‘They’re just like dogs’, my friend Jess claimed matter-of-factly. ‘Yeah right’, I thought, looking up at the hunk of leathery grey beast before me, who I could tell was already weighing me up with his beady eyes, working out the best method of pulverising me. I took a step back.
The idea of visiting an elephant sanctuary had been a much mulled-over prospect whilst we traversed Thailand and in the end we couldn’t resist the idea of cavorting about in the jungle with an adorable baby Nelly or Dumbo. I couldn’t wait to feed, bathe and ride my very own heffalump and form a bond not dissimilar to that of Aladdin and his simian sidekick Abu (who gets temporarily morphed in to an elephant by the genie… keep up, people). We would regard each other with curiosity, then after a generous offering of bananas he would sweep me up with his trunk and we would perform a song and dance routine, a dazzling spectacle of cross-species camaraderie.
My anthropomorphic aspirations were soon squashed flat. My idealised image of cute and cuddly characters evaporated as soon as I saw the size of their tusks. Unfortunately, life for many elephants in Thailand is far from a Disney film. At Baan Chang Elephant Park, just outside of Chiang Mai, all of the elephants are rescued from dire situations, having worked in hard labour carrying logs, or been forced to perform and parade the cruel streets of Bangkok.
The mahouts (elephant trainers) explained to us that as a result of their traumatic pasts, the residents of Baan Chang (literally meaning elephant home) can be incredibly wary of human contact and their behaviour can be unpredictable and aggressive. I took another, larger step backwards.
But these are no mindless brutes. You can genuinely see the shadows of stress on their faces, the emotional memory of their abuse reflected in their mesmerising gazes. These animals have been known to actually grieve, repeatedly visiting the spots where they have lost their loved ones as we would visit a grave. They are incredibly strong, yet evoke a gentle tenderness which instantly draws you to them. This complexity, this intelligence, this integrity, demands respect.
Feeding time was our initial up-close encounter with the herd. It turns out that elephants aren’t great at catching bananas and bamboo when the person feeding them launches the bundles of grub from the opposite end of the field (and my throw is appalling). Once I realised they weren’t all conspiring to strangle me with their trunks, I even managed to scale a vast wall of surprisingly hairy, two-inch thick skin in order to ride one. After an incredible hour of waltzing through the wilderness, we reached a shallow pool, at the sight of which the elephants gathered pace. Bath time meant play time, and although at this point I was genuinely at risk of obliteration-by-elephant, it is my favourite memory of the day.
Throughout the whole experience I was acutely aware of how fortunate I was to be in such close proximity to these majestic creatures. I suppose Jess had a point with the dog comparison. The elephants were extremely loyal to the mahouts and revelled in boisterous mischief, but I’m not sure they’re suited to domestic life. You would need one swimming-pool-sized litter tray, that’s for sure.
They say elephants never forget. After my time with them, I know I certainly won’t.
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