Monday, August 24, 2015

Epic Adventures: Elephant Riding

I wish I could say that Joel and I were very contentious when we decided what Elephant Riding organization to support on our trip to Thailand last winter. However, it wasn't really like that. We decided pretty last minute that we were definitely going to experience this incredible Thai gift so we just signed up for the most decently priced one we could find online. 

In fact, when we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for New Years, we were sure we wanted to spend that special first day of the year riding on Elephants! The riding group called us to arrange our pick up and before we knew it, we were in a bus with 10 other folks from the USA (which until this point, we had not meet any other Americans on the journey). Chatting with them on the bus we realized pretty quickly that we were not on the Elephant Riding excursion that we thought we had signed up for, so we consciously let go of expectations and prepared for a day of the unknown.

We ended up being part of a tour with the Rantong Elephant Refuge. Little did we know, we actually ended up on one of the most ecologically friendly Elephant tours that we could have chosen. Rantong Elephant Refuge is committed to finding and saving elephants who have been abused by humans for many years. They free and collect elephants who are both young and old who have been kept in dire conditions. All of these elephants have been abused while being ridden by humans. Part of their abuse comes in the form of wearing elephant saddles. These saddles, look fun at the circus or at the Renaissance Festival, but they are detrimental to the skeletal health of the Elephant. Over time, these saddles (often over packed with people) will press down on their big bones and distort or even break them. Many of the elephants we were able to meet and ride had injuries from 40 years of carrying people around with these painful saddles on. 

Learning this, Joel and I were suddenly relieved that we had not ended up on the tour we thought we had booked. At Rantong, the elephants were going through rehabilitation and as part of their treatment, they are learning to carry humans around without being beaten or hurt by their harnesses. All of the elephant riding that took place at Rantong was bare-back. Elephants would only carry a person (or two) if they were physically able and their Mahout (their personal shepherd) would walk alongside them speaking to the in the language they know best. 

The tender care and love that passed between the elephants and their mahouts was the most touching part of the experience to me. We were told that the mahouts do not choose their elephant, the elephant chooses their mahout. Each elephant at Rantong had a young man who walked with it, looked after it and rode it continuously throughout the day. The bond between these men and their elephants was heavenly and you could plainly see just how important these two creatures had become to each other.

Arriving at Rantong, we hopped out of the van on a cliff-side overlooking the refuge. It looked like something out of Jurassic park. We were stunned by the beauty all around us and the peaceful elephants just quickly grazing in the grassy-land below. We walked a thousand steps down and joined our guide in the middle of the stables. 

We were given special clothing because we were guaranteed to get dirty and wet and even a little sunburned if we weren't careful. Many couples chose to ride together on the same elephant as we did, so we were introduced to a mahout who guided us over to his lovely beast. Joel and I would share Meuong for the day. She was a 43 year old elephant who was kept at a circus for riding tourist around in a saddle. She was strong and a little stubborn, but there was something kind and gentle about her.

Before we set off to riding, we were given handfuls of bananas to make friends with all the elephants. It was amazing to hold out my hand and have a massive truck come probing at me, a little wet, and very curious. There was a baby elephant at the refuge who I could not keep myself from petting. She was so small (relatively) and lively. She came right up to me and wrapped her trunk around me in search of bananas. I was warned by the guide that she likes to head-butt people but that did not phase me until I had this half ton baby coming at me full force. It wasn't so bad. Her cuteness outweighed my shock from the head-butt. 

This baby was taken from her mother (who was a circus elephant) and was kept in a pen only big enough for her body to fit in. She was kept in this pen for the first 8 months of her life. When this happens to an elephant of any age, they develop a sway that will never go away. Elephants who have been abused by this type of confinement are easy to spot because they sway their heads back and forth, shifting from right to left, to keep their massive bodies in motion. This tick will not go away once it has been established. This little one had it very distinctly and on a baby, it looked playful and cute, but once she grows into adulthood, it will look more like the tick that it truly is and reflect a period of her life that was terribly cruel. 

This little one's story does brighten up, when she arrived at Rantong Refuge, they allowed her to "choose" an adoptive mother. Apparently, elephants are quick to care for the young. In spite of this, the elephant the baby chose did not want to adopt her and thus she was rejected. The next day, an enormous disabled female stepped up to the plate. The baby was quickly accepted and adopted by an elephant that was born without a kneecap in one leg. This poor elephant had been very unmotivated to walk or participate in the grazing with the other elephants and seemed to be showing signs of depression until she spotted the little calf that needed a mother. Once the pair had decided on one another, the cow's energy came back full force and she wanders everywhere her baby goes, protecting her and caring for her as any mother would. 

I had no idea that we would learn so much about each of the elephants. Each elephant had a story that brought them to Rantong. The guides had amazing stories of elephants getting away and hiking 500 miles to other countries and having to ship them back home in large trucks. Mahoots would sit in the crooks of their trunks or hang up-side-down on their foreheads talking to them like an old friends. Meanwhile, the elephants had glorious hours and hours to graze and play.

Meuong had a little itchy in her britchie...she stopped to scratch her butt real good.

For us, the tourist and riders, we were taught how to mount and dismount our elephants. The commands were simple but most elephants would really only heed their mahouts. We rode Meuong all afternoon. She didn't seem to want to stop except to graze. Riders and elephants wandered the grasslands, the sharp cliffs, and even splashed around in the bathing pools. Meuong was only interested in wading when we rode her into the pool, but other, younger, elephants would run and dive in head first, throwing off their riders with a big splash into the muddy water. We were all given buckets and pans to splash and clean our elephants who lit up with delight as we played with them in the water. 

Rantong fed us a delicious chicken and curry lunch and helped us to understand how important it is to protect these amazing beasts. Elephants are very expensive to keep up. Their food alone is very costly. Most of our fee for coming to Rantong would go to elephant food. Mahouts are hard to come by because this position as an "elephant shepherd" is looked down on as lowly in Thailand, so many gifted mahouts will leave and look for better jobs in the cities. Rantong, like many places that mean to do good in the world, struggles daily to stay afloat but the joy and life that comes from this venture is inspiring. 

Joel and I were so grateful we ended up in this heavenly valley, petting old elephants and learning more about how to respect and care for these beautiful mammoth creatures. 

No comments: