I have returned from my trip but have so much more to say about the last couple of days in Thailand. I will of course be continuing to blog as the project develops, and posting interview shorts to share with you portions of the 18 interviews I had with people over there.
This top photo is from the Wat Chang Lom temple of the 39 elephants at the center of the ancient city of Si Satchanalai, the sister city to Sukhothai. All the stone elephants have disintegrated, leaving the four legs, full of stacks of bricks, and regal elephant heads with eyes and the distinctive two humped asian elephant head, but no ears or trunks. I am imagining superimposing live elephants from the trip onto these stone ones as part of the video installation. We’ll see. Many ideas have been flooding my head since I got back.
One of the many coincidences which happened here involved a couple from Hong Kong who had been trying to reach Katherine at Boon Lott for several days and her internet and phone had been on and off due to power issues. They had given up trying to find the sanctuary and were driving around the old city ruins when they spotted us in the van for Boon Lott and asked if they could follow us back to the sanctuary. What are the odds? One van, one couple, and one impossible-to-find sanctuary, for good reasons.
The husband, as it turns out, is a film producer and lawyer in Hong Kong and gave me his card since he is very interested in what is happening with Asian elephants in general.
On a more somber note, before meeting the couple, I was standing with Katherine among the seed pods which had fallen from several huge tree at the ruins. Elephants relish these pods since they are sweet and crunchy and Katherine and her Mom were gathering them to take back to the elephants for a snack.
I asked her what had happened to the elephant rides which people used to have been able to take here at the park, and she described the tragic killing last year of a tourist. Apparently one of the two male elephants standing and waiting to walk tourists around the ruins was in musth. Elephants in musth are very dangerous and unpredictable. They are flooded by hormones and headaches and have a constant stream of bitter-tasting drip coming from glands above their eyes into their mouths and have uncontrollable amounts of urine coating their legs. All of this puts them in a very bad mood. Strange that one would want tourists to ride an elephant like this, but what I have learned is that where there are many tourists and few elephants, making money often trumps safety concerns or the welfare of the elephant. Tragically, these two elephants were being kept in the open sun with no water and unable to eat enough. Katherine reiterated how common it is to have elephants on speed (amphetamines) to keep them going when they would normally be too tired. Katherine and I wondered why they couldn’t let the elephants wander on a long chain to find shade under the trees with the delicious seed pods?
The elephant went beserk and lifted up a tourist, smashing him against the wall outside the temple with the 39 elephants. It then proceeded to stand on him, killing him. This is why there are no more elephant rides in old Sukhothai or in Sri Satchanalai.
The elephant was going to be shot that afternoon, but someone phoned Katherine and Anon at Boon Lott and they drove down right away and moved the elephant to a tree in the shade. They convinced the police not to shoot the elephant, which is usually what happens when an elephant kills someone in Thailand, and to sell it to a logging company in Burma. Katherine felt that it would be too much of a danger to the other elephants at Boon Lott to try to buy it for the sanctuary and explained that although logging is not ideal for elephants at all, it can be a better solution that giving tourist rides, and being killed. I learned not long ago that elephants often try to commit suicide when they are very unhappy by standing on their trunks to block their airflow.
Anon is currently staying with Tongai, the elephant in musth at Boon Lott. He often sleeps in the forest with Tongai when Tongai doesn’t feel like coming back closer to the sanctuary. Katherine says that because Tongai was so abused and has so little trust of people from his logging experience, Anon feels that he owes it to Tongai to treat him with a sense of independence and dignity. You probably know this, but forests in central Thailand are full of all sorts of snakes, etc., yet Anon loves the elephant that much. Tongai has attacked Anon a few times, once pinning him down with his foot. He could easily kill Anon if he wanted to, but it as if he is trying to communicate what he needs when he gets frustrated, which is very often when he’s in musth. Combined with Tongai’s abusive background, it takes a very brave and large-hearted person to ride him and be his mahout. That is Anon (at left, with his wife, the amazing Katherine).
I will be making a promotional short video to post on youtube about Katherine Connor and her journey from being a GAP manager in charge of 45 stores in London to the visionary and savior of 11 elephants in a remote snake-filled hot and rural part of Thailand. Her life changed when she started a round the world trip, visited the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, south of Chiang Mai, and met the little elephant with a broken leg named Boon Lott. Here is a link to her full story in the Daily Mail. You must read it if you have a chance.
After a delicious lunch on the open-aired platform above the pond, I was lucky to witness the first time the two newest rescued elephants from the streets of Bangkok experienced being in water. Tong Yui and Bong Beng kept coming back for more water antics later that day and the next. They didn’t want to come out!
In the late afternoon we went to the river with the elephants and then up into the brush. The mahouts keep an eye on their elephants while they rip to shreds all sorts of savory underbrush with gusto.
When it was finally time to leave Boon Lott to get to the airport, I was given individual farewells by almost all the elephants and their mahouts as they congregated before their ritual morning splash in the river. I was brought to tears by the reaching trunks and the animals I just barely begun to understand. I will never forget the playfulness, the gentleness, the sobering strength, majesty and grace of these elephants, and the power of following one’s dream, no matter how difficult or strange it might seem to those who know you.