Elephants of Chiangmai

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In November 2011, I visited Chiangmai and one of the most memorable part of the trip was to an elephant sanctuary called Baanchang Elephant Park. Our guide and trainer was called Woody and he was slim and small built with a Jon Bon Jovi hairdo. After welcoming us to the park, he asked us to change into the attire he issued to us which was a set of denim blue top and pants.

The group was eager to start the day with the elephants and to be ‘mahouts’. He told us the suit was designed according to the traditional mahout attire but I noticed some modern alterations like waist bands instead of tying up the pants manually which I believe some of us may be caught with our pants down soon. By the way, mahout stands for keeper or driver of the elephant.

Lockers were provided to keep our belongings and we were advised to bring our camera and insect repellent. It was important to be hands free and not have anything heavy or bulky with us. There were two pockets on the blouse so I kept my camera and insect repellent in them. I decided to swap my bulkier DSLR camera and brought a smaller digital camera for photo taking and I kept the camera in a zip-lock bag in case of wet weather or any water activity.

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Woody made us pair up to carry one basket of bananas towards the elephant enclosure which was about the size of 2 basketball courts. There he briefed us about the elephants which numbered around 12. They were all rescued from other camps where Baanchang owner felt were not best for the elephants’ quality of life. Some of the rescued elephants were orphaned, sickly or had temperament issues. Baanchang owner’s purpose was to nurture them back to health and provide them with highest possible quality of life. Those we saw in the enclosure looked rather tamed but were humongous. All the elephants were chained at one leg to a secured post on the ground. We were told that the area around the camp had vegetable and fruit farms belonging to other tenants and leaving the elephants to roam unattended would risk them trampling and devouring their crops of these farms.

Woody explained that Baanchang owner was in the process of purchasing more land around the camp to provide a larger space for the elephants and to fence up the area to prevent them from going to other properties. At present, they had no option but to chain the elephants when they were not supervised. Thankfully, the elephants were more often out and about with the real mahouts during the day, if not otherwise out with us visitors trying to be their mahout for the day.

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There was one baby male elephant that was clearly a favorite with our group. He was recently purchased by Baanchang owner who found that he was not well cared for at another camp, likewise for the other elephants, there was some kind of rescue and purchase story involved. The cost of purchasing an elephant could range from between USD20000 and USD60000 depending on its age and gender. The younger (non-adult) and female elephants will cost less than a male adult elephant. Baanchang owner had to take bank loans to purchase some of the elephants and the guided tours at the conservation camp were one of the ways of funding this cause.

Not only it is costly to purchase an elephant but more so to maintain this large majestic creature. They are mega herbivores and consume up to 150kg of plants and fruits daily. An adult weigh between 4000kg and 5000kg with a height at shoulder level between 2.5m and 3m with the male usually larger and heavier than the female. They drink between 80 and 200 liters of water daily and live up to 80 years. Woody claimed the King of Thailand has the oldest elephant believed to be over a hundred years old. Female elephants carry their baby in the womb for one and a half years before delivery and a newborn elephant weighs about 100kg. The mother will wean their young for another 2 to 3 years resulting in a birth interval of 4 to 5 years.

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After we had put on our mahout attire, we spent some time admiring, posing and taking photos for each other despite the fact that we looked quite ridiculous, like an 18th century dock laborer with our loosely fitted blouse that had mandarin buttons down the middle and a three-quarter length baggy pants that had room enough at the crotch to fit a whole watermelon! A straw hat like a safari hunter’s hat was also provided.

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At the end of this educational day trip experience, I must say that the lasting impression was how gentle the elephants were with all of us. How they in their own way could `entertain’ us with their back-rubbing antics and trying to devour every shrub along the way on the short trek we had with them. They have such gentle eyes and even looked like they were smiling at us when we gave them a bath or fed them their food. They have been added to my list of favourite animals from henceforth.

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