I never considered myself a hollering kind of girl – but after the scream that escaped when I got electrocuted by the lion fence in Zambia and my joyous cry when I saw the dolphin fly out of the sea in Zanzibar – I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when a yelp rang through the jungle as I witnessed the first elephant emerge from behind the thick trees. I quickly slapped a hand over my gaping mouth as I gripped the injured knee of Marcia – the lovely Australian volunteer perching next to me on the sturdy fallen tree – the two of us grinning from ear to ear as the four huge creatures lumbered by. It was, not surprisingly, love at first sight.
I just spent the last five days in the presence of eight retired elephants – deep in the jungle in the Mondulkiri Province of Cambodia. This wondrous place is called the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) and, as one of the few elephant sanctuaries in the world, they provide a natural home for these heartbreakingly beautiful elephants who have, sadly, lived painfully difficult lives. Today – they get to be elephants again.
We spent our days wandering down into various valleys to visit three separate herds – navigating steep paths etched out of deep red earth – our guides whooping into the air to call to the mahouts who care for these giants. On some days we got to help with health checks – gazing into their eyes and ears and pinching their thick, cool, surprisingly hairy skin to determine if they are properly hydrated. Then throwing a long tape measure high over their wide frames to measure their girth – using a complicated mathematical formula to assess if they’ve gained or lost weight since the previous week’s measurement. We cheered when we heard that fragile (for an elephant) Maelot has put on a ton (not literally but close) of weight.
Throughout the week our guide John (an awesome, long-haired dude from Ohio whose enthusiasm for these elephants is endearing and infectious) told us the tale of how each elephant came to the project. Maelot, for instance, had a life so tragic I sit here shaking my head and shutting my eyes as I type. The majority of her life was spent in logging and construction and likely tourism … her handlers using long, metal bull hooks to bend her will… blinding one eye in the process. Her ribs were compressed from restrictive harnesses to the point that her spine juts up from her back. She no longer has any teeth and her owner sold various body parts including portions of her tail and her labia to make money.
I’m sorry to report that the other elephants’ stories are no less heartbreaking. (You can read about them all on the EVP website.) Simply put, these elephants have lived in pain for the majority of their lives. But no longer. Now they are free. In most instances and for various reasons, their owners sold them to EVP. Retired from hard labor and schlepping tourists around temples – these eight elephants now get to graze on fresh bamboo and get daily scrub-downs by their mahouts and enjoy mud baths whenever they want. But many of them didn’t even know how to perform these basic tasks when they arrived. They were fearful and unaccustomed to caring for themselves. And this is where my favorite part of the story comes in.
“Ning-Wan taught her how to be an elephant again,” said John as we sat watching 65-year old Mae-Nang joyously rub her mud-covered body back and forth against a tall tree – her weight shaking the branches high up in the sky back and forth as if they were a surrendering flag. With injuries sadly similar to Maelot’s, Mae-Nang came to EVP following a long life of abuse … arriving into the valley with no elephant “skills” – acting like a robot with no sense how to care for herself. Thankfully 40-year old Ning-Wan, the self-elected matriarch of the herd, took her under her wing and showed her how to forage, how to drink from the brown river, how to inhale and then throw clumps of the red earth across her body to cool herself.
This behavior – this instant acceptance and support that elephants show each other – is something I’d read about before arriving. But to see firsthand how these huge beasts care for each other is almost indescribable. This past week I was able to witness Ning-Wan tend to Mae-Nang, her trunk snaking up toward her friend and blowing air toward her – an elephant act of comfort. And watch the younger girl Ruby (who has established herself as the herd’s bodyguard) come running through the jungle at the first sign of distress from one of the the other girls (which comes in the form of deep rumbling or surprisingly high-pitched trumpet calls). And hear stories about how Easy Rider – who likes to pull her chains* out of the earth during the night to raid local farms – inevitably helps her best friend GeeNowl do the same so they can cavort together in search of low hanging bananas or their favorite cassava roots.
It is impossible for me to come to terms with the suffering these elephants have had to endure at the hands of humans. So I am going to choose instead to concentrate on the elephants themselves … their enduring trust, their resiliency and strength, and the sheer joy they display for the lives they live today. I can’t wait for another week of watching them tossing endless bunches of tender green bamboo into their mouths, rolling about in the cool brown water, and rubbing their bodies on any tree sturdy enough to act as a scratching post. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
*Note: these elephants are “chained” to a tree every evening. The chains can be easily broken in case of emergency (i.e. a forest fire or some such thing). And they are placed strategically so they have plenty of food to forage throughout the night (these elephants can EAT!). But they must be kept under a modicum of control lest they raid the local farms every night.
End note: I know riding elephants is a thing. Especially in Asia, Africa and India. But I have learned that it is simply not a natural “thing” for these amazing animals. They are not built to carry humans in baskets on their backs. Their mahouts ride high up on their necks – the strongest part of the animal – only when necessary. But really – any kind of tourist elephant-riding situation … well, it simply causes them pain. So my personal plea is that you take this into consideration if you’re thinking about riding an elephant. I know I will never crawl onto one’s back.