both the elephants and their Mahouts well. The Mahouts seemed well in tune with their elephants, and felt free to remove them from the interaction as soon as the elephant gave any indication of stress. Honestly, from all outward appearances, these elephants seemed to enjoy our company most of the day. But, Is that enough? How do I justify my attendance at this sanctuary when, despite wise action by the Mahouts, these elephants still sometimes experience stress from human interaction?
Here is the additional fact that turned my thinking on this question. In India alone, wild elephants are known to destroy crops worth up to $2-$3 million US annually. Bist, S. S. (2006). "Elephant conservation in India – an overview" (PDF). “Elephants either make money for the Thai people or they are giant crop eating pests.” Andrew argues.
The fact is, wild Asian Elephants are endangered. The highest contributor to this problem is loss, degradation, fragmentation of habitat as a result of human built farming, cities, and industry. When an elephant must compete with a human for space, who wins? Add to this problem the market for elephant skin and tusks for both Chinese medicine and other baubles, and you have a difficult space for the elephant to thrive in the wild. They are hunted, and they have very few places to go. Furthermore, as of the last count made in 2007, there were 3,456 elephants in captivity in Thailand alone. It would be nice to imagine setting these elephants free to roam wild in their natural habitat with no trouble from humans, but it seems to me to be an unrealistic goal at this point in our human/global/elephant reality. There isn’t adequate space in the wild for these animals to exist separated from humans (at least not in Thailand), and without tourism, what sanctuary or preserve can afford to support that many elephants?
I hate to be this pessimistic, but follow the money. With tourism, there is motivation to save this species. Without? I have my doubts.
But, wait. If we are being honest as we can be, the bottom line is I wanted to see elephants. I am willing to consider the possibility that all of this hemming and hawing is only a puppet show used to soothe my cognitive dissonance between my self image as an environmentally aware person who wouldn’t want to abuse animals for my entertainment and the fact that I went to visit an elephant in Thailand. This is more to my point. If I am so selfish as to make that decision for my fun and entertainment, what chance do these elephants have against a poor farmer who is having to decide between defending the crops that feed his family and preserving a wild elephant running roughshod over his land? Good sanctuaries that help educate people and care well for the elephants and their Mahouts seem like a reasonable bridge between the tyrannical abuses this animal population currently experiences and the ideal future when humanity shifts their entire ecological perspective and elephants can return to the wild to enjoy their life free of human interaction.
This is my current theory; I do not know if I am right.
At the beginning of this two part series, I stated there must be a deeper life lesson embedded in our elephant experience. Even after sitting on this for almost two months I’m struggling to put my finger on anything more insightful than the old adage: “Buyer Be Aware.” The flow of a consumer’s money is one of the most powerful forces on Earth. Send the message that you are willing to let baby elephants be tortured so you can get a great selfie, and that service will no doubt be provided.
** P.S. No need to yell at me for referring to the elephant as “Lady Boy”. In Thailand, the term Lady Boy is used in common practice everywhere, and it does not seem to be associated with any negative judgment. In upcoming posts, I will undoubtedly write more about this phenomenon. But for now, rest easy that I do not intend any offense to either elephants or transgender individuals by reporting this elephant’s name as it was provided for me, and I accept that there are many debates that could be had around whether it is right or wrong to utter the phrase “Lady Boy”.