Why Baby Elephants Are the Innocent Victims of Tourism in Southeast Asia
The following excerpt is from Birdsong After the Storm: Giving Power to Communities to Speak for Wildlife in International Environmental Governance, by Margi Prideaux (Stormbird Press, 2017)
From behind came a sound, swish, phwom, swish, phwom. My heart fluttered inside my chest. Could it be what I had been hoping for since the first giant gardener's space?
Years ago, I travelled to Thailand for a semester of study and the opportunity to explore the country. I am drawn to what is tangible and real in the world—wildlife that is wild and communities living as they have for eons. For me, chance encounters with wildlife carry more colour and texture than the canned experiences people buy. On this occasion, I had found a trek to visit a Karen-Thai hill tribe community in the Chiang Mai province. Our guides were members of the community we were to visit. They vibrated with political activism and a deep pride in their people. Their energy was magnetic.
We set off from Chiang Mai in a van at dawn, winding for hours through deep valleys between steep, densely vegetated hills. Lush plants sprang from every surface. The sight of such prolific vegetation can be difficult to absorb, at times so profuse it looks artificial. It’s as if you are travelling through a dense green cloud.
After an hour or so of winding roads, we stopped at an unmarked roadside point, in the shadow of a tall hill. I am sure the spot was easy to identify for locals, but to my eyes nothing distinguished this hill from the hundreds we had just passed. Still, with trust and a prayer, we collected our packs and dissolved ourselves into the trees to begin the upwards march towards the Karen village.
Pushing through thick vegetation, we wove around tree trunks standing in tight formation. At our feet was thick undergrowth. Over our heads was a dense canopy of low-hanging branches. Without the occasional bright flowers springing forward with ridiculous iridescence, it could have been a scene from a commando movie. Birds, which I could never identify, chattered and clanged in the sun shining on the other side of the ceiling of leaves. Insects took up arms as we moved forward. Some limited their interest to noting our passing, while others investigated if our flesh offered something more. Ahead, our guides moved steadily and ever upwards, swinging their machetes from side to side, clearing a path for our climb. They never faltered, swatted, or stopped, so neither did we.
Occasionally, the forest density would suddenly evaporate and we would stumble into small clearings ringed by trees with bare trunks. Through the high manicured dome of leaves, the mid-morning light glinted in the few spaces not woven shut. It was as if a giant gardener had crafted a private cocoon to sit and enjoy. Here, our band of trekkers could sit, gulp water and devour sticky Thai sweets. There was a clear track in and a clear track out, wider than the paths we were making, and distinctly worn into the ground. A guide explained the elephants and their mahouts, known as kwarn chang in northern Thailand, had created these spaces, for moments of rest from their work in the surrounding area. At that time, the teak harvest ban in Thailand was still young and illegal activity continued.
The thrill of knowing elephants were nearby was intoxicating. I strained my hearing to catch a sound of their presence, but the cacophony of birds masked my effort.
Our trek went on for hours, up and around hills and down through deep valleys. As the day matured it became hotter and the air cloyingly still. My clothes hung wet on my frame and a steady stream of sweat blurred my vision. The water we carried was lighter by the step.
Eventually, we crested the edge of a long, meandering valley. The wild forest gave way to signs of human toil. Our path was now bordered by crops fed by lengths of bamboo irrigation pipes. In the distance were a collection of bamboo and rattan huts. Colourful fabrics billowed in the breeze. This was our destination.
After hours of shade, the sun felt ferocious, blazing in its mid-afternoon posture. Tiny midges buzzed close by; a gentle hum tuned to the beauty of the day.
Of our small band, I was slowest. This is nothing new. I have never been a natural trekker; I love the destination, but often tire at the pace of the journey. I like to stop and explore new and wonderful discoveries along the way, to have moments where there is no human sound so I can soak in the aliveness of what surrounds me.
I was alone on the path when I heard a gentle swish then phwom, swish, phwom approaching behind me.
A thrill billowed inside me and I turned to face the titan. She was magnificent.
The relationship between humans and elephants in this region goes back a long way. It is too easy to assume the practices of the past, when elephants were pressed into the service of logging, land clearing or used as transport haulers, were the terrible times—to presume the new enlightenment of tourism oversees a better world for these gentle animals. However, this judgement is tinged with western bias and blinkered vision.
I don't mean to suggest that teak harvesting should resume—far from it. The scale of harvest caused terrible damage across Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but unintended consequences flowed from the ban. Communities that had built generations of identity and skill around raising and training mahouts and elephants crumbled. An elephant, which may have spent its life as a member of a mahout's family, became a burden to feed if the family’s income disappeared. Many mahouts were similarly cast adrift. Starvation for both was a very real threat. Elephant tourism—elephant rides and elephant performances—filled a gap for some. But this can be a pitiful existence for the elephants and the men, made worse by the knowledge that elephant infants, wrenched from their mothers in Myanmar, are regularly smuggled across the border into Thailand to be presented as orphans in need of care. These youngsters are the innocent victims of the tourism machine. In some ways, the situation for elephants is worse now than it was at the peak of teak harvesting.
The ears of the elephant walking towards me waved softly, eyes creased in a gentle smile, her trunk swayed with the rhythm of her long, slow stride. Swish, phwom. Swish, phwom. Swish, phwom. Each step began as a gentle touch that flowed into heavy softness.
She was more than magnificent. She was heart wrenchingly beautiful.
I knelt on the path when she was still a few lengths away and took a photograph. I knew it would fall short of her presence, but it would remind me of this moment in years to come. Even today, as I hold it in my hand, I remember each swaying stride. Swish, phwom.
Behind her head sat her kwarn chang, tenderly patting her neck and whispering soothing sounds behind her ears. I stepped from the path as her trunk tenderly reached out, then yanked a clump of grass and flowers from near my feet. I was enveloped by the rich, deep smell of her skin and wet vegetation. Her eye tracked me for a moment, pleating at the edges with delight as she placed her spoils in her mouth to chew.
My heart slowed to the beat of her footsteps. An ear and then a shoulder glided by. Swish, phwom. I glanced at her kwarn chang, now above my head, and he returned a shy nod. The round swell of her abdomen pressed the space between us, drawing my attention back to her magnificent presence. A rumble inside her body made me smile, then the switch of her tail drew my attention to her hip moving past.
I drank in another dozen swaying steps before she rounded a corner and melted into the treeline.
She was gone, but her presence could still be felt, like an echo in the space on the path.
One of the guides called my name from the edge of the village. I drew in a breath at the wonder of the world and took off at a trot to catch up with the group. The next adventure of meeting the Karen people was ahead.