October 3, 2014

the elephant debate

it's my second day and i'm ready to work.  we report at 8AM to the meeting point where our chores are posted on the board.  i'm assigned to the elephant kitchen crew this morning.  it's the 'easy' job.  the other chores include cutting corn stalks or bamboo leaves on village farms, mucking the pens [shoveling elephant poo] and cleaning up the park [again, shoveling elephant poo].  when i signed up to be a volunteer i knew exactly what i was getting into and expected that i'd be shoveling elephant poo every day so to get a day in the kitchen was a bonus.

let's talk about the 'easy job'.  we start with moving pumpkins from the shelves to the washing area.   all the fruit/vegetables that the elephants eat need to be washed to remove any chemicals that may have been applied.  we form a line and hand them person to person until they get put into the washing bin.  there are spiders and broken, rotting pumpkins but everyone is in a good mood and we rock the pumpkins into the wash bin pretty quickly.  next, we wash the pumpkins.  the staff will chop them up and put them in the baskets along with bananas and watermelon that will be fed to the elephants off the platform.
 a truck filled with watermelon arrives so after a second line to move pumpkins and wash them we move over to unload the truck.  it's crazy to see how much food is required to feed these elephants.  when i was here before there were about 20 elephants and that number has doubled in just four years.  it takes us about an hour to unload the watermelon truck but our coordinators put on some music and the time goes very quickly.  we finish morning chores by 10AM and have free time until lunch at 11:30 so i hang out with some volunteers on the platform and we watch the day visitors feeding the elephants and work on getting to know the family and social groups of the herd.

each elephant has a story and it's always a very sad story of abuse.  some elephants have spent their time as street beggars.  some were abused and drugged to work in illegal logging business.  others were blinded because they refused to work.  four of the elephants have serious injuries because of land mines.  the thing about land mines is they don't kill the elephants - the mines just blow off part of their foot leaving them unable to work and in need of extensive medical care and rehabilitation.  the tourist and trekking industry has also produced casualties as babies are forced to follow their mothers on treks or are separated too early from their mothers.  another common injury in these elephants is dislocated legs - sometimes from being hit by cars or trucks while being used in the street begging for tourists or as logs have rolled down onto them in logging operations.

the elephants rescued by Lek will live out their lives [elephants in captivity can live 60+ years] at the  park, enjoying the freedom Lek has purchased for them.  by the work she has done to create this elephant sanctuary she has created a spotlight on the treatment of asian elephants.  the debate is getting heated.  one one side is Lek's team who use positive reinforcement and the other side is using traditional training techniques that involve a stick with a hook.  everyone who knows me knows where i come down on this issue.   let me try to explain the debate...

one side support the use of traditional training methods.  so here's the hook used by elephant handlers of domestic elephants exploited by the tourism industry [trekking, elephant riding, street begging and circuses].  it's a crude wooden stick with a metal hook on the end.  it begins with a breaking process called a 'phajaan' or 'crushing'.  here's a link to video of what is involved.  http://phajaan.webs.com/   it's not an easy video to watch.  all the domesticated elephants go through this process to break their spirit.  when you see the elephants with tattered ears at the sanctuary it makes you cry to know the holes in their ears are from repeated torture and poking of the hook.  to see the baby elephants at the park whose 'spirit has not been broken' is pure joy.  they are loving and playful and sometimes naughty but all controllable.

the other side is taking a non exploitative approach like Lek's which is positive reinforcement and a focus on the elephant, not the tourist.  it is not without it challenges.  it requires a lot of love and tons of patience.  more of this on my next post about a very, very smart and highly trained elephant who is acting a bit naughty.  the elephants who are born at the sanctuary never go through the breaking process.

Tubtim is the newest arrival at the park and has just been here for a week.  not a lot of her history is known but she has immediately taken on a nanny/auntie role with one of the baby elephants.

"Since Tubtim arrived at the park and adopted Navann [one of the baby elephants] Lek has followed her every day to observe how she react and over protection of Navann. We are now seeking for her history and family tree and want to find out what happened with all of her babies in the past. Daily to see Tubtim always alert on Navann her eyes keep focus of his movement , it makes Lek want to find out more. Normally most captive elephant when they have baby , the calf will take away from the mother to train and then sell to the other owner when some of them was very young still nurse . We are now still on the work to researching of Tubtim’s background soon when we have all confirm then we will give you more update."

get an update on Tubtime here .... http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/category/elephant-herd/

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