Northern Thailand is known for elephants. There are advertisements everywhere for elephant sanctuaries and riding excursions. We did a bit of research before our trip and booked with Patara Elephant Farm, their motto being “Rescue, Recovery, Reproduction, Rehabilitation.” Currently, they are looking after 64 elephants total and have a goal of at least one baby born each year, sometimes up to 3. For elephants, pregnancy averages 22 months. They say that if a baby is born between 19 and 21 months, it is a boy. If it it born between 22 and 23 months, it is a girl. The elephants that are not born there have been rescued from other places in Thailand, including Thai circuses and elephant riding excursion where the animals are abused.
First, we were brought to an area to see a mother and baby elephant and to take pictures and get used to being around the elephants. The babies are especially playful and rambunctious. They like to play with humans and think they are lap dogs instead of elephants. I was told to lay down so that one could play with me, but it felt more like an assault than a cuddle sesh. All it did was rub dirt on me and pull my hair out of my bun with its trunk. When I was using a hose to rinse all of the mud off of me, a grown elephant strolled right on over and stole it right out of my hands so it could have a drink. I had to wait 5 minutes while it quenched its thirst and then dropped the hose and walked away.
After that, we were each assigned our own elephant for the day. Each elephant in a sanctuary has its own mahout. A mahout is an elephant keeper that tends to the elephant. They are assigned to one elephant and remain bonded to each other for the duration of their lives. They took some time to observe us and paired us with one that had a personality that would match ours. I was assigned three elephants technically. The main one I cared for was Manoi, an 18-year-old female. Manoi was also mom to Pasa, a 2-year-old girl. Babies stay with their mothers for the first 3-4 years before going off on their own. Manoi was also 18 months pregnant. My mahout was named Tono, and he had been with Manoi for only a year.
Our first step was to spend time up close with each of our elephants to gain their trust and respect, which meant feeding them a huge basket of sugar cane and bananas – they eat about 150 kg of food a day. We learned basic commands so that we could communicate with our elephant. “Bon” meant food or treat, so when we said that the elephant would raise its trunk up and open its mouth for us to put in food. Then we would say “dee dee” which means “good girl/boy” while patting their trunk, area below their eye, or side.
After that we learned how the mahouts check the health of their elephants daily. There are four ways to check to see if your elephant is happy/healthy:
1) Their ears flap and tails wag
2) They have dirt on their sides – this means they laid down to sleep that night. If an elephant sleeps standing up leaning against a tree, something is wrong.
3) The area where their toe nail meets their foot is wet. The is the only place where they sweat.
4) Check their poop. The mahout makes sure they pooped enough (there should be 5-7 balls, this means they are eating enough). They then break open the poop and check the color. Green or yellow is good, black is bad. They check the smell – it should smell like a stable and not too strong or bad. Then they break a chunk off and squeeze it to see if liquid comes out – this means they are drinking enough water. The digestion process for an elephant is really quick. The food they eat only stays in them for about 2-3 hours, which means they poop every 2 hours.
From there we had the task of bathing our elephants. This meant learning how to command them to lay down so that we could hit all of the dirt off of their backs before getting into the water. Then we learned how to tell them to get up and walked them into a river where they submerged themselves up to their eye-level and had fun blowing bubbles and cooling off while we scrubbed them down. We even had to climb up onto them so that we could get their back.
After a thorough scrub down, we took them on a walk through the woods. The mahouts typically ride them on their walks, but since we were their caretaker for the day, that was our job. To get on them, you grab their ear and give them a command to raise their foot. Then you just step on the little shelf that creates and they continue to raise it until you are high enough to hop on back. It was a scenic walk through the woods of Northern Thailand, and I saw lots of bugs that I could go without ever seeing again. We ended the walk with a beautiful lunch served in the mountains before heading back to where we started. It was an amazing and informative day learning about these amazing creatures and the people who dedicate their lives to caring for them and ensuring that they continue to inhabit this planet.