Pachyderm Infatuation (K)
Trip Start Jan 05, 2010
23Trip End May 06, 2010
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Elephants. What image flashes through your mind when you hear this word? Perhaps the African savannah in the late afternoon, amber sunlight bathing the tawny grasses, small trees dotting the landscape. Perhaps you see a herd on the move, slowly painting the horizon with their gentle wildness. No? Well, maybe you see Hannibal's war elephants climbing resolutely through the rugged masjesty of the Alps, a fierce army of man and beast primed for Roman conquest. Okay, how about cartoon elephants running from mice (a myth) and accidentally sitting on and squashing things in their lumbering enormity (another myth - adults elephants do not like to sit or lay down unless they are in water). Wait, I know. You see Indian Rajahs riding their jewel bedecked Elephas Maximus, draped in colorful tapestreis and trumpeting their princely arrival. Perhaps an awkward elephant in a room? Dumbo hallucinating and hiccuping? How about Asian elephants working in logging camps?
This one would never have crossed my mind
Fortunately, clever humans motivated by genuine love and/or profit have realized that elephants loom large in the imagination of Westerners. They have creatied an entire tourist industry around the elephants, giving them the chance to be employed for something less harsh and demanding - like giving rides to tourists (my weight on an elephants back is similar in ratio of me carrying my wallet or small purse). Though controversial for many reasons, this concept might be what actually saves the Elephant from imminent extinction. It is estimated that in 50 years, there will be no more elephants in the wild. These captive elephants, drawing mindful ecotourism, can serve as a genetic resource if and when the time comes where us humans get our act togehter and preserve the kind of acreage that megafauna like Elephants needCUN 2008). They are classified as an endangered species.
The first elephant I rode was blind. I sat upon a bench secured to her back. I looked down to the ground. It looked like a long way to fall. Tim and I looked at each other then and our eyes seemed to say "ummm, are we really riding an elephant?" And then we were moving at a decent clip, experiencing a jarring side to side motion as Mae Boun Nam, the 49 year-old blind elephant expertly felt the terrain with her trunk.
Her trunk stunned me to awed silence. I was not prepared for the way my breath caught in my throat as I watched the elephants use their trunks like a bionic hand that could do anything. With her dextrous trunk animated by approximately 100,000 muscle units, she was seeking, probing for obstructions on the narrow, steep trail. Elephants can grip small objects like a single stick of sugar cane with the tip of their trunk and roll it into the perpectual smile of their mouths. They can curl up their trunks to hold massive bunched of banannas, separating the bunches with suprisingly fine motor coordination. Their trunk is actually a fusion between the nose and upper lip, They use their trunks to breathe through, smell with, to pick up water to drink (the trunk can hold 8.5 litres), to pick leaves and fruit and to cover themselves with mud, water or dust.
The attribute I came to love the most was the way they use their trunk to communicate with each other, via touch, smell and the production of sound
As we crossed the river our guide encouraged us to begin learning how to ride on the elephant's neck/head. We were doing a training course to be a "Mahout" - an elephant keeper. To become a real Mahout you must train for months. If the elephant has never had a keeper before it takes 2-3 years to train them. Many elephants have Mahouts that stay with them for their entire lives. It has been reported that elephants never forget their bond wth a Mahout and display extreme "emotions" if their Mahout dies or leaves them. As I watched everyones face light up during this elephant ride, I began to realize more and more what it is about the elephant that compels us.
People really love to ride elephants
As I was deep in reverie, some part of me was aware of the many sensations combining to create a whole body expereince. There was my bare feet against the elephant's skin, skin so warm, alive and leathery and unlike anything I have ever felt before. I could feel the musculature of her shoulder blades keenly underneath me and my body instinctually rocked side to side wth her predictable gait. There was the constant movement of her ears against my knees - expressive and functional. And there was personality as well. The elephant that I had to train on for the next two days was younger and more willing to listen. Her name is Mae Auk. I fell in love with her the way a teenager falls - fast and obsessively
Morning came and I quickly got ready to pick up my new love from her sleeping area. My whole body smiled when I saw her again and I tried to tell her how happy she made me in broken Laoatian. After about an hour, Tim and I took our elephants to the water to swim and bathe. My elephant loved to dunk underwater and did not deem it neccesary to warn me when she submerged. I had a hard time trying to climb back on her neck from the water. Her real Mahout shouted commands at her that I am sure were meant to make it incredibly difficult for me to stay on her and scrub her with soap for her bath. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. For many hours on the last day I stood with my head against her forehead and trunk trying to memorize every detail of being with her. I gave her treats and touched her face and felt the strangeness of her ears between my fingers. I did not want to leave.
I reluctantly said my goodbyes and left Elephant Village
I agonized over the decision to ride an elephant. Is it ethical? Does it promote harmful tourism? Does it hurt the elephants? Are they miserable? I researched for many hours, looking at all sides of the controversy and eventually came to the conclusion that I had to see for myself. What I saw was a place with only nine elephants who have a personal veteranarian on staff at all times, that only have to "work" 1-4 hours per day to earn their keep. The rest of the time they are in the jungle, eating and sleeping and pulling trees right out of the ground with their powerful trunks for fun (to eat grubs and yummy roots as well I'm sure). I found a place that I would say is authentic and mindful communtiy-based eco-tourism. The surrounding villages are kept busy growing the massive quatities of food that the elephants require (170-200 kilos per day) and the Mahouts are young men from the near-by villages that are happy and proud to have a job as an elephant keeper
However, I am sure that there are many elephant camps that are not like this one. Laos, the "Land of a Million Elephants" now contains only 1600 elephants. Five-hundred and sixty of them still work in logging camps. Like Thailand did in 1990, Laos is getting ready to ban logging. All 560 elephants will lose their jobs. Elephant tourism seems like a viable answer to rhe difficult problem of so many unemployed elephants that cannot be released into the wild. Of course, idealistically elephants would live in the wild and not have to "work" for humans at all. They would have enough land to follow their instinctual migration patterns and their populations would rise and fall in their own rhythm. But our world right now is far from being ideal. Will my grandchildren see elephants in their natural habitat? I hope so.
As for me, I am permanently marked by this tremendous experience. I have found myself over the last week closing my eyes and running my hands along her trunk in my mind, looking at those liquid amber eyes and saying "Khaoi Hauk Jao Li Li Mae Auk" (I love you very much).
For more information about Elephant Conservation and Ecotourism in Laos and Thailand here are some links:
Coming soon to a blog near you..... Endangered gibbons! Anceint Khmer ruins! Monkeys jumping my head! Until next time...