Thank You

Wow, you guys sure work fast! I posted the blog about Kiran less than 24 hours ago and already the Chipin goal has been reached. Thanks so much for your support!

Nepal Mobile Pedicure Parlor

Foot trimming with the privately owned elephants started yesterday. Once again Kiran, a veterinary technician working with NTNC and the government in Chitwan National Park, came through, setting up the foot trimming schedule and arranging for the elephants to be at the stable.

Sona Kali laid down to expose feet in dire need of trimming. Her back pads were okay but the nails on all four feet were severely overgrown, decayed and split. The pads of her front feet had deep black tracks of bacteria.

The first difficulty we experienced was the mahout’s failure to respond to Kiran’s direction. At first I thought he was ignoring Kiran and then it seemed he did not understand what Kiran was saying. Araw means stop and, even if you don’t speak Nepalese, a mahout would know that word because they use it with their elephants continually. But when Kiran said “araw,” the mahout kept cutting. Without hesitation, Kiran took the knife and continued the trimming himself. The mahout training was a bit slow at first but when he finally started following Kiran’s directions, it seemed that he could end up being a good foot trimmer.

Kiran’s and my partnership is well established. He starts with the big cutting, shaving down the overgrown nails, and I follow up with digging out the rotten areas, taking off more of the overgrown nail and shaping everything into place. It is a pleasure to work with him, not only because he does a good job but because he takes pride in doing a good job. When I am deep in concentration focused on a problem area Kiran will say, “Carol, please,” which I have come to understand means “move out of the way with that sissy knife and let me cut away more of that excess nail.” I am happy to oblige him because I can save my energy for sculpting.

I must admit that Sona Kali’s feet had me sweating — they were definitely the most overgrown so far. We were able to trim her nails into shape but the thick tracks of bacteria were so deep between the toes of her front feet, it will take several follow-up visits over the next many weeks to bring her feet back to health.

With all that Kiran has done to make this Nepal Mobile Pedicure Parlor a success, I want to raise some funds to show appreciation. There are forty private owned elephant here in Sauraha so we have our work cut out for us, but the effort is worth it: the elephants will have healthier feet and the mahouts will acquire additional skills. The truth is that I could not have provided this service without Kiran’s assistance.

Animals Asia

January 12, 2011

My last full day in Vietnam was spent at the Animals Asia bear rescue center outside of Hanoi. Many thanks to Jill Robinson, founder of this superb facility, for introducing me to her project. You need to check out this project on-line at
www.animalsasia.org.

Hundreds of bears benefit from the efforts of Jill and her competent staff. The facilities are well designed and the staff are experts in their field. As for the bears, well they are pure bundles of joys, so immersed in their freedom that visitors do not get a second glance. Actually, visitors don’t get a first glance, a sign that Jill and her colleagues are succeeding at their efforts to rehabilitate bears rescued from bile farms. I so appreciate the time Jill and her staff spent with me and recommend that you support their efforts.

Sweetie Kali

Upon returning to the National Trust for Nature Conservancy in Chitwan, I was surprised and pleased to see Sweetie Kali still there. Last year I was told she was to be moved to the zoo in Kathmandu.

Sweetie is less than ten years old so it was difficult for me to understand such a move. In Chitwan, Sweetie has daily access to the forest, the river, free grazing and foraging and lots of other elephants –: a life that provides benefits she would not experience in an urban zoo.

Today I saw little Sweetie Kali moving at a fast clip, of her own motivation, across the expanse of community forest that borders Chitwan National Park. She and seven of her counterparts were in pursuit of a rhino that was to be radio collared. Gracefully moving faster than the other elephants she accompanied — all were her seniors — Sweetie Kali exuded pride and self confidence.

I found myself caught in a quandary: why was I feeling positive about Sweetie’s engagement in this rhino search?

It seems that I had allowed myself to let go of my personal opinion that Sweetie should not be working and allowed myself to experience Sweetie’s reaction to her involvement. Her self-motivation was obvious; there was no fear or apprehension or even hesitation on her part. Quite the contrary. A hint of a smile graced her baby face when she was able, without prodding, to overtake the other elephants in her group.

The fact that Sweetie was part of the search party is testament to her skill and confidence level. Each elephant must contain the confidence to remain in pursuit, even when charged by an angry rhino. Sweetie has proven that she’s got what it takes: not fear of her mahout but confidence in him and most important, in herself.

Sweetie’s mahout rode gallantly atop her bare neck, projecting the image of a proud father. He never struck her or yelled, but encouraged her to challenge herself to move faster than the others, cutting them off and gaining rank.

The look on her face was priceless — she reveled in the game. Her age gave her an advantage. Being young, Sweetie does not suffer the aches and pains experienced by her elders. Her gate was smooth as a still lake and her attitude reeked of confidence.

I saw young Sweetie Kali and all the forest patrol elephants in a different light today. These elephants will never return to a life in the wild; they will spend their entire life in servitude to man. Within such parameters, I cannot think of a better way for them to live than amongst their comrades, immersed in the forests, engaged in stimulating elephant-friendly activity that keeps them fit and confident.

No, I am not advocating that captive elephants should work for their keep, but they do. What I do support is that they be treated with kindness and respect and allowed to live a life as close to nature as possible. I believe that we can improve upon the life of forest patrol elephants, making improvements to their welfare. But short of returning them to a safe wilderness (which does not exist), these captive elephants are the lucky ones.

Modi Prasad

Around this time last year, I met a man named Vincent in Sauraha, Nepal. We spoke over dinner, along with a table full of other people, about his plan to start an Elephant Retreat Center in Chitwan.

Over the following year, Vincent contacted me several times, asking for advice and funding. In my last communication I told Vincent that I was returning to Nepal and was looking forward to seeing the status of his project first-hand.

No one I spoke with in Chitwan knew anything about the Elephant Retreat Center. I finally located Sharad, the hotel owner alleged to be involved with the project. We had a long conversation and I am sorry to report what I learned.

Modi Prasad was sold to a buyer in India last month. My heart sank hearing the news. Sharad alleges that he contacted both Vincent and Mary to let them know of the pending sale but, according to him, never heard back from either.

In his blog on www.elephantretreatcenter.blogspot.com, Vincent announced that Modi Prasad would retire on October 17, 2010. On the ERC web site http://www.elephantcentre.org/Elephant_Retreat_Centre/Meet_Them/Meet_Them.html, a big red star announces that Modi Prasad is retired. Unfortunately for Modi, he has not been retired but instead was sold to yet another owner and shipped back to India.

Breeding Center

Kiran, the government veterinary technician, and I finished trimming feet at the Government Breeding Center yesterday.

I was so pleased that things really changed from the first day. I spoke with Kiran about the mahouts hitting the elephants; he was great. Without hesitation, he engaged the mahouts, men he has worked with for many years, and explained why they cannot hit their elephants. From his intonation and body language, I could tell that Kiran took my request very seriously and the phonits (lead mahouts) and mahouts listened intently. . They respect Kiran and followed his direction without hesitation, which was that at no time should they hit the elephants.

When the first nervous elephant laid down, the mahout unconsciously went to strike her instead of allowing her time to lay her arthritic body gently to the ground. The other mahouts and Kiran cried out in unison – “no pit nau” (show respect-don’t hit).
Stopping in mid-swing, you could see that the mahout had not realized he was about to hit his elephant; the action is so ingrained there is no thought associated with it. Like breathing, it is automatic. For the next 90 minutes, the mahouts needed to remind each other only a couple of times, and the reflex to hit was quickly under control.

It was great to see the mahouts monitor each other in an effort to comply with our request. There was even laughter when a mahout would absent mindedly raise his stick and other mahouts would verbally jump all over him. All of the mahouts and phonits got into the act of making sure no elephants were harmed during my time at the center. Joking around with the mahouts and having Kiran present made it possible to create a calm and abuse-free environment. As expected, the elephants relaxed into their pedicures.

The elephants at the breeding center spend the day out in the forest browsing and the nights chained under a shelter. Mothers and calves are allowed to stay together until the calf is around five, and I must say, the center runs quite smoothly.

With a good mix of young and senior phonits and mahouts, we had lots of guys jockeying for a Turn to trim feet. The competition between men and boys did not hurt a bit, and then add to the mix that a woman was doing trimming. By the second day I was able to instruct the mahouts to do the heavy cutting with the cycle knife (which I refuse to touch), leaving me to do my favorite part: intricate trimming and shaping with my prissy exacto blade. At first the guys laughed at my knife but the smiles melted from their faces when they tried to trim with it. They quickly learned that my knife was designed for precision work, not brute strength, and that it takes some time to get a feel for it. In the end, the guys were opting for the girly knife and doing some really fine trimming on their elephants’ feet.

Dr Geare, the head government vet, checked on our progress several times over the past two weeks. He encouraged his staff to learn as much as possible, stating that with proper foot care the center would save money. He said that in the past many elephants developed foot problems requiring drug therapy, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory treatment. He was optimistic that by learning foot trimming skills, the phonits and mahouts could ensure better foot health for their elephants and reduce the need for drug therapy.

Each morning on our way to the breeding center we stopped at a local produce stand to buy a stock of bananas. Kiran was a champ, never complaining about having to taxi me around on his motorcycle. The road to the breeding center is…well…how do I say? — rocky! Potholes are not the concern; it’s all the boulder-size rocks used to make the paved surface. Watch out when you fall…ouch!

We did take a spill, once. Luckily we were driving quite slow, crossing another road, when a baby goat, in hot pursuit of breakfast, darted right under the front tire. Kiran successfully avoided the youngster but spilled the bike as result. I saw it coming and was only concerned that we not hit the goat. The local shopkeepers rushed out to brush the dust from our clothes and make sure we were okay. I craned my neck to see the condition of the goat. She was safe and sound a few feet away, suckling from her mom with her twin sister, unconcerned about the commotion she had created. In Asia animals may be treated differently but they are valuable, more valuable than the motorcycle we rode on. If Kiran had harmed or killed the goat he would have had to reimburse the owners for her value. Needless to say, every precaution is taken to avoid harming someone else’s livestock.

Color Holy Day

March 20, 2011

Today is the second of two days of the Holy Day Festival of Color, when everyone runs around spreading powered paint on everyone else. It did not take long to learn that the official greeting of the day is Happy Holy. Yesterday was the festival day for the mountain areas, and today is the Color Day for the Thura villages.

This is a time when age has its benefit. The youth know to respect their elders’ desire to not be covered in “color,” but it also a time to join in on the cultural fun. Yesterday I found myself surrounded by several enthusiastic pre-teenagers desperate to rub yellow paint power on my face. What else could I do but oblige them?

I am sure the fact that it is full moon is no coincidence; most ancient festivals are dictated by the moon, the stars and the seasons. Last night on my walk back to my guesthouse from town I heard before I saw a huge raging bond fire. The scene was mesmerizing, with the crackling blaze backlighting some 50 painted dancers. Some had drums, others dancing sticks, and all seemed to have handfuls of powered paint. Even from my distance I felt pulled into the ritual that spoke to my soul.

Today the roving bands of paint-wielding youth have multiplied. Their eagerness to cover the entire town with paint seems to have increased, but they still remain respectful of those of us who duck around the corner of a shed or attempt to hide behind a tree when they approach. With a friendly “Namaste,” everyone breaks into laughter as the kids run off in search of a more cooperative canvas.

A stage is set up downtown with music blaring and people have been dancing since 10am. Bands of motorcycle riding teenagers, covered in multiple colors of paint, roar through town, yelling to one another as the youngest children giggle as others hold them down and cover their clothes with color! From the paint-free zone of my porch I hear joyful singing from every direction. Young and old alike are engaged in playful banter; from every direction you can hear and see everyone enjoying this Holy Day of Color.

a powerful lesson

I am back in Sauraha, feeling like I have come full circle. For the past week I have trimmed feet at the government center. The majority of elephants who have received pedicures are adult males used for night patrol in the forest to protect wildlife from poachers. Their lives are far removed from their birthright but at least they spend a portion of their time walking on the soft forest floor, taking in the sights and sounds of the natural world. They are a shadow of their true selves; where those selves have gone, I don’t know.

Today I began work at the elephant breeding center, another government project in Chitwan. I was disappointed to leave behind the mahouts I had spent the previous week training, but felt confident that these mahouts would learn as quickly.

Most of the elephants at the breeding center are young, as you would expect: there are fewer adult males and lots of females and young calves. The first thing I noticed is that the mahouts are not as gentle or patient as the mahouts at the government center. It registered as I realized I was hearing the thump thump thump of a stick hitting a young male on the head.

I was reminded of the wise words of Karl, a fellow elephant caregiver at the Elephant Nature Park. I am paraphrasing, but his words went something like: “Even when we think we are helping elephants, many times it is more about us than about them.”

Karl’s words came to me loud and clear as I was trimming the feet of a young elephant. I was so intent on providing a service that I ignored the fact that he was suffering because of me. He was quite frightened to lie down for the pedicure, and the mahouts were insensitive to his fear.

When I finally allowed myself to realize what was happening, I froze in my tracks. What good could my help possibly be if this little elephant was being hurt to enable me to do my work?

I took a step back to reevaluate the situation. Even though I was not participating in the abuse, I allowed it to happen, and in that way I was a party to it. Karl’s words helped me to see my error; I want to make sure that no elephant is harmed in my presence or as part of my giving assistance.

I owe Karl a great deal for his wisdom and plan to be more conscious from this moment forward. Just because the mahouts have no concept of na pit neu (don’t hit) is no reason for me to assume they cannot learn.

My next pedicure session is in a couple of hours. I plan to bring a bag of treats for the young male, learn his name and have his mahout lie him down without hitting him. I will then instruct the mahout to give the elephant the treats as I apologize to him for my insensitivity. I will not trim his feet; only give him the opportunity, perhaps for the first time in his captive life, to experience what it feels like to be respected.

Back in Kathmandu

I am sitting in the wifi area of a modest guesthouse in Kathmandu overwhelmed by the feeling of having come home. This is an unexpected surprise. I liked Kathmandu the last time I was here but did not realize just how much. The weather is cool — only 60 degrees. So nice!

People of all different ages and nationalities sit in armchairs scattered around the room. Some are on their computers, others are talking with their friends on their cell phones or on SKYPE. The eclectic collection of conversation is like a song, flowing, blending together beautifully, no two the same. I am thankful for this enriching experience.

my last evening in India

Oh, what a night! It started with a 60-minute walk-about with two elephants dressed to the nines and hundreds of devotees. It was like being in a pageant. Lakshmi is mature beyond her years. She wore a jeweled headpiece and matching blanket and carried three costumed riders. Even though she is still just a kid, she never once fidgeted or acted her age, unlike her little sister Bishnu who showed her boredom after the first few minutes.

The procession made a complete round of the temple compound, stopping four times — or was it five? — I really can’t remember. The hordes of chanting devotees were mesmerized by the bejeweled elephants. Security guards held a rope to keep the crowd, which resembled a school of fish moving in unison around Lakshmi and Bishnu, back. All I can say is that the elephants did not hurt anyone and the devotees were impressed.

As soon as the procession was over I was off to the Kolkata airport. The three-hour drive was a bit of a nail biter because the driver could hardly stay awake. Each time he nearly drove into oncoming traffic or slowed to a snail’s pace with drivers frantically honking behind, I suggested he stop. We did stop…three times. The last time I thought I must be dreaming because three old men rushed the car and tried to open the doors. I was a lot of help — all I could say was ”Hey, what’s going on?” – and apparently my driver was as surprised as me because he quickly reached over to the passenger side and locked the door. As it turns out, the men were hitchhiking and thought we had stopped to pick them up. The men walked away with puzzled looks on their faces. But I was thankful because the surprise woke my driver up a bit.

I have never been happier to see an airport in my life but the night was young as far as adventures were concerned. I had not printed out my plane tickets because…well, because I don’t carry a printer around with me. I had made the reservation online and had no access to a printer. When I approached the airport entrance marked “departures,” the security guard would not let me pass. I needed to present a printout of my ticket. He directed me to the outside ticket counter, which unfortunately had just closed and would not open again for another five hours. I really did not want to wait outside the terminal along with the seedy looking cab drivers, diesel fumes and stares.

After seeing that the security guard was not swayed by my entreaties, I did what any red-blooded American woman would do: I asked to see the manager. I don’t know if it was the traditional Indian dress I was wearing or the fact that several of the before-mentioned cab drivers had gathered around us staring, but the manager listened to my situation and instructed the security guard to allow me inside.
Feeling triumphant, I pulled my luggage through the door and found a comfortable seat along with many other weary travelers. I was enthusiastically greeted by the billions of mosquitoes that apparently call the departure lounge at the Kolkata Airport home. One should always maintain a sense of humor when traveling.