Close Encounters of the Elephant Kind

Test driving an all-terrain vehicle wasn’t on my checklist, but here we are, bouncing down a stony slope, plunging into the waters of the Tad Se river. I cross above a roaring falls, current swirling around the sides, emerge up the other bank, shedding water in sheets, and proceed to break trail through the rosewood and bamboo of the Laotian monsoon forest. “And”, I think to myself, “this baby gets great mileage—a days’ travel on a few hundred pounds of shoots and leaves”. An elephant is simply the finest four-wheel drive vehicle in the world. We’re atop Mūn, a 67-year-old female with thick, grey skin wrinkled into a topo map of creases, and a deep, black knowing eye. Of course instead of a smooth ride in rubbed Connolly leather seats, I perch in a minimal frayed wicker bench that leaves me feeling like freefall when she is headed downhill, and hanging on to the frail side rail when she trudges uphill—but you can’t beat the unstoppable trail-breaking capability and the exhilaration of the Elephas Maximus brand.

Elephants are fascinating to most people. They are thought to be as intelligent as dolphins, seem wise and knowing, have been shown to be the only self-aware mammal other than man, are reported to mourn their dead, and, of course, never forget. They are imposing, wondrous, friendly and frightening all at the same time.

I’ve had many encounters with African elephants on the dark continent which have left vivid memories—imagine these scenes: vast herds charging through the thin forests of the Chobe National Park; a group placidly munching their way through our secret camp above the hippo pool on the Mara river in the Masai Mara; a mother being protective of her baby among the thorn trees of the Serengeti and charging our rapidly reversing Land Rover; a rogue male playing chicken with an ostrich (and losing!) among a gazillion gazelles and zebras at a watering hole on the chalk-dry plains of Etosha.

On previous trips to Thailand, Viet Nam and Cambodia to explore temples and ruins, we'd seen, but not particularly concentrated on elephants. African elephants differ in several ways from their Asian cousins: they are about 30% larger, with much bigger ears. And they are rarely domesticated, whereas Asian elephants have been trained by, and worked and lived with man for centuries. After hearing about elephant programs at several resorts, independent elephant camps, and even elephant polo in the region, I had decided to return to Thailand and Laos to seek further experiences with the big grey beasts, and learn more about human interaction with them—their training, working and living together.

Southeast Asian people have had a close relationship with elephants for centuries—they had been war machines, provided means of overland transport, and were the engines of the logging trade as teak, cedar, rosewood were harvested to meet world demand. By the middle 20th century, logging accounted for most elephant employment, but hardwood logging was increasingly being curtailed. In 1989 the Thai government banned commercial logging completely, as clear-cutting and unsustainable forestry were decimating the country’s teak forests. In one go the entire Thai elephant population was virtually put out of work overnight, with many forced many into illegal logging camps with brutal conditions, or into cities to essentially beg on the streets.

It is estimated that in 1900 as many as one million elephants lived across Asia. Today, The Asian Elephant population is now officially listed as highly endangered—the major threat to Asian elephants has been loss of habitat due to pressure from human population growth. Only an estimated 35-50,000 wild Asian elephants are left, and around 15,000 domesticated or working. But working more and more means in tourism-related jobs—in elephant camps, giving performances, riding and trekking, and the annual elephant roundup and polo tournament.

Despite the change in job description, the bond and relationship between elephant and man, and the long period of acclimation and training remain the same. Elephants and their mahouts—drivers/masters/companions—and their families traditionally live and work together, the arrangement providing income for the family, and food and care for the elephant. It is a very close bond, forged over years with much effort, and the results of that bonding and connection will become evident to me as the trip unfolds.

San Francisco to Tokyo to Bangkok to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a long, dreary slog, but we finally arrive at the delightful oasis that is the Four Seasons Resort just outside Chiang Mai. The Resort nestles in a three-sided forested bowl surrounding a small lake and working rice paddy and overlooking the craggy and often mist shrouded Doi Suthep Mountains. The grounds are an out-and-out tropical botanical preserve containing hundreds of species including riotous parrot ginger, heliconia, vibrant golden shower, stately areca palms and many different orchids, all set in a native forest that was left as natural as possible. For guests who seek elephant experiences, the staff at the Four Seasons takes them to the nearby Chiang Dao or Maesa elephant camps.

About 5 km up the winding road onto Doi Suthop Mountain sits the Maesa elephant camp. Our guide, Kay, whose real name is Saipin—which means “instrument of the angel”—picks us up at the hotel, and tells us, “There are several elephant camps, but Maesa is, I think, the best”. Soon we are standing at roadside in a milling throng of Thais when a rambunctious 8-year-old charges up the camp entry drive, wheels about and curls his trunk in salute. I take a banana from the bunch I’d bought for 20 baht (about 50 cents) and hold it out. He smoothly takes it in his trunk, pops it into his mouth, and before I know it, his trunk snakes out and he grabs the entire bunch from my left hand! I’d swear he has a wicked laughing twinkle in his eye, and his mahout and the crowd all think it uproariously funny.

Kay leads us down to the edge of a small river bordering Maesa, and shortly a procession of two-dozen or so grey beasts winds into the river to cavort, roll and spray. “They look like they’re having a great time,” I comment, to which Kay responds, “Elephants love water and bathing”. The elephants kneel or lie, as their Mahouts monkey along their backs, scrub that thick skin and wash behind those big ears with their feet, the elephants’ trunks jetting gallons of river water over their backs.

After bathing, they make their way up the hill to a dirt arena surrounded by tin-roofed bleachers, where there is already a crowd of several hundred gathered for the performance. A grand procession of perhaps three-dozen elephants kicks off the show. It includes dancing, musical instrument playing, elephant soccer, log manipulation and finally painting. Kay says, “Watch them paint—you won’t believe it”. It’s an amazing display, with the resultant pictures of flowers and plants available for sale. Watching them manipulate a brush in and out of several different cans of color to produce recognizable floral images, and in one case, the outline portrait of another elephant, is really remarkable. She also relates that the year before last, a group of these elephants completed a very large impressionistic landscape, which was entered into the Guinness Book of Records—not all that surprising based on what we’ve just seen.

The elephants exhibit much personality, enthusiasm and intelligence, and truly seem to have a joyous time performing. The mahouts say that they understand and appreciate applause. Some of their gestures and mannerisms are pure gold—the goalie in the soccer game goes down on one knee in front of the net and smacks the ground three times with his trunk just like a catcher slapping his mitt saying “put her in there”. After each segment of the show, the elephants doff their riders’ straw pith helmets for them and return them gently to the head with a little triple pat. Donations are encouraged, and as I hold out a 100 Baht bill, one of the performers delicately accepts it with the tip of his trunk, passes it up to his mahout, then curl his trunk up over his head, trumpets and curtseys in salute and thanks.

From Chiang Mai, we motor north about four hours by road to the northernmost part of Thailand and the city of Chiang Rai. A quarter-hour outside Chiang Rai, on a hill above the Mae Sai River I arrive at the Anantara Resort, overlooking the confluence of the Mae Sai and Mekong rivers, where three countries—Thailand, Laos and Burma come together in what is known as the Golden Triangle (it’s hard to bring my self to say “Myanmar” when Burma has such a lush sound and historical connotations).

The elephant program at Anantara is a branch of the Thai Elephant Institute, which was originally founded in 1992 to promote elephant conservation. John Roberts, the camp director, who hails from England and got his start working with elephants at the Tiger Tops lodge in Nepal, gives us an overview. He started the project by literally going to the streets of Bangkok, locating mahout and performing elephant teams, and convincing them to relocate to the north. “Slowly I was able to attract several more ‘families’ to literally take up a new life here,” Roberts says. The camp is simple and authentic—with two-story, open pole-and-thatch barns. “We’re oriented toward those who would like to get a feel for the bond between elephant and mahout, and, if they have time, to learn a bit about elephant driving,” Roberts continues. There are currently 10 elephants—one retired, four working, four juveniles, and one baby. Recently, he has started an auxiliary camp just over the hill at the nearby Four Seasons Tented Camp, with six additional elephants. All the elephants are led into the jungle at night, chained on 30 foot chains where they will browse all night in trees and bamboo, and lie down, sometimes snoring, for their short 4-hour daily period of sleep. At first light, their mahout takes them to the river, bathes them and then they return to the camp for the day’s work. “Next year, we’ll start a “summer camp” down on the river where the juveniles and babies can spend the days relaxing and interacting with guests,” he enthuses.

Beela , a youthful mahout, calls us over to one of the open pole-barns, where a young female, Punlab, and her 8-month old baby Linchee are chained. Beela had just placed his small child in a hammock suspended from the barn poles. His child hangs just above and behind the baby of his charge and close friend—all one family under the same roof. A baby elephant is the epitome of cuteness—fuzzy hair jet-black like Beela’s nearby daughter; twinkly eye and pink trunk-lips. Beela hands me bunches of small bananas, gestures to Linchee and says “Peel for her”. I peel a banana and hand it to her little trunk, but its grasping end is too small and she hasn’t yet developed the coordination to curl the tip—she drops it and pushes it around the ground, finally curling around it to pick it up and pop it into her mouth. I ask Beela with both words and gestures if I can feed them directly into her mouth—he nods, so I peel another banana and reach gingerly around her trunk to tuck it up above her pointed lower lip. She gets it right away, utters a squeal of delight and brings her trunk up to replace my fingers and shove the sweet morsel home. The first one done, she takes the rest as fast as I can peel.

Still thinking about the amazing displays of coordination we’d seen in the Maesa performance, I ask Roberts “how do you train them”? “Well”, he replies in his laconic drawl, “Beela tickles them. Seriously, it takes years of hard work.” Six to eight years or more of concentrated effort, it turns out, and a close and continual relationship between each mahout and elephant. Mahouts use dozens of voice commands to induce various actions such as picking things up, dragging, kneeling, pushing or carrying, as well as foot commands for guidance. The hooked ankusha, or prod, is used for directional control and emphasis. Roberts emphasizes, “These commands are taught slowly and painstakingly in stages, for many hours a day over months and years.”

Lawan, a 29-year-old female has been saddled with a two-person seat, and Jan, her mahout leads her to the mounting platform. We climb 10 steps, and tread across the back of her grey leathery neck and into the seat. She ambles off down a dirt track in the forest, and with a very rolling gait, we’re off trekking. It’s a slow, pronounced front-to-back rolling motion--much like a small sailboat in large but not violent waves—that yields stately progress. Jan speaks softly to her periodically, and taps her with the ankusha.

The forest is peaceful and quiet, punctuated by the drone of cicadas and occasional birdcalls. The trek takes us up a steep slope, and then alongside the Mae Sai river—in the near distance is Burma. We pass tall, golden-tufted river grass—Roberts will later state that anything elephant height is know as elephant grass, but there are probably a dozen types hereabout—and swish through stands of bamboo, some of which Lawan decides she likes. The snap of breaking branches echoes as she wrenches trunk-fulls to placidly munch. Suddenly the air is torn by an ear-piercing scream as she sees a pair of white water buffalo being driven down a side track—she shakes her ears (a very aggressive elephant sign) and turns toward the buffalo. Jan digs the ankusha in to bring her head around, barks at her, spurs his heels in behind her ears and finally brings her back. He looks around at me and says “no like buffalo”.

The next morning it’s up early to meet our departure schedule and we start the day with a short hike to an adjacent hill on which sits a little Thai spirit house, where the flaming sunrise emerges over Burma from the misty dawn like a color photo coalescing in the developing tray—spectacular and impossible. From Chiang Rai, the mighty Mekong itself, known locally as “mother of waters’, is our highway south into Laos. We cross the river in a low, outboard-powered dugout canoe, do the police and customs formalities on the Lao side, and board the 35-meter Luang Say, an open air teak river barge, for a leisurely two-day journey down river through rocky canyons and churning rapids, under jagged peaks looking like south-pacific atolls, and past primitive villages of Hmong and Lao Loum tribes.
Along the way we see near-naked native children playing, farmers tending the seasonal plots that extend from high water down to the rivers edge, women weaving at hand looms, fishermen pulling in their catch, and elephants rolling great teak logs down to the water to be lashed together and floated downstream to be milled—hardwood logging has not yet been banned in Laos.

In the Tad Lo area of Southern Laos, our final elephant encounter unfolds. Heading for the Tad Se river and that roaring waterfall, inexorable Mūn plods up a steep boulder-strewn hill at a stately pace, with us clinging precariously to the seat, which consist of two small loops of wicker for a low back rest, and two loops on the sides which almost reach armpit height—not much there. After crossing the Tad Se above the falls, we push into the forest, breaking trail. The cracking and popping of vegetation sounds like gunfire, backed by a constant chorus of cicadas. The herbal smell of crushed bamboo surrounds us, and vast silken webs with large lime and black spiders come at us at the speed of elephant. Pahd chortles gently to Mūn, and keeps up a constant series of tickly foot taps behind her ears—to which she responds with an emphatic “fwap” of those big ears. The remarkable rapport between mahout and elephant is again evident—he merely points up at a rosewood branch or liana that might swipe her riders, and she twines her trunk around it and moves it out of the way, or pushes into it with one foot if it’s recalcitrant. She picks bamboo fronds from right and left to add to the roughly 500 pounds a day she must eat, and occasionally a deep rumble from her stomach comments on her digestion.

As Pahd climbs down to offer a photo of us silhouetted against the river, Mūn curls her trunk over her head and blows a greeting, bathing us in a warm breeze and light mist of river water, and trumpets lightly in what is clearly to my ears a happy sound. She trundles on, parting the forest like a ship’s bow, to the conclusion of both the trek and the trip. We dismount, Phad unsaddles her, and I stare into her big, liquid, knowing eye. For several long heartbeats I simply feel her sentience, and ponder what special creatures these are and how lucky I am to know them a little better. Finally, Mūn turns, and ambles away into the orange light and long shadows of late afternoon, her lumbering gait both odd and elegant as she slowly diminishes into the forest.