Things are changing in the Mae Taeng valley … it is not the quiet, secluded place it used to be. The realities of exploitative elephant tourism are now right next door and visible to us on a daily basis. Slowly but surely the land to the east of us has been bought up, initially being used for agriculture which limited our elephants grazing area. But, when the new land owners decided to build a restaurant/viewing platform and elephant camp beside us, our hearts sank.
You may ask “Why did we not buy this land well before it could be bought by others?” We did actually try. However, in this area much land for sale does not have a secure deed and buying this land could pose a risk. Also, the owner’s asking price is often twice the fair market value.
As a result, what we call the “back” of the park (where the view was pristine with no signs of human habitation) has now been spoiled by construction in progress and the sad sight of two young elephants on short chains, no access to water, heads bobbing endlessly in an act of infinite boredom. For the last two weeks or so, these poor elephants have been chained for most of the day, one within 10 feet of our property line. Obviously they can see, as well as communicate with our elephants.
Our herd has, of course, been curious about them. Faa Sai, defiantly ignoring the mahouts, has made several attempts to run over to meet the forlorn youngsters, Faa Mai and Chang Yim trundling along behind her. Knowing Faa Sai, she has probably been encouraging them to “break free and join the herd,” urging them to “resist and rebel,” and adding that “trekking is no life for an elephant.”
It was only a matter of time before something happened.
The first escape
The morning of February 8th was finally the moment.
At 10:00 a.m. all was calm; most members of the family group were enjoying themselves at a swampy area, Mae Sri Nuan and Mae Thai off on their own. Ten minutes later, the two elephants who had been chained on the land next to us were in the act of challenging their mahouts. It all happened so quickly – one mahout was thrown off the elephant he was riding and the elephant turned on him to hit him while he was down, then quickly swirled back around and took off running, joining the other elephant whose mahout was sprinting behind desperately trying to stop the animal.
The pair headed straight for Mae Sri Nuan who was mildly surprised by their arrival. They stopped for a moment, but as soon as the mahouts attempted to gain control of them, these desperate youngsters took off running uncontrollably once again, doing everything they could to get to the family group.
Once amongst our herd, the pair settled down a bit.
Our understanding and protective elephants clustered around and comforted them with reassuring trunks, soothing them with subtle rumbles. Of our eles, the ones who seemed most sensitive to the trauma of the outsiders were Faa Sai and Tong Jaan. Both of these young ladies are very sensitive and are at the age where learning to care for and protect younger elephants is a way of life. The “runaways” looked to be in between the ages of Tong Jaan who just turned eight, and Faa Sai who is approximately 10.
It was touching and sad to see just how desperate these two elephants were to be in a social and nurturing situation. They seemed literally starved for this kind of attention.
Each time their mahouts made an effort to approach the pair, they adamantly resisted. At one point they took off running once again, this time joined by our concerned family members. Finally, the mahouts realized that the best thing was to just let them calm down before any more attempts were made to lead them back to their sad existence.
To try to make things easier Faa Mai, Chang Yim and the rest were called away. They hesitantly responded to their mahout’s request, worried about the fate of their new acquaintances. The “youngsters on the run’” took off yet again, this time heading towards Mae Perm and Jokia. It seemed that they were desperately looking for protection from any elephant in their path.
Finally, their mahouts were able to gain some semblance of control over the pair and they were led up to the road and back down to their life in purgatory, their short but sweet moment with the herd over.
Mahout for a day: the realities
These two young elephants are being used for the popular “mahout for a day” tourism phenomenon, where the inexperienced westerner — often with bull hook in hand — gets to “drive” an elephant with the mahout walking beside them. An accident waiting to happen, one of these two could bolt again, heading for the safety of Faa Sai and family, a tourist getting thrown off in the process, total chaos.
This “mahout for a day” concept is very stressful for an elephant. Having to endure inexperienced people sitting on their necks, with no prior elephant handling knowledge, is not fun or easy for the elephant. They often have a large fish hook-like thing draped over the top of their ear, close to their head. The point is very sharp and digs into the thin, sensitive ear skin. This is tied tightly around the ear and is very painful. A rope is attached to the other end and the mahout has hold of this when walking next to the elephant. If the elephant disobeys, the rope is yanked and the point pierces the skin, drawing blood.
For these particular elephants this situation is even worse than usual because they are located right next to Save Elephant Foundation’s Elephant Nature Park. They are currently leased by a new operation that does not yet have many customers. This means that the young elephants are tethered for the entire day on short chains, not even within reach of each other. They have nothing to do except gaze out at the Elephant Nature Park family group who are roaming chain free, playing in the river whenever they wish and most of all enjoying each other’s company.
Imagine how these two young elephants must feel … how hopeless … desperate …
The second escape
In fact, so very desperate that only four days later on February 12th, they made a run for the safety of the Elephant Nature Park once again!
On this day they made it much farther inside the park and the incident caused a bigger disturbance. Their mahouts were close behind, wielding hooks, as well as bamboo poles with sharp nails at the ends. They had lost their patience and meant business.
Once again Faa Mai, Faa Sai and the others clustered around to comfort and protect them. Their mahouts had no time for this socializing and wanted to gain control as soon as possible. It was a sad reality to see these young elephants dealt with so harshly and led away, as if prisoners on their way to solitary confinement – which in many ways was exactly what they were.
Life is not going to get any easier for this pair anytime soon.
Since that last escape there have been a few tourists. Somehow, completely oblivious to the horrific cruelty that they are supporting and partaking in, they happily await climbing aboard the reluctant young elephant. Fear is evident in his eyes, heavy chains to subdue him draped upon his neck, sharp hook fixed to his ear, a painful reminder to obey – not question authority. Somehow, the customer has failed to notice any of this — even the pole with the sharp nail at the end that the mahout is holding.
Oh, but ”don’t worry … the elephant’s skin is very thick; this nail stabbing him does not hurt at all.”
It is saddening to see just how many uneducated tourists are still out there. How anyone could look that young bull in the eye and NOT see how miserable he was, is just shocking.
We have much to do. There are no easy answers. We can’t rescue every elephant out there, though we wish we could. Much more land is needed — thousands of forested, mountainous acres, so that the elephants can finally be free of the necessity for a mahout at all. That is the end goal. In fact, we are currently running a raffle where one lucky winner will win a free week volunteering at the park, and all monies will go directly towards our land fund so we can purchase more land in order to continue rescuing elephants.
In the meantime, education is our best weapon. We who love elephants and who have voices must speak out for them and do everything in our power to make the blind see and the deaf hear … before it is to late.