Taking Care of Baby

June 26, 2010

Baby has captured my heart. Her condition is serious but it seems no one at the government center is concerned. Her  owner gets paid to have her at the Elephant Study Center all day. He is absent. I have seen several different mahouts working her.

At a little more than two years old Baby is trained to perform in the show, twice daily, and walk two kilometers round trip daily, to and from her home stable.

She is scrawny and malnourished with a ravenous hunger. It’s encouraging to see her grab for long stem grasses and stuff them into her mouth, chewing nonstop, and grabbing another.

Luckily Baby likes the rice and coconut milk supplement I am feeding her 3 times a day. The first two days my effort to help was tentatively accepted by the mahouts. But Baby reached out eagerly looking for the bowl which she knows contains the new tasty food. Now the senior mahout welcomes me with a smile and casual greeting. He thanks me after Baby eats.

Today is my last day with Baby.

Lek’s Surin Project

June 23

The Surin Project is a new effort that Lek has undertaken. I was not aware of just how many projects Lek is involved in. Her plate is full.

We arrived in Surin after a 13 hour overnight bus trip. Even though the accommodations on the bus were top of the line, thirteen hours in the same seat can wear on you. We joked about being able to fly to Australia and back in the same amount of time. Regardless of the temporary uncomfortable situation, the long bus ride was worth it; no words could affectively describe what we would experience over the next weeks time.

For the Surin trip I joined a group of Elephant Nature Park volunteers from around the world; the US, Australia, England, and the Netherlands. It was a diverse and dedicated group of elephant lovers ranging from 16 to 56, what fun!

Lek’s Nature Park Surin Project is in conjunction with the Thai government. In an effort to get elephants off of the streets of Bangkok, the Surin Provincial government has set aside 2000 acres. Mahouts are given a place to stay with their elephant and paid to have their elephant on display. Unfortunately display means chaining the elephant up all day, not much of an improvement for the elephants, but it’s a start. Mahouts are paid extra if they put their elephant in the show that is presented to the public twice daily.

160 elephants currently reside at the government center, half of them males. As you might imagine having so many individually owned elephants in a relatively small area can be challenging. The biggest problem right now is lack of available food for the elephants. The monsoons are late in coming and everything is quite dry. The demand for food has resulted in owners having to drive great distances and pay higher prices to feed their elephants. Many elephants are quite thin as result of the shortage.

The number of calves on grounds is frightening. Each elephant an owner has increases the amount of money he receives from the government. I don’t believe owners are breeding just for the money but it is uncertain what will happen over the next decade with so many calves being born.

The government has big plans for this place. They plan to dump 60 million into developing this project as a tourist destination. Their goal is to return Surin to its previous status as the elephant capital of Thailand.

So far we have prepared elephant grass for planting, planted two fields of elephant grass, constructed a shade structure, weeded areas where elephant grass and bamboo were previously planted, and spent time with our sponsored elephants in the forest, ponds and river.

Everywhere you turn there are elephants; the place feels a bit crowded to me.  It is set up like a reservation with elephants being the prominent fixture of the landscape; tethered under trees, shade structures or in the direct sunlight without shade. Most are alone, unable to interact with other elephants.

A two year old calf has caught my attention. She was recently separated from her mom because the mother’s milk supply had dried up. I was also told that the mom was difficult to handle whenever the calf was around so they separated them to gain control over the mom. The calf is seriously thin and has a problem eating grass. She is ravenous, chewing mouthfuls of broad leaf grasses to a pulp. But after chewing the grass she spits it out instead of swallowing it.

The vet was on grounds today. Alex, the project manager, spoke with her at length about this baby.  The problem of ownership, authority, and the lack of elephant welfare awareness was offered up as the challenges the vet faces when trying to help one of the elephants.  The vet has no authority to intervene if an elephant is sick and suffering.

The calf’s owner does not live on-grounds but by sending her to the facility each day he receives a monthly payment. The calf walks two kilometers, round trip daily, to be chained on display and make an appearance in the show.

I was so pleased today when the vet engaged Alex regarding the calf’s condition. Her medical history was shared and recommendations for tests that I received from Dr, Mikota were discussed.  Hopefully we will be able to get help for this baby.

In the meantime I continued to try and find a supplement that she will eat. For two days I have been experimenting with different rice mixtures. This afternoon I succeeded, Baby finally started eating. I will keep you posted.

Little Chang Yim

June 17

Today Chang Yim and So Sac, his mahout, had their first lesson in positive reinforcement training; they were fabulous! Little Chang Yim is not yet one year old and he is as sharp as a tack. He took to the training readily.

The language barrier was made easier by Kat, the mahout manager who speaks very good English. Within a couple of minutes and a handful of bananas Chang Yim was walking between two trainers, clearly understanding the training game.

At first I wondered how Chang Yim would do with all the distractions, including guests hand feeding the adults elephants in the same corral. He was unphased by the guests and the elephant blockades. It was great to see this little fellow weave around the adults, under chins and through legs to get to the mahout calling his name. He was brilliant.  Of course it was all about the bananas.

It struck me that being a herd elephant was not a deterrent to the training session, in fact his conditioning to live, eat, and play alongside the family activities was an advantage.  It should be no surprise that learning from his mahout in this environment would not be problematic.

I must admit that seeing Chang Yim respond to his mahout with such ease brought me great joy. Lek is determined to make sure that her baby elephants never experience the pain of traditional training. I know that Chang Yim has a chance to learn without experiencing negative reinforcement.

Lek has accomplished so much

June 16

I have enjoyed being able to spend an extended period of time observing different facilities and programs. One day is really not enough time to get a true sense of how a program works. This, my second day at Lek’s Elephant Nature Park brought a deeper understanding of the operation.

The elephants genuinely spend the majority of their time out on the pasture grazing, paying little attention to the volunteers and guests that occupy the boardwalks bordering their habitat. I have watched for hours trying to figure out why the elephants do not return to the public areas to beg for food. One reason might be that each elephant has a mahout that follows them around to insure their safety. The mahouts might encourage the elephants to stay out in the pasture but I really saw no indication that elephants were prevented from moving anywhere they pleased, except the construction area of course. The other reason might be because of the designated feeding time. The elephants are released from their stables at 7am and guests are allowed to feed produce to the elephants from a feeding platform at 10:30am. A “feeding bell” is rung and the elephants can be seen heading for the feeding platform right on time with no encouragement from their mahouts.  After eating they head back out to pasture until evening when they return to the platform for a second guest feeding and then return to the stables for the night. In between they go to the river twice a day for bathing. It is all very calm and casual. The elephants move around like cattle with no noticeable prodding from the mahouts. It is obvious that the elephants are comfortable with the day’s routine. It is designed around them to meet their needs.

Today I was honored to be asked to assist the mahout of the youngest calf. He is not yet one year old and already a handful. Understandably, he is the focus of the guests’ attention and since he has contact with the guests from behind a wooded corral, he can be a little pushy.

The first session with the mahout and calf went well. The calf is sharp as a tack and in no time he was responding to his mahout’s request to “come here”.  After a few minor instructions the mahout was expertly maneuvering the calf from one side of the stall to the other. Of course this is easy to do since the calf was given a piece of banana as a reward.

Lek has a new project in Surin that I plan to visit next week. In conjunction with the government Lek is helping to design a new pilot project for mahouts and their elephants. I look forward to seeing the projects and reporting back about it. Lek has accomplished so much in such a short period of time, and there is no sign that she plans to stop. Elephants and elephant lovers alike owe her a debt of gratitude.

A little piece of heaven!

June 15, 2010

After a ninety-minute drive I arrived at Lek’s Elephant Nature Park, north of Chiang Mai. Although I have known Lek for years this was my first visit to the Nature Park. I have always marveled at the similarities shared between our two facilities but seeing the place for myself amplified just how similar our philosophies and work for elephants is.

The first thing shared was a piercing glance and sincere condolences for what had transpired in my life over the past several months. Lek shot me a glance, no words necessary, and instantly I felt that she knew exactly how I felt. When she did speak her words were simple, “Never give up. You can’t give up.”

Lek comes from a place of knowing that to give up is just not an option. The reason that both of us have been able to create what we have is because of who we are; giving up is simply not in our vocabulary.

So I must say, the day started on a good note and continued throughout the day. Lek’s place is more developed then I imagined. It is well designed and organized. With nearly 200 employees and a dozen volunteers, the place is quite busy. A new river wall is being constructed which made me feel right at home.

Dump trucks full of large rock and cement trucks came on grounds all day reminding me of our corral construction of recent. The difference being that instead of the elephants racing over to the noisy trucks to investigate and play like our girls do, Lek’s elephants kept their distance. I asked and was told they are not attracted to the trucks. Instead they remained in the vast grazing area, paying little attention to the comings and goings of the roaring engines and clatter of the rock being dumped in the construction zone.

Of course there always has to be one or maybe two elephants that do not follow the norm. In this case it was the youngest members of the herd; two yearling calves that found the activity at the construction site irresistible. The mahouts did their job well, following the playful young elephants like dutiful nannies, never chastising, only shadowing their huge babies. Verbally they encouraged the calves to return to the pasture with the other elephants. Of course for observers, the antics of the calves was quite comical. Only after grabbing a bolt cutter, tossing it on the ground, and trying to put a head print into a sheet of plywood were the playful elephants escorted out of the construction site and back out to pasture.

While visitors were given instruction on the day’s routine, safety parameters, and proper elephant observation, feeding and bathing etiquette, the staff, volunteers, and elephant keepers expertly went about the business of caring for the guest and elephants.

This is a very well run organization. In stark contrast to the stressed out elephants I observed yesterday, the elephants at Lek’s Nature Park are calm and comfortable with their lives. I can’t say I was surprised to see how comfortable the elephants are, the facilities provide for the elephants every need. They are indeed very lucky elephants.


June 14, 2010

I was not at all prepared for what I would experience this afternoon.  Still flying high from my experience at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, I was caught off guard as we drove North of Chiang Mai to one of the many tourist attractions that feature elephants. I was shocked at what I saw … and smelled. In fact, I had a hard time accepting everything about this elephant show camp.

More than fifty elephants, mostly adult females, were chained on concrete, under a stable shelter with no food or water in sight. They were edgy, grabbing at each other, pacing, swaying, and showing signs of discomfort and agitation.

Fresh cut grass, enough for two elephants, was bundled in a storage area out of the elephants reach. The place reeked of urine. I realized that the entire time at Boon Lott’s I had not once caught a whiff of urine or feces even though ten elephants lived on the property. This facility was not Boon Lott’s.

Aside from the owner and two other men, we were the only people at this tourist attraction; something seemed out of place. Where were the tourists?  Where was the elephant food? Why were there nearly fifty elephants chained under rows and rows of shelters?  It reminded me of a state fair with livestock in the exhibition barns.  Everywhere I looked there were chained elephants.

And there were more than I thought. Around the next corner and the next, elephants seemed to be piled on top of each other. To make things even more unbelievable there were two babies, each with an adult, in a 10×12 wooden corral.

Even though there was hardly room for the adult to walk two steps, both the adults and the calves were chained. The older calf, we were told that he was less than two years old, had chains on both front legs ties to two separate posts, severely restricting his movement. His anxiety level was painful; it was very difficult to watch him. The other calf was also chained on one front leg and his front feet were hobbled together. We were told that this calf was only seven months old.

 I cannot begin to understand how these young calves can be treated in such a barbaric manner. As I watched it seemed obvious that the adult elephants were not the mothers of these two calves. At no time did the calves attempt to suckle or solicit comfort from the adult elephant.

Their bugged out eyes said it all. They were agitated and displayed some aggressive behavior towards the people who came near the cage. The adults were as stressed as the calves and were of no comfort to each other.  Bluntly put this tourist attraction felt like a cross between a puppy mill and a prisoner of war camp. Elephants were lashing out at each other, fidgeting, pacing and generally acting quite stressed. In my career I have never seen such an unhealthy situation for elephants.

On top of many of the stables was storage for rows and rows of elephant saddles. In fact, one tusker was saddled up, (it was the hottest time of the day) and chained in the stall even though not one tourist was there to ride him.

In the middle of the stables stood a small arena surrounded by wooden bleachers. Rows of painting easels, musical instruments and basketball hoops were standing ready for the next show; whenever that would be.

The owner explained that tourism had dropped off and he needed to sell some baby elephants in order to pay his mahouts, who, from what he said, had not been paid in three weeks. Unfortunately this owner of more than fifty elephants did not think he should have to dip into savings to pay staff; if the tourists did not come the mahouts did not get paid, and from the looks of it the elephants did not get fed. It was obvious that the elephants spent much of their time on chains.

As we were driving out we found even more elephants crowded into more stables; a tusker in musth surrounded by other elephants and two more calves that looked less than 6 months old. The entire scene was devastating.

Thailand has a serious elephant problem and using them for tourism in this way is not helping the problem. The more tourists that go to these elephant show camps, the less likely it is that an alternative elephant friendly solution will be created. But honestly I cannot imagine what tourists think when they visit a place like this. How can a person overlook the obvious pain and suffering? If the Asian elephant is to survive and recover in Thailand, exploitative situations like this one need to be closed down.

Thailand has a huge challenge in front of them. Definitely the solution is not easy but exploiting this nation’s treasure should not be acceptable. Hopefully Thailand will enact and enforce strict laws that will protect their elephants; the alternative is unthinkable.

My First Stop in Thailand

June 14, 2010

At the break of dawn I left a little piece of heaven called Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary. Completely removed from the real world, this elephant paradise is a ray of hope for Asian elephants. I am thankful that I decided to stay a few days because that is the only way to take in everything that is Boon Lott’s.

Inspired by the short life and death of a brave baby elephant named Boon Lott, this sanctuary has done something no other has. What they have created is a model for others to imitate and honestly I hope many do.

It seems that it takes an “outsider” to break all the rules. It also appears that women are willing to work outside the box for elephant welfare. Thank goodness! The founders of Boon Lott’s share a love of elephants; one, a lifetime mahout, the other an English woman who championed for a baby elephant named Boon Lott. Together they are making a mark on the story which is elephant. Their future is bright.

The facilities are designed with the elephant’s welfare and comfort in mind. Well designed, functional, artistic, and meticulously spotless. Kat and Anon have dedicated their lives and every effort of everyday to elephants. The family atmosphere includes not only Kat, Anon and their children but the mahouts, their families, and the elephants they have built their lives around. All of the elephants are rescues with staggering stories to tell.

Even though Kat and Anon allow visitors an intimate perspective into the lives of the elephants, they do not exploit the elephants to do so. No rides are offered. The visitors are allowed to observe the elephants as they go about their day from dawn to dusk; starting with a morning bath followed by a long walk to grazing and foraging habitat, afternoon swim time, followed again by another excursion to the forest where the elephants are tethered for the overnight. The events of the day are not designed for the visitor, they are the elephant’s daily activities and the visitor is permitted to observe.

The Sanctuary is young, not five years old yet and already they are home to ten rescued elephants. The goal is to expand land holdings so that areas can be fenced, making it possible to release the elephants tether-free overnight. Fencing is a must in order to accomplish this goal in order to insure the elephant’s safety.

Their challenges are many but Kat and Anon have beaten the odds so far, creating a model sanctuary. I am honored to know these two amazing people and the talented team of forward thinking mahouts and their families that make Boon Lott’s the special place that it is. The elephants that call Boon Lott’s home are lucky elephants indeed.

I have high hopes for Kat and Anon. Much pressure will be on them over the next many years, to continue what they have started. Blazing this trail is hard but the progress that has already been made is astonishing. I know this team and the elephants they care for will help change the face of elephant management in Thailand.

Leaving India

June 8

I am sitting on my duffel bag, back up against a pillar, facing the platform in the Dehradun train station. So far the activity resembles any high traffic transport area but mostly reminds me of Grand Central station in New York City. A variety of messages are broadcast over the loud speaker system nonstop. Not only are arriving and departing trains announced, travelers are also advised, “to the kind attention of passengers, please do not accept packages from strangers as they might contain intoxicants.”This will be my first train ride in India and the last of my adventures here…for now.

My train will travel overnight to Delhi then I will fly to Bangkok. This will be my last full day in India. It has been a whirlwind trip.

My exposure to the different situations for captive and wild elephants has been extensive. I look forward to a few days off to collect and record my thoughts, organize my photos as well as the information that I have gathered. There was so much to see, so many elephants to observe. I know much will come of this trip.

I cannot thank my colleagues enough for organizing everything to insure my time was spent observing the elephants of India and their management. Without a doubt the trip could not have been more fruitful and jam packed. The success of my trip is thanks to Christy Williams, Dr. K.K. Sarma, Suparna Ganguly CUPA, and Surendra Varma.  I look forward to the many collaborations that will follow.

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Rajaji National Park

June 6

Today I traveled from Corbett Tiger Reserve to Rajaji National Park. It was great to finally have an opportunity to spend time with Christy Williams who oversees wild elephants and rhinos throughout Asia for the World Wildlife Fund. A more knowledgeable and committed person you will not find.

I was fortunate to start working with Christy a decade ago when we provided financial support for some of his elephant research. Over the past decade Christy’s work has resulted in priceless data about the movement, feeding behavior and breeding activity of the elephants that reside in both Corbett and Rajaji National Parks.

The first thing I noticed as we entered the park, aside from the absence of tourists was a concrete wall that ran parallel to the road inside the park. There is a serious human/elephant conflict problem in this area. From the proximity of the large city that bumps up to the park’s boundary, conflict would be expected. The wall has succeeded in preventing the elephants from leaving the park along the wall but the wall ends at the river bed. Christy explained that the elephants learned almost immediately to walk down the wall to the river bottom where the wall ends and simple exit the part at that point.

Unfortunately the conflict that is taking place outside of the park is due to the human activity inside the park. Local tribal families live inside the park. The Forest Department has tried to move the families, even offering them free land as an incentive. So far only a few families have taken the government up on the offer.

As result the trees and grass inside the park are being decimated. Trees are virtually stripped of branches and leaves to provide fodder for the many head of cattle owned by the tribal families. Additionally, the cattle themselves over graze the grasses resulting in a need for the elephants to exit the park to find food. As result of the over grazing, weeds have invaded, replacing the grass land with vegetation that is not suitable for elephants.

Christy is determined to protect this national park jewel and the animals indigenous to the area. Each challenge has a solution and Christy discussed the many solutions that are available to the Forest Department. Spending time with such a motivated, highly dedicated human brings me hope for the future of wild elephants in India.

As soon as we arrived at the guest house tea was served and then we headed out on a trek. It was fabulous. I saw firsthand the damage to the vegetation and the Departments efforts to insure that the animals had ample access to water. Although I did not see elephants, evidence of their presence was all around. From fresh footprints by the watering holes to twisted tree branches, a signature that elephants had been tugging on them for food.

As the sunlight faded a Sambar deer vocalized. Over a short period of time other warning calls sounded many times. These calls seemed to make a full circle around us. Easily recognized as the warning that a tiger had been detected, the Sambar deer informs the entire forest when a tiger is on the prowl.

Nighttime fell on some very content people who savored every moment of being in this wild habitat.

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abundant wildlife

June 3, 2010

This morning I really hated to pack my bags and leave the Annimalai Tiger Reserve. Its towering bamboo stands, peaceful setting and intensely beautiful landscape was spellbinding.  This forest was different from the others that I have visited. The late afternoon haze draped over the trees like a delicate silk scarf. Upon entering the forest I felt strangely transported from the present.

The Rest House which was arranged for my stay sat in a prime location on a hill, overlooking a grassy area grazed by wildlife. It was build by the British in 1926, and had a fine air about it. The large high ceiling rooms and expansive porch was delicious.  

After dark when I went outside to shake the caked dirt off of my tennis shoes I heard a rustle coming from behind. Conditioned to the realities of these wild habitats, I silently retreated inside the window lined porch. Darkness prevailed with the exception of a porch light that I had flipped on when I exited.

In moments I saw movement, something was emerging from the dark. It was a full grown female wild boar. I stood in awe of this chance opportunity to witness the nighttime adventure of this wild and potentially dangerous wild animal, just outside my reach. I was later told that wild boars have been known to fight off a tiger for up to an hour.

Yes, I had silently hoped the sound maker was an elephant but it is probably best that instead this equally wild but smaller forest inhabitant showed itself. The boar took no notice of me, but went about her business scouring the ground for something tasty to eat.

I rose with the sun, a new habit that I have developed since arriving on the Asian continent. My nocturnal ways have shifted to meet the pattern of the local people; up early, to bed by 10. No more staying on the computer until 2am!

From my perch on the hilltop which provides a panoramic view of the mountain (ghate) range I watched the sun rise, appreciating the birds and other creatures whose vocalizations echoed above the forest canopy. A large family of spotted deer grazed nearby on the immense naturally manicured lawn. Young deer of every size frolicked playfully under the watchful tender eyes of their mothers, while the three males in their midst attentively survey the landscape.

Tea was served.

Driving down the mountain gave me time to reflect on the beauty of this biodiverse forest, home to so many endangered and precious animals. The Forest Department is responsible for protecting the forest and its inhabitants. From my perspective the men on the ground are seriously dedicated to their work. Even as I was exited Annimalai Tiger Reserve I saw more species of animals that I had not already seen. In two days time I saw wild elephants, wild boar, forest chicken, spotted deer, bonnet monkey, three stripped squirrel, samber deer, malabar giant squirrel, unidentified red headed wood pecker, and wild hare. And as our vehicle neared the forest check point, where crossing would mean leaving the mystical world of the forest, a barking deer froze in his tracks just off to the side of the road.

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