“Come say hello to her,” the Thai announced as he touched the elephant’s trunk with his palm, stroking it. “Like this.”
One after another, hands brushed and rustled the crevassed skin; the beast locked gazes with each of her greeters, each making her flinch – was that caution, fear even? – as though subduing a mental barrier of old traumas. They say elephants never forget, but this one is learning to forgive.
It was my turn. Face to face, she appeared immense, powerful, yet so delicate and tender. I could only imagine – I’m proud to claim I’ve never ridden an elephant – I’d have mounted her from a platform hovering over her back, if the encounter had been in her days when the cumbersome and agonising saddle, nay, carrier litter had burdened her life; I’d have not eyed her complexions, never stared into her eyes, so intimately, and bound ourselves in a connection so earnest as an introductory greeting.
With blackened pupils she studied me. Then, in a playful head bob, she nudged my hand as it broke away from the touch.
“I can’t believe you’re actually here!”
I’d always known Diana‘s smile of zealous bliss, but on this Boxing Day her beam was so wide there couldn’t be any concealment of delight – she’d found a place she belonged, and I, a friend, had finally come to bear witness to her in her sanctuary.
This was the coolest bring-your-mate-to-work day, I assured her again, though the words couldn’t have carried their meaning, based only on the Elephant Nature Park she’s so eloquently written about, until I was presently witnessing her workplace born out of passages – and into my eyes the jungle refuge, onto my hands the rugged feel of elephant flesh.
We sat cross-legged on a bamboo mat, peering at the shallow river from an open shelter; it’s yet too early for the daily routine of bathing time, but already a couple colossal quadrupeds had already sauntered onto the banks, frolicking and sprinkling in a splash-about.
Something droned overhead: a robotic whirl chopping stifled air, propelled by an engine sounding distinctively that of a helicopter. To that came replies – first was a hum, subsonic and barely audible, chased by a mismatched pitch of squeaks piercing like a siren with anxiety issues.
Then, the unmistakable decibels: ones I’d only heard from wildlife documentaries and never firsthand, of the trumpeted grunt discharged from the trunk of an elephant.
Even though the chopper was hardly in sight, the approaching aerial machinery was spooking the now fumbling elephant pair.
Those are the three typical sounds an elephant makes, Diana went on to explain. The hum, recorded to be perceivable by another Asian elephant up to five miles away – apparently farther still for an African elephant – was the infrasound communication warning of an alien belligerence; the squeals and trumpet, though distinctively different in sound, both articulated their intimidation and distress.
Elephants seemed smart, I remarked; I then recounted, earlier that morning when I visited the metal-barred pen of Baby Navaan – one of the elephants born in the park – I observed her mother picking up a bamboo stick and scratching her back with it. She appeared pleased, just as I’d express the pleasure when I’m relieved of an itch.
Meanwhile, earlier still at a feeding, other members of the herd would snub and dismiss certain fruits I offered them – as readily as I’d banish Brussels sprouts to the furthest corner of my plate.
Intelligence, individuality, emotions: the qualities I uncovered a parallelity between myself, a human being, and these very animals that bore brutal scars etched onto their hide.
Those were whip marks, holes from sharp hooks, emblems of metal saddles and chains once shackling their legs and backs. Remnants of the breaking, the taming process equivalent to that rendering a man unconditionally servile, and thus fear of all humans did linger in their eyes and heightened alertness; yet torment often leave its signature more conspicuously on the exterior.
One of the elephants had staggered towards me out of curiosity, just as I was curious about her uncanny limp; up close, her hind leg was so contorted it was merely a misplaced pillar for balance and not for mobility.
The story behind the deformation was more hideous than the sight of the defect: her previous owner, in the effort of speeding up the reproduction cycle to profit from additional offsprings, forced a fully-grown male elephant to impregnate her. Her yet-premature frame couldn’t support the bull’s weight – her leg bone snapped clean in half.
Each of those rescued from captivity and now protected by Save Elephant Foundation had all endured some degree of past grievances. Some were blinded by repeatedly slapped in the eye, others wounded from land mines or worked to exhaustion and near-death from logging, begging – and entertaining tourists with the apathy of one straddling a mindless mechanical plaything.
Some clock probably struck noon, but there’s no precise hour when bathing time took place. When it did, the flight of elephants marched in unison towards the river, operatic in Wagner-esque grandeur, captured my attention like stomping rhythmic beats of an overture in andante.
The first scene on the aquatic stage: volleys and crossfires of water streams sloshing in mid air, as the cast grew to include almost everyone visiting the park, its resident volunteers and the elephants’ guardians, the mahouts – though within these premises their roles had reduced from riders to caretakers.
With buckets of waters splashing and cascading down their backs, the elephants unwound and sighed in gratification; for even on the December afternoon was it so warm, and their dermal blanket so thick and insulating, that the showering of cold water kept their bodies from overheating.
One by one, the herd exited the waters and ambled to the nearest mud pit, eventually leaving their washers to get each other wet instead; elephant after elephant smothered itself in a fresh layer of moistened dirt, an au naturel protection against direct sun exposure.
Picky about food and a penchant for coats? I chuckle even now, hindsight to the moment of realisation, drawing a comparison between the majestic creatures and human fashionistas.
Just before I followed the lumbering host into the park’s modest-sized cinema, Diana grabbed me.
Better than a documentary on the big screen, I received an invitation to spend the rest of the afternoon with Lek.
Better than a preaching of past sufferings, I got to hang out with the founder of the movement herself – one so pious in preserving the dignity and wellbeing of the elephants in the present.
Under the shadow of her underlings did Lek appear small – her name, in fact a nickname, means ‘little one’ in Thai. A bag of peanuts was enough enticement to have her encircled by three columnar trunks, snuffing and groping between each dollop landing on their nostrils. It looked somewhat intimidating, to be entrapped in the muscular, serpentine whirlpool of demand; but Lek looked unfazed, even smiling to the occasional photo call from an idolising crowd.
When the food hoarding and spectators receded, Lek tended to Faa Mai beside the river. For even the noblest of mothers have favourites – and it was favouritism that Lek squatted under the imposing figure of Faa Mai, fitted beneath her belly, where she was charming the elephant to sleep with a lullaby.
Four years ago, when Faa Mai was a newborn, Lek would’ve been towering over the infant as she took her first breath, and her first step; Lek, in turn, would have sung the same song to escort Faa Mai to her dreams. But now, Lek was once again dwarfed by a shade, whose eyelids were subsiding until they closed.
Mere minutes later, they were open again. Faa Mai aroused from her snooze and caressed her foster mother with her trunk.
And so the afternoon walk commenced.
Leading her entourage of animals – rescued dogs nursed in the sanctuary among elephants – Lek brought along some of her guests, myself included, away from the sanctuary’s wooden complex to the far end of the field, before the dense forest vegetation swallowed any flat landscape. There we simply lingered, timelessly, as elephants played with each other and their human admirers stroked and took photos of their serenity.
I wanted to chat with Lek, about her lifelong commitment to her cause, about her jungle-dwelling childhood leading up to the establishment of Elephant Nature Park, back in 1995; but she’d already produced a fiercely-equipped Canon camera, snapping away from every angle she could find of her beloved Faa Mai, from the tip of her snout to droop of her underbelly.
It reminded me of my own upbringing, long elapsed but immortalised in VCR home videos and volumes of photo albums my own parents had compiled.
I retreated into inner contemplation for a split second; when my gaze returned, Lek had her head wedged inside Faa Mai’s mouth, before her head swapped with her fingers, teasingly tingled the roof of Faa Mai’s mouth.
All creatures grow, but the tenderest of them will always reserve their naivety for one most maternal in their growth. Like when Faa Mai wiggled her body under the tickle, her ears flapped, eyes glistening in unadulterated glee under those of her elder, sterner counterparts.
What Lek was hiding so masterfully was her stress. Or, some may interpret, any strain from overworking simply dissipated from simply being in the company of her elephants.
But like all parenting tales – let’s not forget about her human children and grandchildren – there’s an underlying irony behind Lek’s: she isn’t just mother to just the few elephants under her wide-swathed bosom, but the mother of all.
Surmounting costly upkeep of running the park aside, she didn’t only fret about the elephants already under her care – she had to uphold the pledge of salvation for all of its species.
When I saw Diana again three weeks later, exchanging scenery from Chiang Mai’s lush outskirts to crimson-dusted Siem Reap, she’d just returned from rescuing two captive elephants and dodging harrying local officials to bring new members to the Foundation’s latest outpost in Cambodia.
Commandeering the charge, naturally, was Lek.
I won’t delve into the complexity of ethics and, one may argue, futility of elephant rescue movements – that deserves a post of its own. And, perhaps, if I had a more learned mind of the matter, like someone who’s lived in close proximity with elephants and the people who combat against animal cruelty. Like Diana.
But for my part, on that Boxing Day, I was gifted with not only the experience of stroking the trunk of an elephant, saying hello while it lives unbound – but also the guilt for ever harbouring the desire, out of masochism or curiosity, to cause harm to it, let alone riding it with indifferent jubilance.
Navaan was barely months old when I visited Elephant Nature Park. I wasn’t there at his birth, which was described to me by several witnesses as “miraculous”.
Despite their ideals, their conviction, their energy expended so unreservedly, Lek and her disciples simply cannot save every elephant that draws breath, or erase their plights in the past. But what matters is what matter: the elephants that passed away, yet remembered having spent their last peaceful days released from brutality; the human hearts they touched, and the resulting advocations and bonds presently.
And miracles that have a future, where the likes of Faa Mai and Navaan will never have to bear or even lay eye on the suffering still plaguing their less fortunate counterparts.
One saved, one victory: I reckon this can be said about more than just the elephants – it too speaks of every human soul who visits Elephant Nature Park.