Walking with Elephants

Today we all headed up to the mountains to visit the Blue Daily Elephant Care Sanctuary. It’s kind of a cliché to go visit Elephants when you visit Thailand, but when you consider the sort of lives the average elephant has had in Thailand up until very recently, along with the sheer charisma and majesty of the creatures themselves, then any fear of being a cliche becomes irrelevant. (Or should that be “irrelephant”?)

Example: the first elephant we met today was a 2 month old infant called Maya, and her 18-year old mother. Despite only being 2 months old, Maya already weighs over 300 lbs and is as capable with her trunk as any adult. (Although She has no teeth yet, so cannot handle solid food…much like a human baby!)

There is a disconnect between the rambunctious, innocent play of an infant when coupled with a creature that can knock down a full size adult human if they’re not paying attention; but it is a disconnect made of awe and wonder.

We spent the rest of the day feeding and walking with the 6-strong herd, headed up by a big bull. Asian Elephants are smaller than their African counterparts, but no less impressive, especially when you stand next to one. Their thick, calloused skin is covered by dense, springy hair, and they are covered in mud, which the elephants cover themselves with both as a cooling measure and as sun-block. They are curious and inquisitive, but also as ready to be fed as any livestock or household pet.

Our afternoon excursion took us to a small waterfall where we bathed the herd. Another moment of wonder, to see these giant beasts frolic and splash like a group of kids at the pool. One of the younger elephants, a four month old, would fully submerge herself and then pop up behind one of the adults. It was startling to have this large mass suddenly erupt from the depths less than two feet away from you.

When they were done bathing the elephants hauled themselves up onto the bank to reapply a coating of mud. Whilst they were doing this we explored and bathed in the river ourselves. The water was cool and refreshing, and it felt nice to just be there in the river, bathing as people have done for thousands of years. (Although there was a fair amount of mud in the river from recent rains, so the visibility was nil…so there was no way of telling what might lurking in the plunge pools!)

After we returned to the camp, we fed the elephants again and then headed back to town, exhausted from the long day and exercise up in the mountains.

Elephants in South East Asia were extensively used in lieu of heavy machinery, particularly in the logging industry. When the government cracked down on logging, a lot of elephants and their handlers (Mahouts) were in need of employment. So they turned to tourism, giving foreigners rides, putting on shows and more. In both logging and tourism the methods of breaking an elephant in to respond to commands has traditionally been cruel and barbaric. In the last 10-20 years or so, however, there has been a push to rehabilitate old working elephants and to re-educate the Mahouts in their methods. There are now several Elephant Sanctuaries where the emphasis is on allowing elephants to live natural lives; but under controlled conditions. Wild Elephants can be destructive pests to farms; sanctuaries allow these ravenous beasts to be fed and exercised without being the destructive forces of nature they are capable of being. The Eco-Tourism such Sanctuaries generate help sustain the communities around them, and the Elephants get to lead a more relaxed existence, protected from those who want their ivory or wish to continue illegal logging.

You cannot help but be enraptured by these gentle giants; their inquisitiveness and charisma make them seem very people-like.

Thomas, for one, was a bit overwhelmed by the Elephants, not so sure about getting close to them, but he petted a couple of them, and he helped to feed them. I am glad he got the opportunity to spend time with these amazing animals, even if he might not fully remember the experience when he is older.

It was a special experience, albeit an exhausting one; we were all quite worn out by the time we got back on the bus and most of us slept on the way back to Chiang Mai!!

If you do ever visit Thailand, please consider visiting one of the Elephant Sanctuaries to both educate yourself and experience these magnificent animals in their natural environment. A happy elephant truly is a sight to behold.

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