Friday, January 21, 2011

I Was Wrong

That nonsense I said about sixty individuals being too large a group to be intimate with? I (we) have gotten to know each and every one of them, some closely some and some through chores or waiting in the buffet line. It's really not that difficult to get to know people particularly when you all are coming in with a common vested interest: to understand the plight of, contribute to the care of, and help spread awareness of these endangered elephants. I consider each and every volunteer and staff member my friend. Being part of 'Group A' allowed for a deeper level of friendship... We saw Chris and Lisa get engaged on Thursday (her birthday too!), we have gotten offers to visit and stay with our new friends in Gurnsey, New Zealand, Melbourne and Sidney Australia, Ottawa Canada, etc by friends who genuinely mean it. We've talked about anything and everything. We've shoveled shit together, and wiped (elephant) snot off each others faces and consoled and stuck up for each other when ignorant day trippers made insensitive and foolish remarks. I am proud and fortunate to have met and worked with such a selfless and wonderful group of friends.

From left to right: Emily, Lisa, Sabine, Chris, Imogen, me and Lisa.

The volunteer coordinators that made it happen: Chet (purple), Nat (green) and Ekk (blue)

Elephant Walk Part II

After bath time, we find out that we get to another elephant walk today. The nice thing about this walk is that Nat is going to take us this time. It's nice to be able to get a different perspective from volunteer coordinators. Nat is able to tell us a lot of history behind the elephants that we meet on our walk, the living one and the one that have passed away.

He takes is to a large mound covered in flowers. It's not until he points out the headstone that we realize it is an elephant grave. This is one is for Lala who died at the age of seven. When Lala was a baby, she was taken away from her mother and brought to the resort beaches of Phuket, Thailand. She was brought there for the purpose of entertaining vacationers. She would walk the beaches begging for food and as such, her diet became that of humans rather than an elephant. She was rescued six years later at the age of seven by the Elephant Nature Park. She was a very friendly elephant with the mahouts but had a little trouble socializing with other elephants since she was not raised around them. Approximately a month into her stay at the sanctuary, she laid down and refused to get up. This means one thing when an elephant does this, they will die. About 24 hours later, she died.

The ENP staff was surprised and devastated at the sudden death of Lala. An autopsy was perform on her to determine what had happened. When they removed the heart and weighed it, it was 10 time the normal weight. It was surrounded in excessive fatty tissue that one would typically never see in an elephant, but her years of beach begging resulted in a massive heart attack. I find this cruel and believe that she died of a heavy heart. Poor little thing, at least she was returned to her roots and lovingly cared for before she finally passed.

As we walk across the fields to meet the next elephant, Nat tells us a story about the herd of water buffalo that we walk by that were also rescued by Lek and reside permanently at the Sanctuary. Notice the white water buffalo to the right:

She is an albino buffalo and was rescued as a baby after her mother was killed. When she came to the sanctuary, apparently she was confused about which species she belonged to and kept going to the herd of cows, that are cream colored (much like her). The staff would bring her back to the water buffalo herd, but she would always return to the cows. It wasn't until her horns started growing that she seemed to realize that she was a water buffalo and finally returned to her herd.

The land here is actually home to many different animals, all of which have been rescued. There are 35 elephants, 70+ dogs, 10+ cats, 32 water buffalo, 18 cows, 1 pony and 1 baby black bear. Aside from the bear, who lives in a tree, little would house and all, all these animals live together on the same land, uncontained, passing by one another everyday. It says something to me that all these different animals can be living on the same piece of land, all tolerating one another, living peacefully. A trumpet or a bark or charge serves as a warning but that is it. We humans should try and learn from this.

The next elephant we see, but only form a distance, is ???. Volunteers are not permitted to get too close to her because she still has emotional issues. she is another elephant, like Lilly, was was fed amphetamines in order to keep her working around the clock. She had a shackle on her front leg with a heavy chain that her previous owners used to keep her chained when she wasn't working. While she was working, they never removed the chain but would make her carry it wrapped around her head. When she was finally rescued and brought to the sanctuary, the chain was removed. ??? was agitated and would not eat. Lek and the vet got very worried and removed her from the other elephants believing that the other elephants were causing stress. When the chain was put back on her leg to keep her from going to the other elephants, she started eating again, They were able to determine that ??? could not function unless she had her chain. It's been about three years now and they have been able to remove the chains and just have a light rope tied to ankle. She has found a natural place in one of the elephant herds as well, but as Nat says, she still has some mental pain. She is getting better, but the progress has been slow. My heart cries for these elephants who are learning how to just an elephant, and in my own way, I can understand that feeling, that mental pain. But ultimately, I am thankful for this place that has allowed them the freedom and the dignity that they deserve.

Last Bath

It's 1:00 which means bath time for the elephants. This never gets old and it seem that the 4598437613498761364 pictures that I have taken from previous days baths should be enough. But it's not. Little Faa Mai and Chang Yim frolicking in the mud always warms my heart. Big sister to Faa Mai, Tong Jan is still playful in the mud too. It is amazing to me that with all the mud wrestling, none of the elephants get hurt or step on each other.

To the left is Hope who joins the ladies and babies for a mud bath.

Tong Jan (big sister) and Faa Mai (little sister) pig pile each other gently, while Mae Bua Tong watches over her daughters.

Faa Mai and Chang Yim decide to explore the other side of the river. In general all the elephants seem a little mischievous today. They are are reaching for flowers on the trellises and trying to get through fenced off areas. :)

Chang Yim and his mahout, Carl

Just Do It

We have met a lot of wonderful people here, truly international which has been a treat. We have met one family in particular whose travels I really appreciate. The family is from Ottawa Canada. MaryAnn is a family physician and Dave is a Prosecutor. They have two children, Madelaine who is ten years old and their son, Jake, who is thirteen. Both have taken leave from their jobs for one year and pulled both children out of school for the year as well. They have decided to home school their kids while traveling during this 'time off'. They are six months into their travels and will be completed by the start of summer. What an amazing experience for the children and the family and I am completely impressed that they have made the effort and the time to do this. I spoke to Dave quite a bit about this and he said as a family, they are thoroughly enjoying their time traveling. Their kids are learning things that they would never learn in the classroom. Maryann added that the challenges of being together too much (this can be difficult on the 13 year old son and even their daughter sometimes) is a worthwhile cost. They are very aware if this and do make an effort to allow their kids the opportunity to do things without them, to give them a little space. I spoke very briefly to both kids who are both well spoken, pleasant and very down to earth... much like their parents. It was particularly nice listening to Madelaine talk about their past six months and what she liked or disliked in great detail. What a great gift to be able to give your kids and your family, they have my deepest admiration.

Dave and Maryann, who jokingly said when I took their picture, "This is what happens when you travel together for a year..." Another machete break taking moment from cutting grass. I love these guys.

Chain Gang

Today morning chore is probably the most labor intensive. We will be taking a 45 minute ride in the back of a truck to go chop grasses for the elephants. The prior days the other groups were cutting corn stalks, which are easier to cut since the plant itself is a little stiffer. We know that the grasses will be a bit tougher but we are prepared. It's a beautifully sunny and warm morning and the camaraderie that has developed within Group A is awesome. We are advised to grab old used shirts provided by the sanctuary to wear over our clothes since this is messy work. We grab gloves too since we will be yielding machetes.

Here are Sabine and Lisa trying to find a comfortable location on the truck.

Sabine and I realizing that we should have taken our sunglasses which are sitting on our beds back at our hut.

Sabine and I become suddenly aware that we did not take any motion sickness medicine for the ride. I get motion sickness from everything. Even my own driving sometimes. Especially when I am driving fast and on curvy roads. Sabine and I make the best tactical decision and decide to face fowardish in the truck and keep our faces looking out of the slat rails of the truck (instead of facing our friends). We are all standing because of the remnant dry grasses and dust on the floor of the truck left by the last grass-cutting crew. The truck starts on the winding roads to get us out of the jungle and onto the main roads. This last for about twenty minutes and we are all surprised at how incredibly fast the driver is driving, particularly since it is such a curvy road. We all are clutching the rails and even the guys are saying, 'I hope he doesn't tip the truck'.

Our volunteer guide for today's chore is Ekk and he is the only one who is sitting on the floor of the truck. He looks queasy and tired and is very quiet, very unlike Ekk. We then realize that he is hungover. Last night, one of the mahouts, Hope's mahout, got married. Everyone including the volunteers were invited to the reception which was in a nice little backyard area of the village. Volunteers made their appearances out of respect (in Thailand you invite the entire village to the wedding which ends up being an all day affair) but we didn't stay long. Ekk and the other volunteer coordinators and staff of the Sanctuary stayed out late in celebration. They do not tend to drink much, so any amount of alcohol can cause a hangover the next day. It is sort of funny to watch Ekk suffering, but I also feel bad for him. He is such a nice lively guy and he is clearly uncomfortable.

About ten minutes before our destination, I can feel my stomach getting queasy and I am suddenly praying that I do no throw up on the truck. When we finally arrive, I hope off the truck quickly and walk around to see if I can settle my stomach. In as few words and gestures as possible, Ekk gets the sack of machetes, tells us how to hold the machetes and how to collect the grasses. He plops down a first aid kit and suggests we count all fingers before we get started. We are all actually pretty eager to start cutting the grass, so everyone grabs there machete and look for areas where we can work without getting in each others way. Sabine finds a spot close to the truck and starts hacking away.

I fall in ditch and decide to stay in it to start my work.

This machete business is hard work, but perfect for having random conversations and just enjoying each others company. We help each other when we get stuck or have a huge bundles of grass to move and I smile at the success of our mentally effortless teamwork.

After 45 minutes, Lisa and I decide to take a break under the banana trees. It's HOT out.

Sabine decides to check on us.

Then we all decide to take a break. (Imogen, Sabine, Dave and Mary Ann)

I could get used to this...

We finish cutting and bundling a truck full's worth of grasses. Normally, we would be tying the bundles and loading them into the truck, but Ekk wants to make sure we get back to the Sanctuary in time for the noon feeding of the elephants. Good call, Ekk! Today is the last day here for me and Sabine, so we want to make sure we get to participate and see as much as possible before we leave.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Elephant Walk

After lunch, we get a break from afternoon project and are told that we can go on the Elephant Walk. This is similar to the Eyes Team walk we did yesterday except that instead of staying with one mahout and watching and spending time with his elephant, we stay with our volunteer coordinator and we go to see as many of the elephants and their mahouts while we walk the fields. We are very excited about this since we will get to see and get close to many elephants.

Ekk is our guide for today's walk and he starts off by having us all get a bunch of bananas so that we can feed the elephants that we come across during our walk. I hang my banana bunch on the shoulder strap of my water bottle, hands free! This is the sweet and adorable and stylish Ekk:

We start walking out to the fields to the left of the central meeting/dining area and head towards the mother and baby ele shelter. Tong Jon the six year old female elephant, is there with a two other eles. Ekk tells us that she loves to kiss people and will happily kiss anyone in exchange for one banana. When he asks who would like an elephant kiss, I eagerly, sort of hopping up and down excitedly, call out, 'I want a kiss!' Ekk smiles and waves me next to him. I put my cheek towards Tong Jon's face and she smacks it with a sloppy and awesome kiss. I recently described this to a friend but I must share it. The tip of her trunk (as with all eles) is wet and muddy from constantly brushing against the ground stirring up dust. The kiss is big and noisy and makes an incredible suction and sort of pulls your cheek from your face like a vacuum might, making a smacking noise as she releases it. Tong Jon is a big kisser and my scrunching face is actually sheer bliss from the kiss. The kissing part itself is strong and rubbery and cold and curious. I gladly give her two bananas.

Sabine welcomes a kiss as well and I can see the sheer contentment in her face. Who wouldn't love an elephant kiss?

The other volunteers follow suit too and the air is filled with the constant squeals of delight and heebee jeebies.

After the kissing is done we walk over to the next elephant shelter where one elephant has been contained during our entire stay this week. She was rescued a few months ago after the death of her baby (while giving birth). She had been depressed but soon discovered the two babies that live at the sanctuary, Faa Mai and Chang Yim. She attempted to trunk hug one of the babies, but since she was not part of the natural herd, the mother 'nudged' her backside with her teeth leaving a good sized bruise on her body. The mother continued to push her away by leaning into her and causing her to break her back leg. So since November, she has been quarantined in the safety of her shelter. Since she has not been able to walk, all her meals are brought to her. The mahouts have made a 6 foot wide, 3 foot deep, 3 foot high dirt mound for her to lean against when she sleeps. This is to simulate laying down since she is unable to lie down on the ground for now -- she would never be able to get up. We look at her face and she looks sad and alone and I feel bad and sorry for her. She seems to welcome our company and I notice too that her eyes light up when her mahout goes to her. I give her almost half of my bananas...

We walk just a few feet over to the next elephant that is grazing in the field. Her name is Mae Boon Ma and she is an almost white elephant, making her one of the most special in all of Thailand. These elephants are extremely rare, very sacred and highly revered. In fact, Thailand used to be known as the land of the white elephant, and the old flag of Siam featured a magnificent white elephant on a red background. Today, very few of these beautiful creatures remain. The King and Queen in Thailand keep only white elephants.

To be confirmed a true white elephant, an expert must examine the animal and check that certain characteristics are present. The criteria are rather specific, but in short, they require that the elephant has:

    * Pink skin
    * White palate
    * White body hair
    * White tail hair
    * White genitalia
    * White nails
    * White eyes

In Thailand, an elephant with all seven characteristics is considered a white elephant. Mae Boon Ma displayed only five of these seven characteristics. She was first a logging elephant and later used as a trekking elephant. By the time she was rescued by the sanctuary, she was in pretty bad shape: tiny, very bony and could hardly stand; lack of food, complete physical exhaustion and severe abuse over a long period of time had created severe psychological and eye problems. She continues to recovers but as Ekk (and Nat) say of some of the eles at the park, 'she has lot's of mental issues', something they equate to emotional pain. Ekk and Nat are very perceptive and compassionate towards the elephants which is touching to see.

Next we walk to the Elephant Medical Center which is obviously where the elephants go for care. We have seen the vet who is very compassionate and gentle with the elephants. This too warms me to see the care and attention that all these elephants deserve and are finally receiving.

In the distance, we can see Mae Do, the sweet elephant that lives with a permanently dislocated (from breaking) back and hip. Mae Do is one of the elephants that has gotten to know me and Sabine quite well. As we approach her, she very slowly continues to hobble towards us. She doesn't stop until she is inches from our faces. Both Sabine and I give her the rest of our bananas, and once they are gone, she continues to stand next to us. She gets even closer to Sabine and turns her face to the side so that she can look right at Sabine. Sabine is mesmerized and Mae Do looks at her almost tenderly, this given away by the slow calm way she blinks her beautiful eyes all the while looking at Sabine. It's like they are silently communicating with each other and I sort of imagine that they are both saying to each other, 'It's okay, we've made it and we are both safe now.' I love these two pictures that I am able to get of the two of them:

Unfortunately, I missed the photo opportunity of Sabine planting a kiss head-on on Mae Do's trunk, but Mae Do doesn't even flinch and she continues to stare at Sabine. We have both fallen behind from the rest of the group, so we leave Mae Do, and I steal a quick kiss on her trunk too. She watches us as well leave and then continues to casually hobble on.

As we are catching up to our group, I look back and notice that we are close to the hut that Sabine and I are living in during our stay. We are the furthest away from the Center, which leaves us closer to the mountain (with a spectacular view!) which also leaves us closer to the elephants. Our hut is the one with our two bath towels draped over the rail. See the ele walking by? We could touch her if we were on our deck. I'm not sure which ele it is but I love, love, love the proximity with which we get to live with these elephants.

The environment in here is beautiful and although it is still not as big as what these elephants would see in their true natural environment, it works perfectly for them for now.

Lek and the volunteer coordinators have explained why the elephants are sheltered and chained at night. First know that the chains are quite long and the elephants all have these huge dirt mounds to lean on when wanting to lie down to sleep. This becomes important for the older or disabled or injured elephants. If an elephant lies down, and cannot get up (by its own will), the weight of the elephant's body will crush their organs and they will die. An elephant will lie down when it is ready to die, something the sanctuary has experienced several times since its opening. Lek will rescue elephants that are terminal to at least allow them the freedom and love to die with dignity. A ceremony is always held for any of the elephants that die at the sanctuary, out of respect for the elephant and to allow a safe and symbolic release of the elephant's spirit. As much as I hate the thought of any elephant dying, I would love to be able to attend and participate in one of these ceremonies.

A typical peaceful afternoon for the elephants:

After an hour or so, Ekk takes us to one of the bamboo platforms so we can sit and rest and talk. It is almost 90 degrees so we welcome the shade. We start asking Ekk some questions about the sanctuary and what he thinks of it. He gets very serious and passionate stating that what Lek is doing, what she has built here, is extremely important to the survival of the elephants and he believes wholeheartedly in everything they are doing. The mahouts are paid well (in Thailand terms), in order to retain them. The mahouts believe in the positive reinforcement approach to training the domestic elephant but it is a practice that is still in minority for most of Thailand and all of Burma. Lek has dismissed mahouts that are abusive in any way to the elephants.

Ekk goes on to explain that these trekking camps and street begging jobs that exploit these elephants will eventually be forced to close as more and more sanctuaries like this one are created. He encourages us to write to travel guides asking them to remove the trekking attractions from their literature, just one of the many thing we can do to help. He recommends (as Lek did on the first day) to attend the circuses and ill equipped zoos if only to educate ourselves about the inhumane showcasing of these elephants. You can see the elephant's unhappiness in their demeanor, you can see it in their eyes. Interestingly he does not encouraging vocal protesting since one come across as annoying and crazy (this sounds cute when he says this...). Instead he encourages us to make copies of the dvd's that we have been given (for free and at our request only) and handing them out, having some friends over and showing them what is happening. These are the ways we are going to change things, by educating the public, not just yelling 'You're wrong!!!!'. I look at this 24 year old Thai native in front of me, admiring everything he is saying, and appreciating how deeply rooted he is in this mission he has chosen. He does not need to plead his case with me, I am ready to do all the things that he has suggested.

Me and Ekk. I traded him his bucket for my hat. :)

More pictures of the beauty of this place. The elephants here have formed a tight bond with their mahouts. It's really nice to see.

I love it here.

Bathing Beauties

It's bath time again and the volunteers try to get to the river ahead of the day trippers in order to have at least five minutes of peaceful and enjoyable time with the elephants. I get to throw a few buckets of water on one of the elephants but the day trippers show up sooner than planned and the commotion and chaos suddenly begins. Sabine and I and our other volunteer friends have decided that we will no longer participate in elephant bathing time, at least not when the day trippers are here. Honestly, when I look at the elephants, they barely seem like they are enjoying it. Sabine and I find that we prefer staying on the 'beach' anyway because when the elephants leave the water, they end up walking towards us. A few of the elephants are definitely starting to recognize us and they walk right up to us in all their slow and gentle giantness and then just stop right in front us of with their heads inches from ours.

Here is Mae Perm, waiting for her trunk to be rubbed, her eyes gentle and relaxed.

Blind Jokia, Mae Perm's adopted sister, follows closely behind also waiting for some gentle hands to touch her. I am finally getting used to seeing the eyeless side of her face without thinking of her past. Now all I can see is a beautiful content elephant who has found comfort in her new surroundings. Jokia does the cutest thing sometimes when she is not sure where to go (because she cannot see) but doesn't just want to stand. She ends up sitting, almost like a dog, but it looks exceptionally cute seeing a five ton animal do this.

Once Jokia and Mae Perm are content with their rubs and socializing they head back to the fields together.

Ken, one of the mahout managers, comes over to talk to Sabine and I for a little bit. He is very nice and funny and patient with the mahouts he oversees. We take a moment for a photo op :)

The eles seem to have a lot of itches today:

Some quick cuddle time for Faa Mai and Mae Bua Tong.

Hope loves bath time, he is actually smiling; elephants do smile when they are content.

Can't forget Jungle Boy, who's presence is always a little softer than Hope's.

Here is Chang Yim doing an excellent job being cute... He's heading for his mud bath, where the water is warmer and muddier... every toddler's favorite!

Chang Yim's mother, Dok Ngern, is close behind.

A perfect sunny warm day for bathing.