Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Thailand 2016 Day 8. Dances With Elephants

It is raining. One of those moderate rains that could go on for hours. But no stinkin’ rain is going to stop me from going to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. So I donned my poncho and backtracked the 40 km to the elephant place. It turns out I was not the only one headed that way; a big truck passed me on the way there, with an elephant taking a ride to The Elephant Hospital. Have you seen a dog enjoying the breeze out of the open window of a car? Well, the same was true for this particular elephant, who was enjoying extending its trunk unto the wind, and flapping his ears in total ecstasy.

Of course I got to the center quite early, so I had the honor of seeing a handful of elephants feeding. Did you know that an Asian elephant needs between 200 and 300 kg of varied grasses, vegetables, and fruits every single day? I am not sure how many elephants are at the conservation center, but I am going to guess about 50, so we are talking about 10 tons of food every day, or about 20 of the little Toyota trucks that I saw driving around piled up with corn, sugar cane, and squash.

After a while several of the elephants, and their mahouts (drivers), came out to greet the few tourists that had collected. There were a couple of large males (you know because they have tusks), any number of females, and at least four little ones. I bought a bundle of sugar cane sticks, which even the little ones crunched in a single bite (elephants have only four molars, two on top and two in the bottom, but they are massive and can easily crunch a measly sugar cane stick). Following the feeding the elephants headed for the water to take a bath. The little ones, like Ronaldito, simply plunged in, completely submerging themselves over and over again. The big guys went at it more slowly, letting their mahouts scrub and massage them, but eventually they too plunged their heads in the water with great gusto. Once everyone was nice and clean they played for a while, trumpeting, showering themselves with their trunks, or taking long drinks. Another interesting factoid about Asian elephants is that they drink about 200 liters per day (African elephants live in much drier climates, so they drink even larger volumes, although they may not necessarily get their fill every day).

We were then treated to a show, where the elephants showed how easily they can drag big logs, and how a well-trained elephant can delicately lift some of the logs, and working with a buddy stack the logs in piles. One of the goals of the Conservation Center is to train young elephants for transportation and logging duty. A trained elephant goes for about 500,000 bahts (about US$ 15,000), just about the price of a truck, so I suspect they don’t get a lot of inquiries.

At some point they asked for a volunteer, so I raised my hand and was chosen to hold the basket into which one of the elephants threw basketballs. I really had to be on my toes, because although the balls came with considerable force, I had to “readjust” the position of the basket to make sure I caught every shot. I was rewarded with two ears of corn to feed the distinguished athlete. They did a couple more tricks to show their incredible precision and care, for example by carefully placing a hat on the head of their mahout, and then did something that totally blew me out of the water: Three easels were brought, each with a blank canvas, and three of the elephants came, took paint brushes in their trunks, and proceeded to draw the most amazing pictures: A pair of elephants in a vast prairie, resting from the blazing sun under a tree with red and yellow blossoms; a plant with red flowers; and another elephant browsing the foliage from a tall tree. What a wonderful display of coordination and memory.

I then went to visit The Elephant Hospital, where farmers can bring their elephants to be treated free of charge. The idea is that, by providing free medical care, farmers come and in the end the overall wellbeing of the Thai elephant benefits. An elephant can live 60 years, but many die much younger because of malnutrition, abuse, lack of veterinary attention, or landmines (I was surprised about the latter, but apparently there was unrest in the 60’s and 70’s and landmines were left behind after the cessation of hostilities). I saw the elephant from the road, being rectally examined by a vet and getting an enema. I should mention here that the whole conservation center, including the hospital, are sponsored by the royal family.

Having satisfied my desire to see and learn about elephants I made my way back to Chiang Mai, where I have found a comfortable 5th-floor hotel room, to make my preparations for the trip back home. I still have all day tomorrow to do stuff, but at this point I have no further plans and may spend the day vegetating or visiting temples. I am highly satisfied with what I have done so far :) 

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