05.11.2007 - 08.11.2007 20 °C
Do you think I could keep an elephant as a pet in California? We came across a number of alternative pet ideas at Bangkok’s Chattachuk market over the weekend (chipmunk, anyone?) which may have planted the seed. And then we simply fell in love with our elephant hosts at the Four Seasons Tented Camp, outside Chiang Rai, where we spent most of last week.
Eye of the elephant
Most comfy animal we've ridden yet!
The main feature of the camp – and without which it wouldn’t be a tenth the experience – is the opportunity to spend time with a few lucky elephants rescued from a life on the streets. In previous years, elephants were widely used for logging in the region, but modern equipment is more cost effective, resigning the elephants – and their mahouts – to a life of ‘begging’ (usually in the form of cash-for-a-photo) on Thailand’s streets and beaches. Frequently, the mahout cannot afford to meet the elephant’s constant demand for food (more than 200 kilograms of bamboo, sugar cane per day!), leaving these massive animals hungry, grumpy and often dangerous.
Life for the six working elephants at the Tented Camp – and for the other elephants at the associated charitable organization – is significantly different. The elephants enjoy an endless supply of sugar cane, bamboo and bananas, in addition to a safe environment in which to live. The mahouts – too – are taken off the streets and hired to tend to the elephants.
For the lucky guests of the Tented Camp, the elephant experience is more intimate than we could ever have hoped. This is not a zoo-type experience. Instead, we learned to ride and command the elephants using traditional mahout commands. After graduating from the training area’s slalom course, we were allowed to take the elephants on a trek through the jungle (albeit on a trail very well known to the elephants, so we couldn’t really have gone far wrong!).
The first surprise was just how comfortable riding an elephant was! No saddles or baskets here – you simply sit on the elephant’s neck, with feet protected (or in my case, pinned back!) by the elephant’s ears. It was – by far – the most comfortable I’ve been on any animal during the trip, despite the lack of any blankets or other barriers. We were encouraged to frequently offer verbal and physical reassurances to our elephants and – for all these reasons - I quickly felt a real attachment to my elephant.
My second surprise was just how hairy elephants are! Sparsely distributed over their entire bodies, they have thick, black hairs several inches long protruding proudly. I got to know the hair on the back of my elephant's head and neck quite well over our four day relationship!
Not content with our day-as-a-mahout, Lloyd and I took advantage of additional opportunities to spend more time with our elephants. On two mornings, we volunteered to head up to the top of the hill just behind the Tented Camp to retrieve the elephants with the mahouts, and then bring them down to the training area for their morning baths! My elephant seemed highly skilled in collecting the most mud on her back overnight, and required serious scrubbing! And she seemed to adore having her ears scrubbed. After their – and, therefore our, bath, we used hoses to rinse off the elephants before riding them to the ‘stables’ where we were allowed to feed them sugar cane.
There’s no doubt that our time with the elephants was once-in-a-lifetime, and these gentle giants made an appropriately huge impression on us. They love their mahouts completely – and only at their command tolerate us ‘temporary’ drivers. In the mornings when I was driving my elephant down to camp, she was obedient but wouldn’t allow herself to be more than twenty feet from her mahout. When he wasn’t firmly by her side, she would stop and look back for him. At the same time, the elephants are almost perfectly obedient. When we watched the elephants being rinsed off, the mahout needed only shout the command and the elephant would perform unthinkable poses: sitting on two back legs, lifting front left or front right, lowering head, raising trunk etc.
These elephants were more obedient than most dogs we’ve come across! Which brings me back to my elephant-as-a-pet idea. Of course, my cat Tammy will try to object, but I think the elephant might have the size advantage...