Finding Hope

P4200632, originally uploaded by linseyis.

I’m walking through the forest. Brush crunches under my foot and thorns pierce my bare calves. My flashlight is a dim replica of the nearly full moon. Six people trek behind me, tripping over felled logs, falling down carved out sections of earth not illuminated by our torches. We’re looking for Hope, and he’s not easy to find.

Hope, Mae Perm and Jokia are sure to be somewhere in this section of forest, but Hope, almost eight years old and always naughty, has wandered off from his mother figures. The bell he wears around his neck is silent amidst the bull frogs. Finding a 10,000 lbs. elephant in the dark forest is not as easy as it sounds.

Hope’s and Mae Tak Eow’s family are enjoying their once weekly trip to “Haven,” the only patch of mountainside anywhere nearby Chiang Mai where elephants can safely roam free. It’s easy to see why it’s confused with “heaven;” after the elles have walked the road from Elephant Nature Park, across the river, through the Thai village constructed of woven bamboo and barking dogs, up into the hills, they find the mud pit and spray themselves down in a cool coat. Then it’s off to wander and eat as they please, a rare chance to act just like an elephant in the wild: no chains, no mahouts, no man at all.

The trip happens at least once a week. Volunteers and overnight guest from the Park walk alongside the elephants, sit fireside while mahouts cook dinner and play songs on home-carved bamboo flutes and drums fashioned from trash cans. Everyone sleeps curled up with dogs on the raised floor, mosquito nets draped over to keep the otherwise outside world out. The elephants, especially Mae Perm and Jokia, trumpet and rumble in the middle of the night, sending subsonic, Jurassic-sounding signals through the night.

“Haven” marks the original spot where Sangduen “Lek” Chaildert started her herd of rescued elephants in 2002. Sensing her mission and elephants out spaced the land she had them on, she began Elephant Nature Park, and has since rescued thirty-five elephants.

It wasn’t long ago (check out my last blog) that I road atop an elephant on a jungle trek, ecstatic to be so close to the large, docile animals. But since I have arrived at Elephant Nature Park, I cringe when I think of the beasts trekking, painting or logging throughout Thailand and across Asia. A century ago, the gentle gray giants numbered over a 100,000. Today the number dwindles around 25,000. Since logging was banned in 1989, Thailand’s domestic elephants lead miserable lives, enduring cruel training known as the Phajaan, a life of solitude, shackles and abuse. I look at the photo on my last blog and I catch my breath. Especially when I look into Jokia’s eyes.

Or lack thereof. Jokia stands about nine feet tall. Her left eye is an empty socket. A white haze slips over her right eye. She’s blind in both. Jokia, a logging elephant, pulled a heavy log up a hill—while giving birth to her baby. The infant tumbled down the hill to its death. Grieving Jokia refused to work, so her mahout took a slingshot to her right eye. Days later, still tormented by the loss of her little one, Jokia neither ate nor worked. They shot her other eye with a bow and arrow.

On one of her “Jumbo Express” trips, tending to elephants in remote hill tribes, Lek heard the cry of a frightened and injured elephant. The sight must have been overwhelming: a man beating a blind elephant, and tears falling from the abused’s eyes. Using money from a group of volunteers, Lek bought the wounded elephant.

Once at Elephant Nature Park, Lek was unsure how the other elephants would respond to a blind comrade. But Mae Perm, Lek’s first elephant approached the injured elephant, renamed Jokia, meaning ‘eye from heaven.” Mae Perm touched the new arrival all over with her trunk. The two have been best friends ever since; whenever Mae Perm strays too far from her buddy, Jokia issues a trumpet and Mae Perm thunders across the grass. It happens several times a day and every time, it is a sight to behold. Trunks touch, bellies rumble and all is right with the world.

Except when Hope wanders off. The older ladies are happy to look after the mischievous Hope, though they don’t seem to mind when he makes a break for it. It’s our mission, under the moon lit sky, to recollect the youngster and bring him back to the Aunties so that the herd is easier to find in the morning.

Dam, Hope’s mahout, squats close to the earth to examine a footprint with his flashlight. He hands me a bamboo stick—his elephant stick—to part the overgrown bush. We’re knee deep in jungle. We inspect a few elephant poop samples, check the trampled brush and lo and behold, fifty minutes after we’ve set out, we’ve found Hope.

There’s something surreal about walking in the forest beneath the stars, following an eight foot elephant bum. Hope stops to eat whenever he wants, causing Dam to shout commands which are rarely followed. We pause often behind the massive ass and giggle about Hope’s stinky farts, his pension for low tree branches. Another thirty-five minutes and we find Jokia. Dam steers Hope nearby, and I get a chance to slip away and stroke my favorite elephant.

Tomorrow, we will head back down the hill, past trees wrapped in mandarin-colored monk’s cloth—a symbolic plea to the local people to keep the forest sacred and tree-filled—through the village, across the river, down the road, back to Elephant Nature Park. There, grazing between the rescued cats, buffalo and fifty-some-odd dogs, stand herds of elephants. Some of them have broken backs or legs. One of them is a Burmese landmine victim. One watched his mother die in the jungle. Several were rescued from the verge of death at Thailand’s largest display of elephants, Surin. (Click here to see my friend Leslie’s documentation of the atrocious festival.) But watching all of them waddle into the river, emerge wet, toss dirt on their backs and herd up again with their family groups, it is clear that in each of these elephants, through the determination of one woman and many volunteers, the life of Thailand’s most revered and most abused animal might be changing. Hope has been found after all.

More information on Elephant Nature Park

Photo: Mahout, Dam, guides Hope through the moon-lit jungle.

There are tons of new elle photos on the Flickr account; I’ll comment on them ASAP!

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December 2008

Flickr Photos

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