Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Eyes Team

Today’s afternoon project is a day off to go on a walk with the Eyes Team. This is about a two hour walk and education time with the mahouts to learn about the elephants and just observe them in their 'normal' environment. What a treat. Ekk takes the Eyes Team and the Elephant Walk Team to the fields. As we get to the first mahout, we see Mae Perm, one of the least shy elephants and the oldest. She comes right up to us and lets me place my hand on the top of her trunk. She is calm and looks at me with the most soulful eyes and I am mesmerized yet again by the sheer grace and beauty of these giants. Close behind is Jokia, who Mae Perm adopted in less than a day when Jokia was initially brought to the park. Mae Perm has become Jokia's eyes and is loving, dedicated and nurturing to her disabled sister. When Jokia chirps for her, Mae Perm quickly comes over to help her. It is still so sad for me to see Jokia's blindness, inflicted on her at the hand of man. But she seems content in her surroundings. I whisper to Mae Perm that she is beautiful and thank her for taking such good care of Jokia.

Sabine does too:

I then go to Jokia and tell her what a beautiful and strong girl she is that I am so sorry for what happened to her. And as if she understands me, she lifts her trunk and rests it around my shoulders -- not the first of many a tear for me...

Ekk drops the first two member of the Eyes Team to stay behind with the mahout, and Jokia and Mae Perm. Not too far in the distance, we see a group of about 8 mahouts sitting under a giant tree surrounded by a bamboo tree deck. These are made to protect what remaining trees are in the field that elephants tend to knock down from scratching.... big itches.. by rubbing against them. It also serves as an escape for the mahouts in case an elephant gets a little 'excited' and the mahouts need to get to safety. Ekk tells me, Sabine and Anya that we can head over to the group of mahouts and hang out with them and their elephants. As we approach, we see Ken who is the mahout manager for the group of mahouts. Good new as this means mothers, aunties, co-nurturers and babies are here!

We talk with Ken for a bit and the mahouts look over and smile shyly every once in a while. Ken tells us about the elephants that are in the herd. One of the elephants, Malai Tong, who he calls 'Super Star' since she likes to mingle with all the natural herds that have formed, starts hobbling towards us.

That's right, hobbles since her back right foot was blown off from a landmine (on the Burma / Thailand border) in 2005. It a disfigured stump still healing, but Ken tells us that she is making a good recovery with the help of Lek's herbal washings and medicine and the resident elephant vet that helps prevent infections. Malai Tong walks right up to us curious and trunk touching us. She seems spunky and sweet and comfortable around us as she checks our hands for bananas. Elephants have a fairly good sense of smell. We give her a few which she accepts slowly but eagerly and chews in the slow relaxed motions that I have noticed in all the adult elephants, not at all like the babies and teenagers.

Next we see Dok Ngern grazing about 20 feet in front of us. She is content to graze while we watch her. We notice little Fah Mai, is coming towards Dok Ngern, her auntie. She has just been scolded by the mahout for trying to sneak through a wooden split rail fence. As she gets to auntie, she squeaks and auntie makes a low rumbled call.

First baby calls to auntie, auntie calls to the herd. Fah Mai's mother hustles quickly over to Dok Ngern and Fah Mai, forming a barricade with Dok Ngern around Fah Mai. This is rare opportunity to actually witness this from just 50 feet away and I am reminded of that altruistic behavior of the family unit where the children are heard and well protected by many mothers. It's one thing to read about it, it's another thing to watch it happen before your eyes.

The rest of the herd joins to complete the barricade, now with both babies, Fah Mai and Chang Yim, in the circle.

It doesn't take long for the eles to assess the safety and they let the babies go off to play again. Fah Mai resumes her playing, deciding to go back to the fence she just got scolded for playing near. On her way she is contemplating approaching us making little squeals and bobbing her head up and down.

Fah Mai quickly gets distracted again and proceeds towards the fence with Chang Yim at her heels. Both are running and exploring with the clear intention of causing mischief, exactly what toddlers should be doing. Here they decide they want to get on the other side of the fence so.... they break it, the two sort of assisting each other in their efforts, but Fah Mai definitely leading the way. Completely adorable!

Fah Mai trying to climb through, the fence is almost down.

Mission accomplished! Their work here is done! :)

While all this has been happening, we notice another elephant that has been chained to an open shelter far from the center and the other elephants. His name is Asai and he is in musth, a heightened sexual state causing the male to be very aggressive and quite dangerous.