Meet the Mahout: Navann’s Dam
One of the nicest, most competent and well known mahouts at the Elephant Nature Park is 36-year-old Dam. He is currently the mahout of Navann and Sri Prae. Dam comes from the Shan state of Burma (or Myanmar). About ten percent of our mahouts are Shan, who fled their homeland to escape persecution. Dam has been in Thailand for 15 years and has always worked as a mahout. His wife, Gayna, is also employed by ENP, and works in the kitchen. They have a beautiful 5-year-old daughter, Faa Sai. Dam is linguistically diverse and is fluent in Shan, Burmese, some Chinese, as well as Thai!
Right after Elephant Nature Park settled at this location, Dam became the mahout of Mae Keow, Lek’s third elephant. He cared for her for almost a year. Dam then decided to leave for a while, but after about 10 months he came back hoping to yet again look after one of the ENP’s herd.
Not long after Dam’s departure, we rescued a bull elephant named Kham Meun. When Dam returned, we hired him back because he had experience working with hard to manage bulls, so he was put with Kham Meun. Dam looked after Kham Meun for about a year.
… And then we had an even bigger job for Dam, though in a smaller package!
Hope was just past 5-years-old when the mahout who was caring for him decided to go back home. Dam was asked to take over the very demanding job of managing Hope, who was well on his way to being the busiest elephant in the park. That first day when Dam became Hope’s mahout, was one of the luckiest days of Hope’s life. Hope was very fortunate to have such a patient, confident and accomplished mahout looking after him for the next 3 1/2 years — very formative years for a young bull.
Dam worked with Hope daily and using positive reinforcement taught Hope to respond to all the basic commands needed to keep him in control. Dam has an amazing way with elephants. They respond to his nature cooperatively, sensing that Dam knows what he is doing. Dam never uses excessive force or intimidation to get the response he needs from an elephant.
Dam enjoyed caring for Hope. Hope was content having Dam as his mahout. But, soon after the birth of Faa Sai, Dam felt that he needed a change. He was ready for a less demanding elephant. Having a baby meant needing more time off and that is not easy for the mahout of Hope. A second mahout was hired and the slow change over began.
Once Hope accepted his new mahout Dam took over the care of another elephant, this time a middle aged, very slow female named Mae Kham Geao. Mae Kham Geao was the polar opposite of Hope. Dam went from feisty, fast, spirited, mischievous male to slow, calm, predictable female. In short, Dam went from the most difficult elephant in the park to the easiest elephant in the park, almost like a permanent paid vacation!
For the next 3 1/2 years Dam was the mahout of Mae Kham Geao. Despite being very mild mannered, Mae Kham Geao was a special needs elephant, so Dam’s expertise was not lost on her. Mae Kham Geao moved at an incredibly slow pace and was a bit stubborn. A patient, experienced mahout was a must.
One of Dam’s many great qualities is the fact that he actually spends a good amount of time touching and engaging with the elephant in his care. More often than not, you will find Dam checking behind the ears and around the neck picking off tiny ticks. They may only be a very mild annoyance to the elephant, but the act of Dam gently touching his elephant regularly, creates in the elephant a strong sense of trust for Dam. Positive touch is very important in building a good mahout elephant relationship. This is essential when there is a stressful situation and a mahout needs to keep the elephant in control. The elephant may cooperate with the mahout more willingly as they feel safe with, and respect, the mahout without being afraid. This is how elephants respond to Dam and what makes him more special than the average mahout.
During Mae Kham Geao’s last days, Dam never left her side. He did everything in his power to make sure that she was comfortable. When she let go, Dam was there to say goodbye.
After Mae Kham Geao’s passing, Dam decided he wanted a career change. There is always an ongoing construction project of some sort going on here at ENP and Dam wanted to try his hand at welding. We thought it was a waste of a perfectly good mahout, but it seemed unfair to limit Dam’s experience and hold him back from learning a skilled trade … so, off went one of the best mahouts at ENP to ply the trade of welding. We could not help but feel a little bit sad.
Thankfully, the elephant gods had a plan!
Dam’s welding career was cut short by the arrival of Navann. When Sri Prae suprised us that morning with a new born calf, only days after her mahout had decided to leave, Dam was back on the job. Considering that the elephants born here will not be tortured into submission, having a competent, patient mahout is imperative to rearing a young calf — especially a bull. The timing was perfect. We breathed a sigh of relief knowing that Navann was in the care of Dam.
October 28, 2013 was Navann’s first birthday. Dam has taught him much in his first year of life as well as allowing him ample free time to just be a young elephant doted on by his mother and aunties. Navann’s days are long and full of learning, fun and new experiences.
At 6:30 a.m., many of our mahouts are just getting out of bed or still eating their breakfast. Dam, on the other hand, is already on the job, escorting Navann, Sri Prae, Mae Kham Paan and Dao Tong out to their favorite area in the field. The sunrise causes the morning dew covered grass to glisten.
While the elephants graze peacefully, taking in trunkfuls of the fresh morning air, Dam perches on a fallen log, pulls a block of wood from his bag and deftly begins to carve it into a miniature version of Navann. There is a sense of comfortable companionship and peace between the five of them. Navann, his devoted aunties and mother are very appreciative to be out roaming freely at such an early hour. They seem to know how lucky they are to have Dam as the head mahout of their family group.
We are certainly aware of how lucky we are to have Dam looking after Navann’s family. Mahouts like Dam who really care and take pride in what they do are a rare thing in this day and age. Thank you Dam, for all of your years of care and loyalty to the elephants of ENP!