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.