out in the field again!

Out in the field…what a concept, I love it. When I get back to internet access I will report in. In the meantime be assured that I am enjoying every minute of this fabulous adventure!


So Much To Learn

May 17

I have spent the past several days traveling with Dr. K.K. Sarma, Ph.D. and his team of skilled veterinarians, assistants and driver, to various elephant health camps in Assam. I have seen and learned so much. The experience gives me hope for the elephants in this region.

Dr. Sarma is an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery and Radiology at the College of Veterinary Science, AAU Khanapara, Guwahati, Assam, India. Spending time with such a dedicated professional has caused me to realize that although we may be spread across this planet, elephant caregivers share the same mind, the same vision; a more humane and healthy existence for elephants.

Years ago, I held a hardline opinion against providing assistance for elephants held in captivity in Asia. But several years ago my opinion changed as I came to believe that regardless of how I feel personally about the deprived life captivity provides, elephants suffer in captivity and require our assistance. A person who influenced my change of mind was Mr. A. Christy Williams who at the time was completing his studies focused on wild elephant populations in the Northern National Parks of India.  After being much impressed by Christy’s work I decided that The Elephant Sanctuary should do what we could to initiate a pilot program to assist privately owned elephants in need in Asia. We collaborated with Christy and later Dr. Sarma to create a Mobile Veterinary Care program in Assam.

This program has been supported by the Sanctuary for years. It has been seriously successful thanks to Dr. Sarma’s expertise and dedication to elephant health care. You can always tell a true elephant devotee, they will drop everything at a moment’s notice, at great cost to themselves and their bank account, to assist a needy elephant.

About five years ago Christy informed me that Dr. Sarma’s camps were increasing in demand. He was traveling great distances on a regular basis and Christy felt that a valuable addition to the project would be a reliable vehicle. Not only was Dr. Sarma not being paid for his services, he used his own vehicle for travel. Christy wondered if the Sanctuary would consider entering into a formal agreement to support Dr. Sarma’s work for another five years.

This request came at a time when the Sanctuary was experiencing increased support as result of the National Geographic documentary which featured the reunion of Jenny and Shirley. This proposed commitment by the Sanctuary would require a large upfront expenditure to purchase a 4-wheel drive vehicle for the Mobile Veterinary Care work. I saw this commitment as a way of paying forward the support we were experiencing. There was no question in my mind that the Sanctuary was well advised to increase our support of Dr. Sarma’s important service.

In addition to setting up elephant health camps, where elephants arrive in mass at a predetermined location, Dr. Sarma tends to individual elephants whenever called upon.  Over the 20 plus years that Dr. Sarma has provided free veterinary care to the elephants of Assam he has developed a well-deserved reputation. His work is extensive; he assists as many as 400 elephants in this region resulting in a wealth of experience. On any occasion possible, time off or after hours, you will find Dr. Sarma in pursuit of better health care for the elephants of Assam. Teaching at the Veterinary College is his profession but caring for the elephants of Assam is Dr. Sarma’s passion.

Attending three days of scheduled camps and a bull recovering from partial paralysis of the left side of his body, has meant driving great distances. From Guwahati we drove to our first camp in Lamari, then Satsimalu, and then Biswanath Chariali in the Sonitar District. Driving through the countryside of Assam plays tricks on me because it looks and feels just like the landscape of Hohenwald, Tennessee. This elephant country with its lush vegetation, humidity, streams, rivers, pastures and forest lands is a mirror image of The Elephant Sanctuary. I do wonder how I found the pearl of place in America which so resembles and perfectly fits the needs of Asian elephants.

This past week I have been fortunate to document Dr. Sarma and his team attend to forty-four elephants…so far; calves, datals (tusker), maikis (mikee) females, and makhanas (mock-naw) naturally tusk less males, ranging from a few months of age to 60 years. The camps are well organized, well attended and attract more than the elephants that it is organized to help. The locals come out in droves and unlike any public gathering I have ever observed involving elephants, all of the by-standers are respectful, quiet and reserved.

The level of respect shown to the elephants, their mahouts and the veterinary team was an eye opener for me. Imagine close to 20 elephants, many of them mature males, gathered in an area half the size of a football field. Each elephant is assigned a number. When their number is called out the elephant and mounted mahout jockey into place. Other elephants, some riderless, left untethered and munching on cut banana trees, shift to make room for the next patient.

As result of the elephant gathering, a sea of local people congregated to watch the open-air clinic. At first I was concerned about the crowd of people but quickly noticed that they respectfully keep their distance. Not once did a person, adult or child, need to be reprimanded for getting too close, becoming a nuisance or teasing an elephant. This phenomenon alone caused me to look on the people of Assam in admiration.

In this culture the elephant is a God, which may begin to explain the respectful attitude I observed.  But it is more than that. As time passed some of the village children and men would move in closer, especially when an elephant reclined on its side to receive an injection or have the foot pads examined. Crowded around in complete silence, their curiosity was palatable. Although shoulder to shoulder, watching intensely, they were never in the way.

At the camps a full body examination is conducted. Eyes are checked, fecals done, and any wounds or problems discussed and treated. In the case of logging elephants, the mahouts provide details about any trauma or accidents that their elephant may have sustained during the course of their work. The mahouts are very engaged in the discussion about their elephant’s health and appear completely receptive to recommendations made by Dr. Sarma and his team.

Surprisingly, contrary to what I had expected to find, the elephants appear healthy, in good weight, calm and cared for. I saw little of the scaring and wounds that I feared I would see. According to Dr. Sarma the biggest problem he encounters is parasites. Thanks to the trust he has developed with the mahouts and owners, Dr. Sarma is allowed to provide worming medicine, inoculations for tetanus, Vit B shots and mineral supplements.

At one of the camps three of the elephants were pregnant. The Phandis of these mothers-to-be proudly posed for a photograph, displaying the bag of mineral supplement provided by Dr. Sarma. Even though each man remained silent, their faces could not hide the pride they felt for their elephant.

The elephants of Assam have an obvious advantage over elephants living in captivity in other areas of the world. These elephants, although in human care, live in wilderness areas. They spend the majority of their time grazing and foraging on natural vegetation, walk and sleep on natural substrate and are sheltered from the sun by the forest canopy. With the exception of the privately owned elephants that are taken to neighboring countries for logging, the elephants of Assam are not overworked. Most are used for anti-poaching patrol of the National Parks to protect not only rhinos but other treasured and endangered animals.

Participating in Dr. Sarma’s Health Camps have caused me to consider what more we can do to help him help the elephants of Assam. I am thinking that a small laboratory would be a welcomed asset. It would not need to be lavish, even the basics would enable Dr. Sarma and his team to do even more. Fecals are done in the field but blood must be transported back to Guwahati to be processed. Given his own lab, I believe Dr. Sarma would be able to conduct additional non invasive testing in a timely manner, all under his direct supervision.

When I get access to internet where I can upload photos I will.


Different but the same

May 11

I just cleared security at the Kolkata (Calcutta) airport. It was similar to the checking-in process that we go through in the states with the exception that women form one line and men another. You are frisked several times and bags checked more than once on your way to your departure gate. A simple Namaste seems to do the trick when language poses a communication challenge. I find that Namaste opens hearts and doors.

The departure gate was clearly marked although written in a language foreign to me. Luckily the flight number was included in English. I settled into one of the reclining chairs that suggested extended waits were common but pushed that thought from my mind. Glancing around I could not help but notice how unhurried the travelers appeared. None were fidgeting, pacing, or arguing with the attendant at the counter. Equally interesting, none were reading or working on computers. Many were chatting away in a casual way on their cell phone, while others napped or watched TV.

Most of the travelers were male and a good majority of them were watching a cricket match on ESPN. As I absentmindedly watched this sports match which appeared to be an interesting cross between stick ball, baseball and hockey, a message scrolled across the bottom of the screen. I had to wait for the message to repeat to read it fully since the first time it scrolled by I really was not paying attention. The message, or should I say warning, clearly stated “if you are viewing this sports event it is pirated.”

I found myself looking around thinking that any minute an armed security guard would approach the TV and switch it off…silly me. Other viewers showed no reaction to the posted violation even thought the warning was now scrolling along the bottom, the top, and the middle of the television monitor. I had to chuckle at the absurdity of it. Here we were in a major airport watching a pirated sports event in full view and knowledge of the authorities that run the airport. It made me laugh!

Pawan Kali’s Support

May 10

As I prepared to experience my final day in Kathmandu I was ever grateful for Joy’s expert navigational skills. Without incident we arrived at the narrow pedestrian lane that leads to the zoo. Behind a fenced in area adjacent to the zoo a large group of school children were engaged in a sports event. Two teams were assembled on either side of what resembled a volley ball net, but that is where the similarity to volleyball ended. The teams were darting around the court, hitting the ball, sending it over the net and back again. But they did not use their hands, instead they used their feet. The organized mayhem was being cheered on by a bleacher full of enthusiastic classmates.

I found my way inside the zoo through the security entrance where an attentive young guard was stationed. He listened politely as I asked to see Dr. Jeewan Thapa. After repeating Jeewan’s name a couple of times the guard’s eyes lit up in recognition. It is fabulous how forgiving the Nepalese are with my pronunciation. I am sure I make mincemeat of their language but they seem to appreciate my effort. Jeewan, myself and Director Sarita Jnawali met. We discuss Pawan Kali’s move to Chitwan. I was assured that we would be kept up to date when the time arrived for Pawan Kali to be moved. Director Jnawali graciously accepted the donation generated by Pawan Kali’s new supporters and was sincerely touched by the show of kindness for Pawan Kali.

The donation was handled very officially. The accountant was summoned to witness and record the donation and issue a receipt. It was all very formal. Director Jnawali asked permission to write about the contribution for Pawan Kali in their zoo publication. Of course I ensured her that the friends of Pawan Kali would be honored to have their support recognized in such a way. Once I get a copy of the publication I will make sure to post it.

I was pleased to be reminded of the beauty of this zoo, with its manicured grounds and peaceful park like setting. Thanks to the support of caring individuals affiliated with IEA, another bridge has been built. A relationship has been initiated which hopefully will have a ripple effect  not only for Pawan Kali and the Central Zoo in Kathmandu, but for a consciousness worldwide that we are all connected in a deep and real way. One elephant at a time is not a slogan it is a goal.

Back to Kathmandu

May 9

The flight from Chitwan to Kathmandu provided a magnificent view of the mountain range that surrounds the bustling city; it was magnificent.

Joy, our trusted driver, and Rishi, the proprietor of the Sunrise Cottage, were waiting for me at the baggage claim when I arrived. For domestic flights the baggage claim is an open-sided structure covered with a tin roof, expertly staffed. No luggage leaves the sight without a claim ticket…of course I could not find mine! After some discussion between the baggage attendant and Rishi an allowance was made. Rishi provided the baggage attendant assurances and a business card just in case it turned out that I was actually stealing the backpack, and off we went. Minutes later I found my baggage claim ticket and we all had a good laugh.

Arriving at the Sunrise Cottage was like a reunion. My momentary apprehension about arriving solo, minus the elephant care team which I had so identified with for the past month, was obviously a wasted concern. I felt right at home. The bandh of the past week had driven many of the tourists from the city leaving me with the pick of the rooms. I decided on a second floor room with walls of windows on two sides which looked out onto an ancient gnarled tree that felt like the mother herself.

Knowing my way around town was invigorating. I needed a few supplies and felt strangely empowered navigating through the sea of noisy vehicles and preoccupied tourists mingling through the richly colorful shops. Stocking up on staples such as laundry detergent and batteries gave me the sense of being a local. This destination, not really Kathmandu but the suburb of Thamel, is a starting point for the hugely popular activity of trekking. Interestingly enough, the tourists include few Americans.

On this, my last night in Thamel, I headed to my favorite eating establishment located on the border of tourist-ville and the local turf. Tucked a few feet off of the busy road, and I do mean a few feet, it is a tiny place. I literally have to duck my head to get through the door. Seating is familiar, some might say crowded, but that is the flavor of the place. I comfortably settled into a seat by a wall of opened windows and studied the menu while two young boys played hide and seek in the shadows.

After ordering, the place began to fill up which is not hard to do when you only have a few tables. Some VIPs had gathered in the back room. A group of trekkers arrived with a large dog in tow and slid into the table directly in front of me. Even though dogs are all over the place my experience has taught me that they are not seen as companion animals or pets. Instead they are treated more like wild or feral animals, allowed to come and go at will. If they choose to stay around your house or establishment they are, most of the time, allowed, permitting that they do not become a nuisance. Even if a dog stays at your house continually, it is not customary to feed him/her regularly. I know it may sound cruel but according to custom, dogs are not allowed indoors. They are viewed as dirty, disease-infested animals. This attitude is even held by many veterinarians and stems from the reality that dogs can infect humans with rabies. Since there are no requirements for dogs to be vaccinated against rabies it is understandable that the culture has developed to not associate with dogs on a personal level.

Dogs customarily have a life of their own, free to run the streets, hanging out in the locations of their choice throughout the day and night. Not surprisingly the dog the foreigners had brought into the restaurant was causing quite a stir, especially with the young boys who abandoned their game of hide and seek to stare at the dog. Not only was this dog large, he was on a leash and he was inside their restaurant.

When my food arrived so did a large group of young people. There were only two small unoccupied tables. Since I was sitting at a table for four I offered to share my table. The group graciously accepted. I learned that this group was traveling from China. We had a wonderful conversation and I left feeling enriched by the evening’s experience.

I was scheduled to fly from Kathmandu to Kolkata (Calcutta) the following morning. The next leg of my adventured was about to begin.  But I had one last thing to do…present the donations made by Pawan Kali’s supporters to the zoo.


| Posted in: General | Comments Closed

Leaving Sauraha

May 9, 2010

This morning I left Sauraha, Chitwan, heading for Kathmandu and my flight to India. After 22 days living as a member of the village of Sauraha I felt sad to be leaving.

The Tiger Residency staff gathered and in a traditional ceremony I received the TIKA blessing. A circle of red powder was placed in the middle of my forehead. I was offered a glass of lassie, a red flower, and surprisingly, a chocolate candy bar. The candy bar was a deviation from the traditional gifts. It felt extremely personal, an indication of the sensitivity and awareness of others that is typical of the Nepalese people. The candy bar was a very kind gesture.

You’d have to be here to understand the significance of the candy bar. Shiva is the person who served our meals, made sure our water containers were filled and refrigerated, was patient with our bizarre food requests and brought us tea each morning. To say the least, Shiva made sure we were safe, well feed, and comfortable.

More than once we saw Shiva peddling off on his bicycle in the direction of town. Unwilling to tell us that something we requested was unavailable; he preferred to speed off like a mad man into town, regardless of the humidity and heat, to fulfill our request. Yes, we asked him to simply tell us they were out of what we requested but Shiva would not be swayed, he took his job serious and it showed.

Learning that I have a fondness for chocolate resulted in Barb joking about candy bars and different chocolate treats in front of Shiva. We teased him about adding a new selection to their breakfast menu; chocolate pancake, with chocolate pudding topped with sliced bananas, all a figment of our imagination of course. Shiva would smile politely, repeat the recipe out loud and act as if he was considering how it would taste. After much serious silence Shiva would agree that this sounded like a good idea…sort of.

The jeep that would take me to the airport waited outside the dining hall door. It was hugs and Namaste all around as I headed for the jeep. In that moment an elephant and mahout appeared directly in front of our path, both on their way to the bath. I did not recognize which of the 45 elephants of Sauraha she was, but I will never forget her.

In a gesture that I had not allowed myself to experience while in Sauraha, she reached her trunk towards me; like a silk scarf dancing in the wind. I felt so drawn to her, in a different way. For 22 days I had seen myself as providing assistance to the elephants of this village. In this moment a goddess was coming to me, blessing me. I wanted to give her something, wanted to pay my respects to let, her know how honored I was to be in her presence.

The candy bar in my hand was the gift. I don’t believe in feeding junk food to elephants but in that moment it was not a candy bar but a sacred gift, a sign of my appreciation of her. Gifting forward, the candy bar had been given to me as a sign of love and I was now in a position to pass that love forward. I tore open the wrapper and broke the candy bar in half and placed it gently into her outstretched trunk. I hesitated to feed her the entire bar for fear that doing so might be viewed as disrespectful to the Tiger Residency staff who had gone out of their way to provide the gift. But as quickly as the thought came to mind, I realized that the candy bar was a gift from all of us. In a show of our connectedness I took a small bite of the second half of the candy bar and placed it in her patiently waiting trunk. She was in no hurry to place the candy in her mouth but lingered as I greeted her with a gentle touch, trunk to hand; we were one. As quickly as she had appeared, my elephant blessing disappeared, causing me to wonder if I had imagined the entire experience.

The Bandh is Over…at least for one week!

May 7, 10pm

There is a reason that you have not heard from me in a few days. There was a bandh(bond-da) in effect. Yahoo,  it is over… at least for a week.

A bandh is a serious event caused when the two political parties are in opposition. A bandh is a strike when all commercial operations are halted. Even if you oppose the bandh. you, as a citizen of the country, are expected to respect the bandh which virtually shuts down the entire country.

All stores are close with the exception of the pharmacy. You cannot buy food, clothes or even get money from the bank or the ATM because there is no way for supplies to be replenished since all motorized vehicles are prohibited.

A bandh is a serious situation and must  be respected. The common citizen is affected, from shops being closed to farmers not being able to get their product to market.

Each evening during the bandh permission is given for shops to open from 6-8pm. This way citizens can attempt to purchase staples and tourists can go to dinner. As we sat on the second story balcony eating a wonderful plate of vegetable appetizers, the pharmacists across the road ran out into the street screaming the news that the bandh had been lifted for one week.  We were the only clientele in this restaurant but staff came out of the woodwork to join in on the cat calls, stretching whistles, and cheers of joy that rang from our balcony and all balconies along the street.

Music was cranked up stretching from long ago blown speakers, pouring out into the street below. Dueling balconies competed for the loudest whistle and most boisterous males jumping up and down in synchronized dance, obviously filled with joy over the news.

We had to join in with yelps and football game style screams. We had been a part of the oppression. We were one with the locals, sharing in the feeling of freedom from control. We danced, smiled until our cheeks hurt, and reveled in the amazing camaraderie shared between these happy people; the Nepalese and us visiting Americans. Namaste to all of Nepal. What a blessing it is to share this time of emancipation with them.

Hopefully the powers that be will work out their differences within a weeks’ time and spare the people of Nepal the hardships that are caused by bandhs.

Mahouts and Kuchi

May 2

I thought you would be interested to learn that by tradition each elephant in Nepal has three handlers. They are the Phanet (fawn-it) the lead handler, the Pachuwa (paw tsue-wa) second to the lead, and the Mahout, an apprentice. Each position has its own specific responsibilities. The Phanet helps to oversee the community of elephant handlers so he often remains at the stables, leaving the Pachuwa and Mahout to take care of the elephant’s daily needs.

At first light the elephant, Pachuwa, and Mahout head into the forest to collect elephant grass, enough for making kuchi plus a full days fodder for the elephant. Both handlers ride atop the elephant’s bare back, balancing effortlessly, barefoot and sometimes holding an umbrella to shade themselves. Upon their return they work cooperatively to make the kuchi and clean the stable area.

two handlers return with fodder while other make kuchi

The kuchi is a traditional food ball made by folding the surprisingly supple elephant grass into the shape of a bowl. Rice, salt, and molasses are packed into the bowl. Other supplements can be added to the kuchi if the elephant has a special dietary requirement.

filling the bowl

After packing the bowl, the grass is folded over the top of the bowl. Working two strands of grass in opposite directions the bowl is tightly wrapped. After securely enclosing the bowl, the ends of the grass are tied in a twisting motion then tucked under the wrapping like a knot. The result is an artistic and nutritious creation; a special food ball which the elephants readily eat. Each adult elephant receives approximately 90 kuchi each evening. Another name for the kuchi is dana, meaning gift, which explains the ritual involved in creating the fresh kuchi everyday.

tying the kuchi ball with elephant grass

I could not resist, I had to try my hand at kuchi making. I love a challenge and really it was quite fun.  First you have to position yourself as comfortably as possible on the ground, with one leg bent so you can use your ankle as support to bend the grass.  Next you follow a very defined technique of shaping the grass, first folding the grass and then wrapping it around itself until you have created a grass bowl. Making the bowl is not as easy as it looks.

Although I pride myself on being good with my hands, I must admit that the contents of my first kuchi fell out of the bottom. But I was determined and after a few tries my kuchi bowls were holding their contents.

the mahout was very patient with me even though I was slowing him down

I am sure the elephants and the Mahouts found humor in my amateur kuchi making, but the elephants ate them just fine.

Kuchi time!