The elephant looms disconcertingly close, snuffling my foot with her warm breath and leaving a mix of mud and saliva on my open-toed shoe. “Thank God you are not wearing Manolos!” says the fashionista next to me.
The head mahout laughs, and tells me I am honoured. “This is a sign she wants to get to know you better!” he declares.
Pachyderm slobber on my new shoes is soon forgotten. This close encounter with elephants is intriguing and enlightening, and we’re only just getting started.
August 12 is World Elephant Day. Yes, I’m a day late – depending on where in the world you are reading this – but as I’m a big fan of elephants, I thought I would share this story with you anyway. World Elephant Day was launched in 2012 by the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, a charity founded in 2002 by Queen Sirikit of Thailand. Its aim is to reintroduce captive elephants into the wild, restore native habitat, promote research and education about Asian elephants, and manage the long-term survival of elephants in Thailand and around the world.
My close encounter with elephants was at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, where you can take a mahout training course, visit a hospital for sick and injured elephants, and watch them paint and play music.
The centre, about an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand’s Lampang province, is part of a 500 hectare sanctuary dedicated to elephant welfare. Founded in 1993 under the patronage of the Thai royal family, it cares for more than 50 Asian elephants.
Our visit starts at bath-time, watching the elephants and their keepers splash in the river, before we head to a small arena to watch the elephants display their skills – with some novelty acts thrown in.
The mahout school is open to tourists, including children, who can stay for a course in elephant handling and who also take part in the show.
The elephants enter in single file, holding each other’s tails with their trunks, each bearing a smiling mahout or a visitor “trainee”. Some of the visitors look down from their perches nervously, others look absolutely thrilled.
During the show, the elephants show off the skills they use in lumber work, rolling and lifting logs. Then it’s time for the fun part, as they play the angaloong (a Thai bamboo instrument) and hold paintbrushes with their trunks to create brightly-coloured pictures of themselves, flowers and trees. I’m not sure I’m keen on this…but the money raised goes to a good cause, as we’ll soon see.
After the show, there’s a human stampede to buy the paintings and to line up for rides on the elephants’ broad bristly backs. For a souvenir with a difference, you can also buy elephant dung paper products from the factory here (a word of warning: mine were confiscated at Customs on my return to Australia).
In the outdoor elephant hospital, we’re enchanted by the antics of a three-month old calf – the product of the sanctuary’s successful breeding program – but sobered by the sight of the ailing patients.
A 40-year-old bull elephant is being treated for a bullet wound and an ankle fracture. He has had two operations already and the prognosis is not good.
“The most effective way of treating this would be to amputate but he would die,” says our guide, specialist veterinarian Taweepoke Angkawanish. “Instead, we have been controlling the infection by antibiotic for six months and changing the dressing daily.”
Nearby, a landmine victim brought in from Myanmar sways, supported by a harness. Some of the sights here are heart-wrenching.
With about 80 patients a year and an 80 per cent recovery rate, the hospital is able to see most of its pachyderm patients recover and return to their owners. It can take a maximum of 30 patients, and also operates a mobile clinic.
The hospital is free, supported by the Thai royal family as one of its special projects. As well as treating the sick and injured, the veterinary staff does research into artificial insemination and operates a sperm bank. There are nearly always a few calves to see, as they stay with their mothers until they are about three years old.
For those who want to learn more and get a one-to-one experience with their “own” elephant, a homestay program is a great option. You can stay for up to three days, learning to ride, handle and care for an elephant selected for you.
Another program, based in the Mahout Training School, offers longer stays (up to a month) and elephant trekking. Trekking programs allow visitors to learn more about the mahout’s way of life and the finer points of elephant-keeping, and some include camping out in the forest with the elephants and mahouts.
Whether it’s a day trip or a longer stay, this experience is one that will stay with you long after you’ve left. There are a number of places in Thailand that offer similar opportunities to get up close and work with elephants.