This afternoon I am leaving ENP for a few weeks. My travels will take me to Vietnam for nearly two weeks and then back to Thailand for a week at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary. So, as you might imagine, I was feeling anxious about leaving “the family.” Against all efforts I have grown seriously fond of them. In their world I am just another human sharing their days, but they are quite special to me.
Leaving elephants even for a day has never been easy for me. It’s not that I need them; it’s that I feel so comfortable with them. I feel more like me in their presence. So in anticipation of my noon departure I did not linger at breakfast, knowing they were already out in the pasture.
The morning was cooler than normal. The mahouts were bundled in jackets and hats. Several were crouched down in a tight circle, the crowns of their heads touching, focused on an activity that I soon realized was fire building.
The elephants were several meters away, calmly grazing and mingling with each other. From the side I saw comical Faa Sai, frustrated mahout in tow, prancing across the pasture…holding a brand new house broom in her trunk. Obviously her mahout had abandoned his effort to get her to drop the broom, allowing her to bring her newly found “Christmas toy” with her.
Faa Sai has been acting out for the past few days, since her former mahout left her to work with another elephant. Faa Sai does not respond well to all mahouts — loss of her mahout means that she must get used to a new mahout telling her what to do. Needless to say, she has been giving him fits.
With Faa Sai back with the family, Dok Ngern started moving further out into the habitat. Instantly a voice rang out telling her to stop, to not go any further. The mahouts were cold and wanted to stay near the fire; if the elephants move, the mahouts are forced to move as well. Since the mahouts call the shots, the elephants sometimes are not allowed to roam as freely as they would like.
But this morning I decided to take advantage of my designated authority and called to the mahout telling him “chang bai.” I don’t know if that is how it is spelled but it means “elephant go.” The mahout knew exactly what I meant and stared at me hoping I would change my mind. I repeated my request and what followed was glorious, humorous and admittedly probably a little frustrating for the mahouts who are being encouraged to accept some changes in the way they manage their elephants.
Bua Thong, Faa Mai’s mother, was the first to sense a shift and began to walk slowly, almost guardedly, in the direction of freedom. I took advantage of my position out in front of the family and headed toward the river bed, hoping they would see that as a signal that they were free to follow and go wherever they wished…within reason of course.
The family moved like a gentle ripple across the surface of a still pond and only the elders kept an ear out for the command to stop. It did not come so they kept moving. When they reached the edge of the pasture, which drops off into the river bed, Bua Thong and Dok Ngern appeared to shed the invisible cloak of control the mahouts cover them with and led their family out onto the river bottom, sampling the sparse vegetation that remains. The mahouts did not follow. For a moment in time it was the family and me.
The mood was broken as one mahout left the warmth of the fire and came racing across the pasture intent on turning Bua Thong back. Bua Thong, ever the mature leader wanting only to keep peace and harmony, is easy to turn and, with her, many of the family members. When the mahout’s intent was clear, I called out “chang bai.” Body language goes a long way…luckily. I signaled for him to stop, moved my arms in the direction the elephants were heading and repeated “bai, bai.” His body language suggested he wasn’t happy with the request, but he complied and allowed the elephants to continue in the direction they were headed.
I motioned for the other mahouts to join us, which they did, actually carrying their fire with them. By now the family had figured out that they were free to explore their environment with the sole restriction to not enter the banana grove and the nearby road. After one more request that the mahouts not prevent the elephants from grazing the tall grasses along the river bank, the elephants settled into a wonderful feast.
Bua Thong discovered the giant grass and shared it with the others. The babies wallowed in the thick mud as they cruised the embankment selecting tasty trunkfuls of fresh grass. Faa Sai, always the one to push the limit, tried to climb further up the hillside than was acceptable. But she returned to grazing without much fuss, probably because the grasses were lush further down the hill.
Each time the mahouts got comfortable in their tree beds or huddled around their portable camp fire, the elephants’ natural migrating tendencies forced them to move again. This dynamic is a challenge for elephant management: the elephants want to move but the mahouts would prefer they hang around in one place. One this day, at least as long as I was there, these elephants would be wandering. The mahouts seemed to finally understand the plan and, even if only half heartedly, got with the program.
Sitting on the dry sand river bottom with my knees held close to my chest, I took in the glorious scene playing out in front of me. I was filled with joy and gratitude to be here at this moment in time, watching elephants being elephants, in perpetual motion, playing, grazing, drinking, dusting and exchanging the nonstop physical and verbal communication that they are famous for. I forgot the chill of the cool breeze that was cutting across the open space as a feeling of deep contentment warmed my entire body. I felt the morning sun hug me from behind and gave thanks for this blessed moment.
Walking away from the family was inevitable but I did so knowing that today, at least for the few hours I spent admiring them, they were as close to free as a captive elephant can be.