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Flight Of The Elephants

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Written & Photographed by
David A. Adams

After three weeks of torrential rain and tropical growth, two metre high walls of arching elephant grass are the only suggestion of a trail. It meanders vaguely away through the unkempt palms of a deserted coconut plantation, it too rapidly being consumed by the jungle from which it was carved. An endowment from the King of Thailand to the elephants, the plantation is the latest addition to Kaeng Krachan National Park, a vast 3000 sqkm tract of rainforest that stretches south along the Thai / Myanmar border.

Sticky with sweat that invites curious little black bugs to writhe and bite, it is uncomfortably evident that this was never meant as a human realm but as a habitat for creatures far better adapted than I. As I clamber, there is a sense of trying to negotiate some outrageously unkempt backyard, a lawn of epic proportions that’s had its revenge and is now just held at bay by the passage of an occasional interloper. At every turn there are trampled offshoots, blind alleys and dead-ends, shaded tunnels and lairs. This is tiger country, leopard country and ‘elephant country’.

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Just ahead two park rangers, my guides, melt into the voracious green. I’m conscious of the clank of camera lenses and my clumsy western foot falls betraying their stealth. Both men are twenty year veterans of the forest. Both are armed – a sawn-off shotgun and an AK47 – at worst they are for my protection and their’s. They follow plate sized foot prints, foot prints that seem too shallow for the weight of the animal that made them (upwards of 3000kg), but then they are ideally made to traverse this territory, placing little more per square inch than that of a large forest deer.

If this was an Indian or Nepalese park, I would be riding high on an elephant’s back in a protective howdah, in Africa my vantage would be from behind the battered steel of a trusty Land Rover. Here in Thailand you are on foot with only your guide’s jungle lore between you and the local residents and you feel extremely vulnerable. But nowhere near as vulnerable, it occurs to me, as the quarry we seek. Wildly varying figures put Asia’s total wild elephant herd at between 16,500 and 50,000 animals – less than one tenth of the African herd. Despite the Thai’s government’s ongoing efforts, only 1000 – 1500 survive in Thailand’s forests in fewer than ten extremely fragmented and constricted populations.

Earlier that morning we had crept up downwind of a loosely spread group, three females, a yearling and a hundred yards beyond them the great grey mud-encrusted back of a bull – all we could see of him as he foraged head buried in a sea of edible green. Only their poor eyesight and a favourable breeze give you the chance to get close – ten, twenty yards at best – and then for long delightful moments you can quietly crouch and observe how it once was all over of Asia.

Such encounters today are fleeting and many intrepid nature lovers only get a glimpse of what they have travelled so far to see. Jungle elephants always sense you and then up go their trunks, aligning the thousand upon thousand of chemo-receptors to confirm what they suspect to be true – the presence of a human. For long moments they test the air and then a shift of breeze brings our terrifying odour down upon them and with a squeal of alarm they crash into the sanctuary of deep jungle and are gone. It is man and man alone they fear and with good reason, it is human encroachment and the subsequent loss of habitat and resulting conflict that is decimating Asia’s elephants. According to WWF, “20% of all humans live within the range of the Asian elephant and the human population of these areas is growing at a rate of 3% per year”.

At Kaeng Krachan that conflict happens to be about pineapples. Like the fertile plains of Queensland, the tropical climes of southern Thailand are ideal for growing the spiky fruit. The problem is ‘easy pickings’; there is nothing to stop a few pineapple-loving (and now habituated) elephants taking a stroll out of the park for midnight munchies. The problem is a ‘munch’ can equate to 150kgs of pineapples at a sitting and that, followed by a game of chasings and a bit of rough and tumble to work off the meal, means that next morning you have half an acre of pulped pineapple and a very disgruntled farmer looking for compensation for the loss of his crops – his family’s only source of income – and a way to stop the raids ‘permanently’.

The answer is a simple one, put up a fence. However, with more than 70 kilometres of boundary, it is a very long and, being elephant proof and all, a very expensive one. Despite the price tag (upwards of $200,000) it is a consortium of Australasian Zoo’s – Taronga, Melbourne and Auckland that have begun the task. A task that, eventually, will have to be repeated in park after park, otherwise human and elephant cannot fail to come to blows and there are no prizes to for guessing who will be the victor.

For the Zoo’s, erecting fences as well as undertaking surveys, providing equipment, personnel and facilities are in fact small elements in a much larger, incredibly ambitious initiative to secure the long term survival of the Asian elephant. In 2005 the consortium will fly nine elephants to their respective zoos – four to Sydney, three to Melbourne and two to Auckland. However these elephants are not coming from Kaeng Krachan or any other park, they are not wild but domestic animals and are being drawn from Thailand’s herd of more than 3000 ‘unemployed elephants’.

For more than five thousand years elephants have been at the centre of Thai culture and today their symbolism abounds; on temples, in restaurants, on busses, bikes, flags, t-shirts, banknotes and as royal and national emblems. They are everywhere, even pervading Buddhist thought. Ridden as beast of battle and burden, they were the muscle of Thai life that helped build a nation. However it was a nation that was rapidly outgrowing them. By the 1960’s the teak forests were exhausted and in the early 80’s all logging was banned in Thailand. While this was terrific news for Thailand’s old growth forest it was in fact disastrous for the thousands of elephants that plucked the timber from the forests – in short they were out of a job. It was equally bad news for their mahouts. Once valued as an order of skilled workers, the five stages to ‘master mahout’ transferred not only the knowledge of elephants but respect based leadership steeped in traditional Thai culture. Today there is no such mentorship of culture and life and the young men of the countryside take few of the old ways with them to search for work in the cities.

Life for the domestic elephant is problematic at best. With the boom of tourism the great bulls, once prized for their strength, proved difficult to control around camera flashing tourists – instead the demand is for ‘manageable, small and cute’. But babies grow up fast and there is little for them to do outside the limited places in the tourism industry and occasional farm work. Once king of the road on Thailand’s byways, they have become a menace on its highways with legs destined to be tragically caught in manholes. While the Government is succeeding in getting them off the streets, like our domestic animals, elephants are privately owned and the duty of care and to what degree it is given falls to the owners.

So what do you do with 3000 elephants? For many this answer is also a simple one – return them to the wild. However, unlike building fences, this dilemma cannot be solved by deep pockets. Domestic elephants have no fear of man; they will not flee for the shelter of deep jungle like their jungle brothers and sisters. Instead they will continue to be drawn to the familiar smells and tastes of domestic life, but now in their semi-wild state, as far more dangerous intruders. Such projects are however worth attempting at least for a few elephants in well contained sanctuaries where the long process of learning to forage and discover what and what not to eat can be attempted. However their freedom may indeed be short lived as such programs put them back with their wild kin – directly in the line of fire of encroachment and poaching.

For the Zoos the decision was made many years ago to become actively involved in the preservation of Asian elephants. For Melbourne and Sydney this has meant huge investments in state-of-the-art elephant enclosures. In Melbourne, a whole interactive Thai village has been created where visitors can experience ‘life with elephants’ and once a week even witness what happens when elephants enter a vegetable garden. In Sydney the enclosure is still under construction, a vast two hectare site that will not only house its four elephants but 250 other Asian rainforest species in a world first Asian rainforest habitat.

In a few short weeks the nine elephants will begin the next leg of their journey from Thailand to Australia’s ‘Large Mammal Quarantine Station’ on the Cocos Islands. For the last three months they have been accommodated in a purpose build enclosure at …(name)… University about three hours drive west of Bangkok. It is an expensive, drawn-out but very necessary process to prevent the elephants carrying Bovine TB, Foot and Mouth and other diseases to our shores. Here teams from all the zoos have spent the time interacting with and getting to know the elephants and learning from the mahouts who will accompany their elephants on the long journey.

The goal of the zoos is twofold, firstly to apply rapidly advancing techniques of invitro-fertilization and establish a viable Australasian herd away from the imperilled Asian pockets. For Thong Dee and Nomoy, two of the youngest elephants, their first calves will be born sometime after 2015. If Vietnam’s experience is anything to go by, in ten years the status of Asia’s wild elephants could be beyond critical. In 1990 there were an estimated 2,000 elephants; by 1998 there were less than 150 left.

A Kenyan Proverb best describes the second goal “Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children.” Education is perhaps the greatest reason to retain large mammals in urban zoos. It comes down to numbers and ease of access. The city zoos are an easy day’s excursion for tens of thousands of children, conversely only …% of city visitors make the journey out west to the open savannah of Dubbo’s Western Plains Zoo where Sydney’s two resident elephants…(names)… will soon take up retirement.

For the Asian elephant there is no quick fix, no single strategy to save either their wild or the domestic populations. One hundred years ago there were at least 100,000 elephants in Thailand; today there are perhaps 5,000 all up. Fifty years ago Thailand was 60% forested; today only 20% of those forests remain and Thailand is the most proactive and responsible of all its neighbors. Like all earth’s animals, elephants have no choice but to ‘fit in to man’s design’, humans at large will not make space for large wild mammals; they are in the business of their own survival and development.

The American Naturalist William Beebe wrote, “When the last individual of a race of living things breaths no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” It is the 11th hour and unfortunately idealism has no place, we are past the point where will again see herds of elephants roaming free in the wild, there is simply not enough ‘wild’ nor the funding to preserve it, even if there is the will. The practical steps of saving our keystone species must be on all fronts, the only course open to us is cooperation and constructive dialog between zoos, conservation groups, governments and the public.

A hundred yards ahead she came out of the grass onto the track and filled it. She must have seen the rangers and I, as we froze down on our haunches, but she continued towards us – fifty, twenty, ten yards not a walk but an effortless flow. Then she stopped. Quiet and confident she regarded us through gentle knowing eyes, testing our intentions, aggressive or passive perhaps allowing us to make a move. I waited for my guides to lead the way. A whisper passed between them and nothing more, just silence, sun and sticky heat. I was positive it was me she was coolly considering, how to treat this particular human. Then decision made, this time perhaps disinclined to cross the line, she melted away.

It is said that an elephant never forgets. Will they ever forget what we have done to them? Or will they only ever know captivity and only sense that once in a distant incarnation they followed long remembered trails to arrive precisely at the moment of a tree’s sweet fruiting and then full and happy guide them on to some crystal pool in which to while away the day beneath a canopy of boundless endless green. ….Perhaps, yes, there is still room for a little idealism.

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