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Nellie the elephant

May 7, 2009

They lie down on their sides with their trunks cimga0066urled up to their mouths, when they sleep. They don’t often snore, but you can hear them breathing. The baby elephants aren’t so neat – they lie sprawled on their backs with their legs and trunk splayed out.

This is some of what I learned today at an elephant sanctuary outside the historic town of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. We spent the day learning to be elephant handlers. It was a fantastic day spent with one of the planet’s most remarkable creatures. There are around 6,000 elephants in Thailand, but less than 200 of these are in the wild. The remainder are used in shows for tourists or kept in zoos. Many of these used to be working elephants, helping move logs in the forest for the timber industry or pulling heavy loads. But in 1989, a law banned logging in the country and phased out working elephants. It’s now illegal for elephants to be used for load carrying or heavy work. Some are still used by illegal loggers, where they are pumped full of amphetemines and worked to an early grave. But the number of working elephants in the country has plummeted from 100,000 in 1900 to a few hundred now.

imga0056Trouble is, elephants live for around 80 years (life expectancy for Thais averages at 70 years), so there are still plenty of unemployed elephants and handlers left, many of whom can no longer afford to feed or care for their big trunky friends.

Most of the handlers come from the minority Karen tribe, who are originally from Burma. Elephant handlers, mahouts, are called khwaan chaang in Thailand. They often live and care for an elephant from first separation from its mother, aged 3 years. At this age, the handler becomes mother, and teacher for the beast as it grows, training it and teaching it skills. Adult elephants are usually uncontrollable without their handler, who will go everywhere with it.

A grown Asian elephant eats around 250 kilograms a day, and drinks 100 litres of water. And they produce a lot of poo, which makes great paper (and other things, as Chris Ofili shows).

imga0064So today we learned how to get on and off our huge transport, a few commands, and the basics of riding bare-back. We rode through the forest, pausing frequently for snacks of leaves, fruit and, occasionally, entire trees.

And then we bathed our elephants in a big muddy pond, scrubbing their thick (2 inches) hoary skin with brushes and water. They loved it. We loved it. Magic.

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