Sunday, May 5, 2024

Elephant Etiquette And More


Probably the most thrilling part of our trip was going to the Kanta Elephant Sanctuary an hour outside of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. Chiang Mai itself is a wonderful place and adding a visit with the elephants was an incredible experience. Elephants used to work in the logging industry in Thailand moving huge logs from place to place. Commercial logging was outlawed in 1989 and the elephant handlers, known as mahouts, were left with these giant animals to care for that no longer contributed to the family income. The burgeoning tourist industry provided some income to the Thai owners, but often elephants were mistreated and the owners lived below subsistence level.   

Sanctuaries were set up to buy the elephants and give them a tranquil life and some financial relief to their owners. Many organizations promote the well-being of the elephants and the proper running of these sanctuaries. Unfortunately, you still see places where elephant rides are promoted or where they’re chained and not given the freedom to roam. Luckily, the Kanta Sanctuary allows none of that and the elephants spend their days peacefully eating and walking, walking and eating in the forest, with daily baths and a monthly visit from a veterinarian.   

The Kanta Sanctuary has 21 acres of forest, grazing land and rivers for 17 lucky elephants. Each has his or her own Thai handler, who cares for the elephants and gets them safely from place to place. 

We arrived at the sanctuary in the morning and were told the program for the day and instructed in what I call elephant etiquette. 

First, we changed into our elephant uniforms - a really cute elephant-emblazoned top and culotte-y type shorts. Plus they gave each of us cloth bags, into which we would put our elephant snacks. 

Our initial meeting with the elephants was behind a sturdy metal, waist-high fence, where we fed them some of their favorite snacks. We were bribing them to like us with treats, kind of like with kids! We gave them sugar cane and tiny local bananas (of course skin and all). 

Then we went into a wide-open area, where we could truly interact with our new elephant friends. Here’s where the elephant etiquette came into play.

The rules:
No running.
No yelling or shouting.
Don’t stand or walk BEHIND the elephants…not because they’d crush you on purpose, but they’re LARGE, so as they step back, you don’t want to be squashed by huge elephant feet.  

The reason for no running or yelling is pretty obvious. You don’t want to alarm the elephants in any way. You want them to stay calm and happy.

Anyway, we hung out with them in this open area and we had more snacks in our cloth bags. I had given my elephant everything I had and she kept bopping my bag and shoving it with her trunk. Tucked into the corner of the bag was a tiny banana that my elephant had smelled. I gave it to her and she promptly turned around and walked away. It totally proved the catch phrase that we were told - “NO FOOD, NO FRIENDS”. When you have no more food, they lose interest in being your friend.

🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘

It had been nearly 4 minutes since the elephants had eaten, so we were ushered back up to the staging area to prepare their next meal. 

We got large bowls with tamarind (including the pits), protein powder, lime juice and some other things. We mashed them together and then formed them into golf ball sized servings. We rejoined the elephants behind the fence and fed them the balls in a very interesting manner. 

First we raised our hand high and said something that sounded like BUUNN BUUNN. At that signal, the elephant raises her trunk and opens her mouth wide. We then deposited the “meatless ball” right on the elephant’s tongue and watched as she basically swallowed the thing whole. It was pretty neat.


THEN (the fun wasn’t over yet!) the handlers guided their elephants into the river. We followed them into the water and we were allowed to pour water on them and brush their elephant skin with big brushes. So sweet. And, of course, we were careful not to stand behind any of them. I paid attention to the one boy in the group - a little boy elephant who was covered with really cute baby hair. 🥰 And, PS, there were some kids in our group who didn't follow the no yelling or no running rules perfectly, but our large friends didn't seem bothered.

Then bath time was over and the elephants paraded back to the open field where we would have our final goodbyes. After everyone – elephants and people – were out of the water, suddenly a new elephant, not in our group, came RUNNING over to our elephants, trumpeting as she went. It was a little frightening. 

Luckily, I was standing behind a table and there were quite a few people between me and the errant elephant. 😬 Our guide was calm and said it was all fine. This elephant was just coming over to say hi to her friends, whom she hadn’t seen in a while. 😏😮 But how did he know everything was really good? Supposedly because the elephants were flapping their ears and wagging their tails, which is a sign of happiness. Ummm...

Listen carefully to the video and you can hear the elephant trumpeting, but you won't be able to feel the vibration of the ground as she came running over. 

Shortly after that, we were invited to take pictures with the elephants and say bye.  

By the way, Asian and African elephants are two completely different species. Asian elephants are smaller (thank goodness!) at about 2/3’s the size of African elephants, who also have larger ears. Their toe situation is kind of unique. Most sources say the Asian elephant has 5 toes on both their front and back feet, but only 4 toenails on their back feet. African elephants also have 5 toes on each foot, but four toenails on their front feet and 3 on the back. I should have zeroed in on some elephant feet, but I didn’t think of it.    

I really appreciated the remarkable opportunity we had to get so close to these impressive animals, no matter how many toes they have...

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