Yesterday morning…riding a motorbike through the parched countryside en route to Thom, “the elephant whisperer” , helmet straps flapping in the wind, rounding the curves in the road avoiding chickens, wandering dogs and the occasional oncoming car – I could get used to this for awhile. The freedom I felt contrasted with the elephants I passed on route with chains around their legs, standing listlessly waiting for the occasional tourist to take to the river. Thom’s elephants are lucky as far as elephants in the tourist trade go. All three of them seemed so alert, comfortable and quite happy to be constantly munching on the sugarcane and bananas which the mahouts Mong and Keu kept bringing them. I had a few more questions for Thom from the interview the day before and wanted to make sure I had all the facts straight. We had breakfast which her friend cooked for us – an unbelievable spread of tuna, fresh herbs and other delectables- and she promised to send me photos of her prayer ceremony celebrating her elephants which she is doing next week with a local monk and garlands of flowers. I felt like I had found two new friends for life.
When I returned to the small resort where Geoff and I were staying, Geoff had already set up for the interview with Aran, the incredible wood-nymph svelte creator of the resort in Pai where we found ourselves. He is concerned about global warming, especially after barely escaping the Tsunami when he and his wife lived on Pi-Pi island. I wanted to interview him about his thoughts on Thai views of global warming, animal welfare and elephants and sustainable tourism or eco-tourism as a viable way to make a living. His resort is a perfect example of using trees and the land itself to create something that works in harmony with nature instead of draining it or polluting it. None of the bungalows had air-conditioning because they were surrounded by trees with doors on three sides and fans.
What was particularly hilarious was that Aran didn’t want us to use his real name (hence Aran is not his real name) because apparently he has had many girlfriends whom he thinks would want to track him down. We didn’t ask. Ah, the challenges of being a kind, artistic, handsome casanova!
Geoff and I flew back in the 10 seater plane to Chiang-Mai after being delayed at the airport which could easily have been mistaken for a local cafe if not for the runway alongside. Our main goal for Chiang-Mai was to interview some of the guys who use the elephants for begging on the streets at night, a horrendous existence and often a short one for the elephants who are torn from their families and sold to a guy who then rents them out to variety of people to use in the cities. Of all the fates for an elephants this is one of the worst – the hot pavement, the injuries from cars, being forced to drink beer, being kept alert despite hunger and thirst with amphetamines, the worn down footpads and broken spirits, the hearing loss from cars and the unbearable sensory overload from cars – their pollution, noise and vibration through the elephants sensitive feet.
Tonight will be very challenging for me emotionally and strategically. Last night Geoff and I took footage from a variety of different perspectives and I realized again how lucky I am to have a cinematographer willing to do challenging and unusual things for the shots I ask of him.
At one of the local restaurants next to the moat in the old city I asked the owner if she would talk about her feelings about the elephants begging in Chaing-Mai. She said I should really speak to her friend Jo who coincidentally is a friend of Lek’s (the founder of The Elephant Nature Park) and who is an avid vegetarian and compassionate activist for animals in Thailand. What incredible luck to find Jo! She closed her restaurant early and came to meet us where we interviewed her in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying. She asked us if she could help us with translating tonight when we try to get footage of the street elephants and find out more backstory on the men who walk with them. According to Jo, when she gets angry at them for what they are doing to the elephants, they insist the elephants are fine and strong. Apparently they are not strong enough to survive being hit by cars or falling into ditches, or most recently being electrocuted by the stray electrical wires on the sidewalks. Nor are they strong enough to endure the amount of pollutants on the scant vegetation they find during the day on their roadside chains under freeways.
Tomorrow we are scheduled to meet with Richard Lair in Lampang, about an hour south of Chiang-Mai, and to find out more about the politics of elephant welfare in Thailand.
The question persists…what does it take to keep one of the world’s most intelligent survivors, adaptable over the millenia to all sorts of climate shifts and challenges, from going extinct under the eyes of the world and the people who live alongside them?
Aran had said that people are so busy just trying to survive that they don’t spend much if any time thinking about solving larger problems other than dealing with their own. Jo thinks that the elephants will go extinct without government intervention and without specifically western intervention.