a shared moment of silence in his honor

I read a very disturbing story about an elephant who was stabbed to death in Vietnam. The photos are so gruesome I cannot post them. This 38-year-old tusker spent his life in captivity entertaining tourists. He was attacked twice last year and it took months to nurse him back to health. This time, the hairs on his tail cost him his life.

I usually do not post such deeply disturbing stories but I feel a responsibility to this elephant to not let his suffering be in vain. The degree to which humans can harm another being is something I simply cannot comprehend. This elephant was held in captivity to feed tourism, the key component in the abuse and suffering of captive elephants. As long as tourists participate in elephant safaris, shows, rides, photo ops, feeding and petting, elephants will continue to be abused and killed.

While I was in Nepal this past March/April providing foot care, Dr. Griry, the head government veterinarian, trimmed the tail hairs from elephants to ensure they would not be attacked. I was horrified by stories about attackers in Nepal hacking off the end of an elephant tail to collect the hairs.

Last update 24/04/2011 04:51:00 PM (GMT+7)

Da Lat: Elephant stabbed to death

VietNamNet Bridge – A 38 year old male elephant, named Beckham, was killed in the Tuyen Lam Lake Tourism Area in the resort city of Da Lat on April 24.

The elephant was found dead near Tuyen Lam forest with two cuts on his two hind legs. It is said that the elephant died because of losing blood from the two cuts. Its ivory and tail however were not removed.

Phan Thi Hoa, director of the Nam Qua Ecological Tourism Co., Ltd, which owns the elephant, said that the elephant was still healthy on April 23. Its corpse was detected by elephant keepers on the morning of April 24, around 1km from the Tuyen Lam tourist site.

The elephant was raised by Nam Qua Company to serve tourists in the Tuyen Lam tourist site.

Before the lunar New Year, this elephant was attacked twice and injured seriously, but fortunately survived the elephant tusk and tail hair hunters.

“We had to hire a veterinary doctor to take care of him for weeks. It had just recovered four months before it was killed,” said Hoa.

In August 2010, some elephants in Da Lat’s tourist sites were attacked to take tail hairs. It is said that elephant tail hairs are “sacred objects”, so elephants are often attacked.

Ninh Phan

Last update 26/04/2011 03:49:49 PM (GMT+7)

Da Lat’s elephant corpse is burned

VietNamNet Bridge – The corpse of the elephant which was killed in the Central Highland city of Da Lat several days ago was burned on April 25, under the witness of local forest protection agency and relevant agencies.

Ten young staff members at the Tuyen Lam tourist site were mobilized to burn the dead elephant. The task was estimated to take place in one day.

The entire elephant corpse, including tale and ivory, was burnt by petrol and wood.

The tourist site’s manager, Anh Vu, said that the elephant, named after British football star Beckham, was dead for one day, but the smell was very bad, so it must be burned urgently.

Beckham had been bred at the tourist site for a long time and it was the most beautiful elephant in Da Lat. The elephant had both tusks and tail, while other elephants in Da Lat have lost these parts. Beckham was very obedient, gentle and friendly.

The elephant was around 4 tons, 38 years old. It was bought from the Dak Lak province in 2000, at the price of VND700 million (around US$40,000). Its job was serving tourists at the Tuyen Lam tourist site.

Beckham was found dead in the forest around 3km from the Tuyen Lam tourist site on April 24, next to pools of blood. The elephant was stabbed and its hind leg tendons were cut off. However, its tusks and tail were not chopped. An axe was found near the elephant corpse.

Last year the elephant was attacked twice, suffering 38 wounds, and it took him several months to treat the wounds.

Local police are investigating the case. Some elephant keepers said that the murderer might be familiar to the elephant.

According to the Da Lat Forest Protection Bureau, there are five elephants at tourist sites in Da Lat now.

The Central Highland province of Dak Lak currently has the highest number of tamed elephants in Vietnam. In the 1980s, the province had more than 500 elephants, but the current number is only 54.

checking in at ENP

My return flight to Los Angeles leaves from Bangkok, which was the perfect excuse to go back to Elephant Nature Park one more time to see the progress made by Chang Yim and Karl.

Yim never ceases to impress me. He has made yet another transition from Karl to his new mahout, Lai. Karl has worked diligently over the past many weeks training Lai, and Yim has been a real trouper. There is no doubt in my mind that Chang Yim will miss the special relationship between him and Karl, but Yim has a bigger mission. He has the opportunity to teach a “traditional” mahout a different way, a more humane and gentler way to manage him and his family members. This move from Karl to Lai is actually quite monumental in the big picture…Yim is the catalyst for change. I am so proud to know him.

In addition to satisfying my curiosity about Yim’s progress, my return to ENP was to give Karl some pointers on training the elephants to place their leg on the trimming stool recently built for back foot trims. Once the elephants are trained, I will be able to return and finish the foot care clinic I started.

Mae Tee and Mae Kham Geao were our first students. The initial hurdle was getting the ladies to start thinking for themselves, no easy task for elephants who for decades had been conditioned not to think. The training was slow and at times appeared to be at a standstill, but, I could see the wheels slowly beginning to turn in their heads. Patience was the key.

After two days, my time at the park was up. Karl was well on his way to conditioning Mae Tee and Mae Kham Geao to voluntarily lift their back legs, a requirement in order to slide a trimming stood underneath for support. I felt torn leaving—I always do—but I had confidence that Karl would do just fine.

Today, a little before four, I received a call from Karl. At first I was apprehensive because Faa Mai is experiencing some unidentified health issue. But the news was all good: Faa Mai seems a little better. But the reason Karl had called was not to update me on Faa Mai, it was to tell me that Mae Tee and Mae Kham Geao got it! They were lifting their back legs off the ground and suspending them in the air when asked. The both of them!

What do you bet they talked about it over the past two days? It comes as no surprise that both ladies, dear friends who spend all their time together, figured out what Karl wanted in the same training session. Karl was so pleased, and WOW — what can I say. I am so proud of everyone involved in this work: Karl, Dam (the Maes’ mahout), Jody and Sophie (treat givers) and especially Maes Tee and Kham Geao, the ladies of the hour. I sure wish I could have been there to share in the cheers and congratulations showered on the ladies, but I was there in spirit. Planting the seed and seeing it grow, one World, one elephant at a time — in this case, two elephants at a time!

Seeds of Change

April 13

My work in Sauraha has come to an end, at least for the time being.  Seeds of change have been planted. From the looks of it, some seeds are already growing, quietly shifting the soil around their sprouting roots. Experiencing the fruits of my labor so instantaneously fills me with hope.

Yesterday when Kiran and I arrived for Bhadra’s morning session we were told that Ramji, his mahout, was off making preparations for the New Year’s Day celebration. I jumped at the chance to work with Bhadra in Ramji’s absence.  But my excitement was quickly doused when Bhadra made it perfectly clear that he would work with me but under protest.

After completing each request Bhadra would do a mini mock lunge from behind the protective barrier. It seemed that he was clearly bothered about something to do with me. He was responding but being snotty. I have seen this type of behavior before when training a new mahout who struggles to keep pace with an advanced elephant student. I did not make that analogy until sometime later.

The next day, the motivation behind Bhadra’s behavior became apparent. In our absence, Ramji had risen to a challenge from Kiran to prove his skill with Bhadra within three months. The ultimate goal: to show everyone how far he could take Bhadra with positive reinforcement training.

Ramji proved his skills beyond question when he surprised us by calling Bhadra from the protection of the corral and proceeded to ask him to present his feet and ears, move to the side, back up and put his head down. I was stunned. They were fabulous. Ramji, all cool, calm, and collected, Bhadra listening intently and responding to each verbal cue. I wish you could have been there to see it for yourself, but I did catch it on video. This type of breakthrough must be documented in order for others to believe.

Needless to say, Kiran was pleasantly surprised at the immediate progress in less than a week!  Ramji obviously took the challenge seriously, resulting in a display that had me grinning from ear to ear, joyful with disbelief.

Ramji earned much deserved respect today, and Bhadra…well, he already has my heart. He has now joined the ranks of the “MIGHTY TYKES,” the young elephants in Thailand and now Nepal participating in this important case study of positive reinforcement training. These youngsters are the hope of the future: what they teach us and their mahouts will shape elephant training of the future. They are demonstrating how positive reinforcement training can be used with captive elephants in a hands-on working situation.  We owe them and their mahouts a great debt of gratitude.

Kiran knew instinctively that witnessing Bhadra and Ramji’s incredible accomplishments would make my day, my last in Sauraha. It was wonderful to see how proud he was. Kiran has been an invaluable asset throughout the training process. I doubt he realizes the role he has played in this cultural shift of mahout attitudes, which has the potential to change the future for captive elephants. The future is bright indeed.

I left Sauraha today with a heavy heart, heavy with the joy of knowing that we have planted a seed. I for one cannot wait to see how it grows.

a fiery red head

I’ve got a new heartthrob. He is smart, dark and seriously handsome, with a full head of fiery red hair! Admittedly on the young side, Bhadra still lives with his mom and spends the entire day gallivanting in the Chitwan National Forest.

We met two days ago and have spent only limited time together but let me tell you this little boy is smart. He is my latest ele-student, one year old and full of spunk and sweetness. There goes another piece of my heart!

Bhadra lives at a private resort on the border of Chitwan National Park with his mother, his sister and other non-related family. The resort has been closed for a couple of years, making life that much easier on this elephant family. No tourist rides, just lazy days in the forest and short training sessions, when Bhadra gets to demonstrate to his mahouts what elephants are capable of when trained through positive reinforcement.

The mahouts have been fabulous, very interested and engaged. Bhadra has only had four 15-minute sessions over the past two days and now responds to agot (come here) and ra (stand still), and presents his pow (foot), kan (ear) and thuk mud (head) when asked. Things were a little slow getting started because Bhadra surprised me by not liking bananas or apples. His mahouts knew exactly what he would like — molasses. One taste of the favored treat and he was all ears, head and feet!

What a blessing it has been to work with him. Hopefully together we have planted a seed with these young mahouts.

Kasara Camp

Today I traveled many kilometers through Chitwan National Park to reach my foot trimming clients. To get there, I hiked to the river’s edge, boarded a small sailing vessel, crossed a river and drove through a magnificent forest, crossing over creeks on what I would call barely-bridges (as opposed to sturdy concrete ones). It was a wonderful adventure!

When I reached the river, the tourists were packed like sardines in their low-rider boats with a boatman steering them lazily down river. Dr. Geare, the head Government veterinarian at Chitwan National Park, Chitra, a vet tech who works with Dr. Geare, and I were ushered onto our private dugout canoe with removable seats (little wooden stools that fold up against the side of the canoe when not in use), which silently glided across the river to the sand bank on the opposite side.

Our driver magically appeared. We climbed into a truck and I must say had a ride of my life. It was only after we picked up several young soldiers hoofing it back to camp that I was able to release my firm grip on the door frame, the only thing keeping me from bouncing out of my seat and hitting head on the roof. The weight of the men in the back gave the truck better traction and kept the back end from bouncing up and down like a trampoline. It was a great ride through a beautiful forest.

Within minutes a wild boar had crossed the road, male peacocks could be seen and heard sounding their calls, a monkey clung to the side of a tree, a couple of deer flashed by and too many muggers (crocs) sunned themselves along the back of a small creek.

Our destination was the Kasara forest camp where four government elephants live. What a shift from Sauraha. Don’t get me wrong — Sauraha is a nice place for the government elephants — but in Kasara the elephants are really living in the forest. If I could only get rid of the chains and hobbles and put up some hot wire fencing, I would really feel as if I was helping them. Okay, one thing at a time — first feet trimming and then more freedom!

Kiran was not with us today, but Chitra also excels at foot trimming. Upon arrival, I found that instead of the three elephants I was expecting there were actually four. Three elephants were scheduled for foot trims which is why they made it on the list, or maybe it was because the fourth elephant actually is unnamed. She is Laxmi Kali’s year-old calf. When I asked her name, a slight hesitation was followed by, “her name is Laxmi’s calf.”

After spending several days trimming the feet of privately owned elephants, I must admit that today really highlighted the differences from those owned by the government. The government mahouts seem to have a much better relationship with their elephants. They do not yell incessantly nor strike their elephants absentmindedly, which is good because Chitra and Dr. Geare had already heard my request for no pit neu. Actually, my request has grown more sophisticated following an impromptu Nepalese lesson I had last night. I was told that no pit neu is nonsensical and that the proper way to get my point across in proper Nepalese is hati lie na pita, which translated means, “do not hit the elephant.”

The foot trimming went smoothly, with the mahouts seeing for the first time how to administer proper foot care. They were very interested and helpful, and each appeared proud when his elephant’s trimming was completed.

Just as we were finishing up with Laxmi Kali, her calf decided that it was time for a drink and let out a boisterous “I’m thirsty!” yell. Mom immediately threw her hind leg in the air to get up, a fair warning to the mahouts that she really needed to respond to her calf. We all laughed, knowing how the babies call the shots. Laxmi jumped to her feet and baby got the drink she was so thirsting for.