As soon as I stepped off the narrow jungle path I was enveloped by giant and unfamiliar leaves, I was vaguely aware that this was exactly the sort of foliage which could be harboring large scale creepy crawlies and deadly snakes.
But I had bigger things to worry about. Much, much bigger.
The low rumble ahead from something unseen was impossibly ominous, a sound I felt through the ground rather than heard. It was accompanied by the leisurely, but decidedly violent snapping and swishing of branches. Something very large and very powerful was just ahead, and I had to approach carefully, respectfully, to basically avoid being killed.
Pushing aside a leaf bigger than my back, I saw her for the first time.
Lucky was the name of the enormous, 45 year old elephant standing at the other side of the clearing, fifteen meters ahead.
Her trunk flicked across the ground in front of her, and her ears flapped forwards in a show of irritation; the sun behind her shining pink through the lower edges. The gradual fading of the ears from grey to pink is one way to tell the age of an elephant, and Lucky’s depigmentation was about a third of the way through, appropriate for her years.
Imagine you had a human slave, a 45 year old woman, used to nothing but forced labor and processed food, whom was suddenly allowed to go to a riverside health spa, where she could wash in the river and eat as much of her favorite food as she liked. Her trip was delayed by her owner re-calling her in transit, to spend a month hauling materials for his new luxury home in the mountains. By now she’d been here for two months, and although she was avidly soaking up the benefits, bathing for hours on end, stretching and exercising in the shade of the forest, and eating plenty of good quality food, she could still be pretty wary.
This was Lucky’s story.
Most of her life’s experience has been hardship inflicted by people, and here’s another one, right there, popping out into the clearing. A sixty-kilo woman used to a life of labor would be an adversary for anyone, but a 2500-kilo elephant is an entirely different scale of threat.
I was already well into the dead zone where there would be no possibility of escape if Lucky chose to charge, and there were five other people nearby, including my two children, who were similarly at risk. If Lucky chose to, she could create all kinds of havoc before ending up on the road about 1km away. She was unchained, with only a twenty-year-old ‘Mahout’, or elephant keeper, a useless thirty meters away, armed with a short stick with a blunted metal hook on it.
But Lucky had known this ‘Mahout’, named Yo, all his life, as he was the son of her owner, and apparently their relationship was good.
I’d been told I could approach her on my own if I was cautious, but not to go too close. I was very, very cautious, happy to stay at the far edge of the clearing, doing my best to send out ‘good vibes’.
Lucky was an awesome thing.
Her ears stopped flapping and she casually reached for a sapling, six inches thick and ten meters high, and nonchalantly snapped its trunk with hers without taking her eyes off me. Elephants like the leaves at the tops of trees because they get more sun, and are sweeter and more nutritious. If the top leaves are too high up, they bring them nearer, a slow- motion deforestation habit, which means that managing elephants in their natural habitat requires a lot of land.
Lolling in the river for hours on end and then striding into the jungle to break down trees was the perfect break for Lucky, but watching her, she clearly thought that that was all it was.
Just like a lifelong prisoner in a luxury resort, she was regenerating, storing the benefits against the next bout of toil, which could happen at any time and could last for the rest of her life.
What a creature. Meeting her here on her terms, a working woman, eagerly eating her fill, wary of the next human whim, which might take her back out to work was an immense privilege. I backed out of the clearing and went to talk to Ken, Lucky’s temporary custodian, down by the river, about how we could help to keep Lucky and her fellow elephants safe at the sanctuary, for the foreseeable future.
It turns out that eco-tourists are what’s needed, curious Westerners (or Asians or Africans) who want to help the elephants, and share a little of what it means to look after them, without riding them around in the hot sun of the tourist camps of Chiang Mai. We’d seen these tourists from the road, riding slow trains of lumbering elephants along well worn paths, some animals carrying two or three people at a time, dressed in faux-Thai costumes, wearing flowers in their hair, taking selfies and then scooting off to the next must-do tick-box experience to post on Facebook.
But there is a real appetite for change in Thailand. A lot of elephant owners are unhappy with the camps and the treatment that their elephants receive there. But they need an income to support the three hundred pounds of food that every one of Thailand’s 3000 “domesticated” elephants needs every day, since being rendered unemployed by the ban on commercial logging in 1989.
Down by the river I got to meet Lucky up close and in person, attended by the hovering Yo, who said it was OK to touch her. I took my time stepping towards her, but as soon as I did she stepped towards me, and Yo came forwards too, not touching her but eyeballing her left eye like a boxer at a weigh-in. The lad was massively outclassed by many, many weight divisions, but Lucky knew that she wasn’t supposed to squash me like a bug. She looked at me with her right eye, and let me put my hand on the rough warm skin of her trunk, and feel the cool, supple, living leather of her ear. It felt the healthiest of the dozen or so elephant ears I had touched since arriving in Thailand two weeks before. Ken was doing something right, and I resolved that Dartmoor Zoo would do everything it could to support him, and projects like his, trying to give elephants better lives in Thailand.
If you are interested in visiting an ethical elephant conservation project in Thailand, please let us know.