Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021
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Thailand’s gentle giants

Thailand’s revered elephants get the care they deserve in Chiang Mai’s best parks

I’d only been at Thailand’s Patara Elephant Farm, a half-hour drive from the northwestern city of Chiang Mai, for 15 minutes and already I’d learned more than I bargained for about elephant health. I was down on my knees in the long grass holding an elephant turd the size of a bowling ball in my hands when Pat Trungprkan yelled, “Open it!”

I suppressed the urge to respond with a snappy comeback and, following Pat’s example, split open the relatively odourless dung ball. Inside, it was foul as could be: lined with very green, very moist, recently ingested grass. Who knew a secret garden existed inside elephant excrement?

Asian elephants, smaller and with shorter ears than their African counterparts, have always played a central role in Thai culture. They trundle through Thai history, acting as tanks in great battles or carrying royalty for elephant-to-elephant jousts. Pachyderms stroll through Thai literature, lift up ancient architecture, adorn silk scarves and terry beach towels alike, and act as movie stars in Thai and Hollywood films. The very rich play elephant polo.

Most recently, six hours before the December 26, 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia, elephants in Thailand’s Khao Lak province reportedly “screamed” an alert — they’d never made this sound before — and then “screamed” again, five minutes before the first waves hit. In the aftermath of the tsunami, they were instrumental in clearing debris and in retrieving the bodies of the dead.

Although revered as bringers of good fortune and, in Buddhism, as a path to enlightenment, elephants have also been badly mistreated — worked to death in the logging industry (the Thai government finally banned logging in 1989, but it continues illicitly); killed by hunters and, when that became illegal, by poachers; mistreated as living tourist attractions; and still occasionally seen in the streets of Bangkok, adorned by a scantily clad prostitute or a couple of Thai boxers and fed bananas and beer by soused tourists.

In the 1850s, there were an estimated 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Now there are just over 4200 — 1500 in the wild and 2700 domesticated animals.

A Mighty Debate

The current use of elephants in Thailand is hotly debated, both locally and internationally. In 2005, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called for a tourist boycott of Thailand to protest “the ritualistic torture of baby elephants by the country’s tourism industry,” and many in the animal rights community argue elephants shouldn’t be forced to work, either for farming or for the sake of tourism.

Defenders of working elephants, whether for farming, performing or trekking, point out that they’re expensive to keep — an adult elephant consumes 130 kilograms of fruits and vegetables each day — and Thailand is a poor country. The Thai government maintains that elephants entertaining tourists in regulated parks is a legitimate and pragmatic way of conserving the animals.

Patara Elephant Farm combines conservation with education and limited tourism. It breeds elephants, which are then sold to other elephant farms or elephant attractions; it offers day-long or overnight treks for travellers while also involving them in, and teaching them about, an elephant’s daily needs and activities. Because of their elephants’ breeding schedule, visitors are limited to eight to 12 per day.

At Patara, you don’t just ride the behemoths, you “own” one for a day and are in charge of its care. I learned about morning health inspection, which includes calling an elephant’s name — mine was a matriarch named Mae — and waiting to see if she’ll flap her ears and trumpet back.

Then I checked for grass stains on Mae’s knees — these are good signs; they meant Mae laid down to sleep during the night. I’d assumed elephants were like horses and slept standing up, but instead they lie down for half-hour snoozes throughout the night. If they lie down for longer than that, it’s hard for them to heave their bulky selves upright again.

When I had heard the word “trek,” I pictured myself swaying through the jungle in an upholstered box mounted on the elephant’s back. But such boxes chafe the beasts’ skin and cause terrible sores, so, at Patara, one rides bareback. And no one rides at all until the elephants are properly bathed in a stream that runs through the property.

Handed a bucket and a scrub brush, I led Mae into the shallow water. She seemed singularly aloof to me, if not downright disdainful and not at all anthropomorphic, as I scrubbed the grass stains from her tail and prodigious rump and, climbing onto her bent front knees, washed the grit off her corrugated back — it was like washing a very large van.

Afterwards Pat Trungprkan, who owns Patara Farm, showed me how to climb onto Mae. There are three options — clambering up her trunk like a staircase, stepping onto her bent knee and swinging your leg over as one would mount a very wide horse, or climbing a sitting beast’s rear.

I went for the bent knee approach and soon was sitting atop Mae’s enormous, and enormously bony, head, my knees hooked behind her ears to guide her — nudge her left ear, she’s meant to veer right, right ear, she’s supposed to go left. Mae ignored my proddings altogether — she knew the trek route by heart.

It was a plodding, spine-jolting journey up steep jungle inclines and down even steeper declines, her huge feet sinking into and sucking out of the mud while I tried to lean back, as Pat instructed, to keep from being jolted off her head and onto the boulders lining the path.

At lunchtime, we reached a waterfall and shallow basin. I dismounted, and Mae eased herself into the cool water. I waded about her, splashing her with water as Pat instructed, but she seemed indifferent, so I left her alone after awhile and watched as the other elephants cavorted slow-mo in the water.

Then I was gently nudged from behind: Mae had snuck up on me — the idea of an elephant sneaking at all seems so unlikely, like hippos dancing on pointe — and given me a friendly push. When I turned around, I could have sworn that she was laughing at me.

Pachyderm Paradise

For true elephant heaven though, you have to go to Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary about an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, not far from the Myanmar border. Located in a wide valley with a river running through it, the park is home to some 30 elephants, most of whom have suffered severe trauma.

When I arrived at the Park, the elephants came out to greet me. Actually they didn’t come to greet me, I just happened to be standing where a dozen of them wanted to walk. It was a compelling sight: a great grey wall advancing at surprising speed. I leapt behind the nearest tree trunk and watched at very close range as they swayed past, accompanied by barking dogs and clouds of dust.

Elephants have the right of way at the park, and once you’ve heard their stories, you understand why. Staff members introduced me to a bull elephant who’d been hit and then dragged a hundred metres by a logging truck; another male whose tusks had been hacked off by poachers, leaving suppurating sores; a third with debilitating back problems from constant tourist treks; a fourth who’d stepped on a landmine and a fifth who had been intentionally blinded.

At the park, these elephants no longer have to work; they aren’t even ridden except by their assigned mahouts. Most of the time they just hang out. Essentially a matriarchal society, the females of the herd are very social, ritually greeting one another by slipping their trunks into one another’s vaginas.

They stand about in close proximity, flapping their ears and swinging their tails, and guard the babies, who are frisky and bouncy like 200 kilogram puppies. The adult males of the herd are lonely outriders. You can see them standing in distant fields, widely separated even from one another.

Adolescent and young adult males hang out close by the females but not always with them. Instead, the young bucks try to cut young females off from their mothers for a quick bit of trunk dipping themselves, but the matriarchs are vigilant, formidable chaperones. They amble over to the offending young stud and nudge him away from temptation.

Elephant Nature Park was founded by a charismatic Thai woman named Sangduen (“Lek”) Chailert, whose life was changed by a female elephant her family kept when she was a child. Lek has devoted her life and her income to saving abused elephants, and is now known worldwide thanks to a National Geographic television special in which she and a Western journalist viewed, and surreptitiously filmed, the brutal “breaking” of a baby elephant that involved trainers using sticks topped with long nails to poke inside the elephant’s ears to render it docile.

Chailert’s Elephant Nature Park is a remarkable achievement, an elephant utopia, and certainly the creatures have endured enough hardship to have earned one. It’s also an unforgettable experience for visitors. Only a few are allowed at a time, although anyone can volunteer to work at the park for a week or more.

I sat with Chailert and park staff for an hour on a raised verandah, watching the elephants be elephants. It was oddly calming to be in their presence, and, as I watched, it became clear that for the elephants, it was we who were on display.

They regarded us calmly with their huge eyes, and, just as we’d been lulled into an almost hypnotic state, one of the largest beasts reached out with her trunk and gave the verandah railings a hard shake, so the whole structure trembled. Just because she felt like it, and just because she could.

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