I write this from a tiny octagonal bungalow under a mosquito net in the tiny town of Pai, not far from the Myanmar border. The geckos are chirping on the ceiling, dogs are barking in the distance, and the snake that had found its way next to my bed has hopefully found another place to sleep. All of our days since we arrived in Thailand have been full of interesting conversations – not just about elephants and the issues around the Asian elephant here in Thailand, but about global warming, attitudes here about living a more sustainable existence and about the connection humans have with other animals. As Geoff and I talk about the day’s events, a theme emerges. What are the strategies and lifestyles people use to keep an animal from going extinct?
The woman next to me in the picture at the top is named Thom Ruecha. She was raised with elephants and is the fourth generation in her family to make a living with them. Her great-grandfather raised and trained elephants to help with warfare, her grandfather and father used them in the logging industry, and when that was banned in 1989, her father trained his elephants to do tricks and took them around Thailand in a traveling show. When Thom was 3 she was given a baby elephant named Phanom which means “prayer”. 47 years later she takes care of Phanom as well as two other elephants in her business– giving bareback elephant rides to tourists and taking them to the river to swim in addition to offering bamboo rafting, camping, mahout training and the option to volunteer.
Thom loves her elephants and says they are like her children. Imagine for a moment the responsibility of a puppy. Its lifespan is maybe 14 years and it needs regular walks and food. Caring for an elephant, not to mention three elephants, is basically a full-time job if they are not able to wander freely to find their own food.
We spent five hours with Thom, first riding Phanom and Ot down to the river to see firsthand what this was like and then interviewing her about her life, her thoughts about elephant care and her business. She treated us to a delicious lunch which is where we are in the top picture.
Thom said she feels an obligation to care for her elephants until they die, although she often dreams of being free to travel. Her elephants need at least 200 kilos of food per day, although she says she feeds them more than that, growing. bananas and sugarcane and taking them to the woods at night to eat trees and grasses. We asked her about the availability of veterinary care for her elephants and she became more serious and sad as she told us how she sent one of her sick elephants to an elephant hospital where it died. Apparently there is no vet she feels she can call for “house calls” who will come quickly or who really knows much about elephant diseases and cures. She says she has to diagnose and treat her elephants herself and is often unsure of what to do when they get sick because she doesn’t really have the training. This is a huge problem considering the number of elephants that come down with all sorts of issues standing on hot pavement waiting to give tourists rides all day.
When we were photographing her with Phanom I asked her about another of her elephants that died and she said she buried her on her property (using a tractor) and that the other elephants refuse to go near that spot. She also described the love her three elephants show each other – often caressing one another’s trunks and resting their heads on the other’s body.
There were many elephant riding “camps” along the road where Thom’s is based and some of these elephants standing listlessly under shelters out of the sun seemed quite sad. Behemoths with tremendous power and consciousness on a small chain with nothing to do between the occasional tourist during the off-season.
I could see that for a person like Thom who loves her elephants as if they are her children, taking care to treat them well and while making a living off of using them in the tourist industry, it is not necessarily an option to offer them, even for sale, to a place like the Elephant Nature Park. Thom would need to reinvent a way to make a living and the elephants would be separated from the person who knows and loves them the best. Thom truly believes her elephants are content doing what they are doing, and as far as I could tell, for captive elephants, they were.
The elephants we rode from Thom’s were trained to play harmonica and to bow their heads in gratitude (on command) for being given fruit. They bent their knees to let us climb on and off their backs. Thom says they were trained using positive reinforcement. This is not usually the case with most elephants involved in the tourist industry where they are punished with a bullhook behind the ear or on the head for any stubborness or resistance to the mahout. Nevertheless, Thom’s mahouts held a bullhook which they didn’t use but which made the elephants aware of the repercussions of being stubborn.