The Elephant Whisperer

| 12th November 2005
Lek lives in Thialand. She saves Thai elephants. Now, thanks to a clumsy campaign launched by animal rights activists in American all her work is at risk

A lot of people, animal rights people, tell me, as if they feel their position to be morally unassailable, that they prefer animals to humans. I go one better. I prefer animals to animal rights activists.

For some, animals represent a safe, non-betraying, painless, simple and, let’s face it, boring target for their love. ‘So you love animals more than people?’ I used to say. ‘How would you feel about your daughter marrying one?’ And then I met Lek.

Lek (real name Sangduen Chailert) loves elephants with a passion. She manages to do this without hating people, and someone who loves elephants in Thailand has good reason to hate at least some people. You might find yourself hating some people when you read on and find out what they do to elephants. Lek’s love of elephants has certainly opened her up to being hurt and her love could be described as neither simple nor boring.

She also loves people. She spends her day touring the mountain villages and giving inoculations and wormings to children. And saving elephants. And raising money to do all this. And campaigning. And tending to elephants. And doctoring sick elephants. And shovelling elephant dung.

She sleeps about four hours a night (I was surprised it was as much as that) and is on call 24/7 for anything from a frightened elephant that needs to be rescued from the streets of a city to an amateur writer asking impertinent and ignorant questions about elephants.

A feisty heroine
We first met her in her office in Chiang Mai. Petite, even by Thai standards (her nickname means ‘tiny’), she is elegant, energetic and a living testament to the advertising-jingle cliché that ‘true beauty comes from within’. She is the granddaughter of a Khamu Shaman and has all the other proper elements of a romantic heroine present and correct. It may be only a question of time before Hollywood decides to do some sort of Dian Fossey-like take on her story, which has all the classic elements of their favourite ‘feisty heroine takes on bullies’ sort of tale.

As is normal (we discovered), her entrance was heralded by a canine system of once-stray dogs that orbit her at most of the places she goes. Her first question was ‘How did you hear of us?’ This was a perfectly reasonable question given that we had been reliably informed that her elephant park was closed.

 ‘You-got-a-girl-friend!’ says my wife in an annoyingly singsong voice. My wife thinks that I am a bit in love with Lek, but to be honest, everyone in the elephant park is a bit in love with her – the mahouts, the visitors, the co-workers, the nice young veterinary students on work experience. The park is her vision and her love and determination are the engines that drive it.

Lek’s character pervades the Elephant Nature Park, which is, quite simply, the most beautiful place I have ever visited. It is one of the only places I have ever been where the view is stunning in every direction.

Usually, wherever you go in the world, there is something to mar the view, something that you hold your hand up to mask as you look around – pylons, litter, an ugly building. Here, it is stunning as far as the eye can see at every point of the compass. Lush green mountains surround the whole place, which is approached only by a bowel-loosening mountain track. Cicadas vie with one another in the rushes, broken into by the occasional low bellow of an elephant saying ‘hello’ (one assumes) to another elephant.

The loam is rich and supports a profusion of pungent, verdant greenery that really does (and here is one of the few places you can check) grow as high as an elephant’s eye. As you get closer there is the gentle susurration of a distant river. It will not sound or feel so gentle close up, but at this range it is still picturesque rather than scary.

Elephants all around
 You arrive and there are elephants. All around you. ‘Wait a minute!’ screams the wussiest part of my brain. ‘Isn’t this dangerous? Don’t dozens of elephant keepers get squashed each year by these creatures?’

No one seems to mind. You walk up to them, you touch them (they feel like Habitat floor matting; the kind that gives you grazes on your knees and elbows if you are unwise enough to make love on it). You feed them. Boy, do you feed them.

‘Not worry,’ laughs a mahout as he sees the look on my face on being told to put a corncob directly into the elephant’s mouth. ‘All teeth are at the back.’

Later on you can bathe with them; which is quite an experience in a swiftly rushing stream. They almost, but not quite, roll onto their backs like dogs waiting to be scratched. When you are doing your best to keep your footing on the gravel riverbed, a frolicking elephant makes an interesting bathing companion.

You can even ride on them, on their heads that is – those howdahs you see are apparently bad for their backs.

But for now, you feed them.

It’s not easy being a 10,000lb vegetarian
What does everyone know about elephants? That they are big. That they are adorable. That they are endangered. That they cannot jump. Most of this is true. And it is true that there is very little cuter than a baby elephant – until 500lbs of one has tried to crawl affectionately and adorably into your lap in search of corn cobs, then you know the true meaning of fear. The true meaning of ‘ever having a family’ and ‘living to a ripe old age’ might also seem elusive at this point.

Elephants, both African and Asian, live in the wild in matriarchal groups. The males are thrown out when they reach adolescence because they become a bit of a trunk-full and subsequently roam around alone ripping up the vegetation until they get their periods of ‘Musth’- a still not-fully understood process where they become aggressive and highly sexual for a few months. Imagine road rage scaled up by a factor of 50 and with tusks and you get the general idea.

This matriarchy means that groups will adopt orphans and socialise them, a phenomenon that tends not to occur in species where alpha males rule a group as they tend to resent allocating resources to another male’s offspring. Here, however, the mothering instinct seems to trump the purely reproductive one and there are many accounts of females befriending and raising those that are not their own.

Vegetarian? Matriarchal? Elephants are about as politically correct as an animal can get! Until, that is, they stray onto farm land. Elephants spend about 18 hours of every day eating up to 10 per cent of their body weight in low-yield vegetation. Not surprisingly, farmers tend not to appreciate their finer points when they see them munching next year’s harvest and just open fire on them.

Hostile farmers, and the lack of available land to graze on, force elephant owners and their elephants into cities to beg for food, as happens illegally, in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Not only is it nigh on impossible for them to find enough food, the water they are likely to drink is liable to make them sick. As such, the elephants that are seen in cities are very likely to be malnourished and run the risk of being injured by traffic.

Max, Lek’s oldest elephant and perhaps the tallest in Thailand, was brought in with a broken leg having been hit by a truck. Soon after we left Boon Rod, another elephant, had to be rescued after becoming confused and frightened when chased by police and an angry crowd in Chiang Mai. Her mahout had resorted to hacking at her with a heavy hook in order to get her to run from the police and this had increased her state of panic. Lek was called in to calm her down. Happily, she has now been accepted into the Nature Park’s herd by the elder females.

This is not a toy
A hundred years ago elephants numbered about 100,000 in Thailand. They helped build the place. Today’s estimates vary from an optimistic 5,000 to a pessimistic 2,500. The outlawing of logging in 1989 has made it imperative that they are supported in some other way. So, how is it best for humans and elephants to interact in Thailand?

One option is to simply leave them alone to roam freely or perhaps in very extended parks, but there is a problem here – Thailand is not Africa. There simply is not the room for herds of elephants to roam at will without endangering themselves. What’s more male elephants, especially during the Musth period, are violent and unpredictable, making them a danger to property, people and themselves.

An extended parks idea might work and, indeed, is something that Lek is moving toward, but such schemes require money and backing. Unfortunately, to date, the default positions for elephants to occupy have been either begging on the streets or in unregulated elephant shows.

There have been a lot of accusations thrown around about the activities in these shows, just as there have about circuses in other countries and I do not propose to muddy the waters further by weighing into this debate. I have never actually seen an elephant show so I am not going to express an opinion, beyond saying that the reason I haven’t seen one is that I have no desire to see animals treated as clumsy humans for amusement purposes. As to whether they are well or badly treated, I have no direct experience. I would guess from anecdotal evidence that some are well treated, some are badly treated. What is far more contentious is the issue of what is done to prepare elephants for such shows.

It is not contested that the traditional method of preparation is the ‘phaa jaan’ (which means ‘the crush’ and is based on negative reinforcement with some black magic thrown in for good measure). This is a time when the link between elephant and mother is broken and a new relationship with the mahout is set up. It is what is done to achieve this that has caused friction.

Learned helplessness
In 2002 a journalist called Jennifer Hile made a video for the Wild Nature series on the National Geographic channel in which she showed footage of elephants being forced into tiny wooden cages, held there for days, beaten with sticks, hacked at with goads and burned with hot irons. In some cases, especially with the males, elephants have to be destroyed because they react too strongly to this treatment.

Psychologists know this as a state of ‘learned helplessness’, wherein an animal eventually gives up attempting to escape as its previous attempts have simply resulted in painful failure. The effects are those of clinical depression.

When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) saw the video, with what can only be described as a nodding acquaintance with local conditions or long-term effects, they called for a total boycott of Thailand, of both products and holidays, until a set of laws is enacted. They are calling for a total ban on any commercial use of elephants, which, presumably, includes any place where people might pay to interact with them, without any distinction made as to how this is done.

PETA’s elephant expert, Nicole Meyer, suggested to me (via email) that people might ‘contribute to selected elephant parks’ with money, but this is not a position that is officially endorsed on PETA’s website. Nowhere does it say which these ‘selected elephant parks’ might be. Although individuals within PETA (such as Ms Meyer) might advocate support of parks like Lek’s, nowhere is this stated as official policy and there is no way for an interested outsider to come to hear of such places through PETA. PETA’s website is easily accessible and, indeed, I urge you to visit it since it contains a lot of footage of the things mentioned in this article.

One is tempted to remind Americans at this point that bursting into other people’s countries demanding regime changes ‘or else’ has had a less than perfect track record of success in the past. Where sensitivity, diplomacy and local knowledge were needed, a sledgehammer approach has been substituted.

Lek was prominent in the Hile video since she has unparalleled access to the hill tribes and is widely regarded as an elephant expert and, more importantly, one who has the will and ability to change the way elephants are treated in her beloved country. She has been campaigning long and hard to overcome years of ‘phaa jaan’ tradition and is a living example of why such methods are unnecessary.

And yet the likelihood is that the sanctions advocated by PETA will finish off Lek’s park and the many others that are trying to work for the benefit of the elephants.

That there are a wicked minority who will not stop at harming those who stand in their way of making money has been shown by the fact that following the Wild Nature (ITALS) film, Lek received death threats and had to go into hiding.

Just a warning
One of her elephants, Keng Mai, because he was an example of how Lek’s methods of bringing up elephants (especially male ones) without the PhaaJaan could work, was poisoned ‘as a warning’. He died.

No one is saying that PETA caused this, of course not. Also no one (least of all me) wants to claim that PETA’s statement about the mistreatment of elephants is alarmist. If anything, it is an understatement – they are probably overestimating the numbers of elephants left alive in Thailand for a start.

But Lek is now seen as an embarrassment, someone who has brought shame onto the country and while westerners might find this hard to accept, in a country where face-saving is vital, whistle-blowers are not viewed as heroes but as the villains of the piece.

The problem is that by backing the government into a corner from which it could not, while saving face, escape, PETA has not helped those people who are actually making a change at ground level. People like Lek.

Leaving aside the political question as to what PETA could possibly have thought it was likely to achieve by backing a sovereign nation into a corner, there is a practical question as to what it proposes to replace the status quo with exactly. Firstly, PETA has forced people to take sides.

Friends of the Asian Elephant, a government-funded organisation that was bringing about (fairly rapid) change, has now adopted the position that PETA orchestrated the video footage of the PhaaJaan. You don’t have to think too hard to work out why they felt compelled to say this. They no longer work with Lek and therefore she needs funding more than ever if she is to continue her work.

Secondly, it has to be asked what PETA thinks is a likely long-term stable situation vis-a-vis elephants and humans in Thailand. If it believes that elephants and humans can co-exist side by side without some form of intervention, then it is seriously deluded. Elephants that have not been acclimatised to humans and traffic represent a danger to themselves and us. Farmers are not going to respond positively to the sort of depredations that elephants represent to their crops.

For controlled elephant parks to exist that are not the sort of travesties in which animals are paraded in front of guffawing goons to the benefit of neither, it needs to be shown that alternatives are viable and, of course, profitable. Lek’s park demonstrates this. But time is running out. We simply do not have time to wait while people keep their consciences pure. Lek’s park offers a way for humans and elephants to interact in a way that preserves the animals’ dignity, our dignity and everyone’s safety. It is economically viable, ecologically sustainable and fits with the local conditions. Given half a chance, it is a way that could spread and be used as a model.

No one can doubt Lek’s commitment and, if she is to continue, she needs visitors, volunteers, and contributions. Sanctions will kill her elephants. PETA’s ‘all or nothing’ option is not the best way to win hearts and minds. It is also not the best way to save elephants in Thailand.

• Robert King is a grammar school teacher.

Lek’s park and the fact that one can interact with elephants in such a close
way rests on her special (but not unique) methods of training elephants. She uses positive reinforcement and the elephants’ natural and complex social instincts to achieve this.

They trust her. I saw her administering an injection (the size of the needle was akin to a lance) to an elephant’s abscess. That this was painful was shown by the fact that the elephant sucked its trunk, like humans suck their thumbs, as the needle went in (you see, I told you they were cute!). Despite its obvious discomfort, the elephant did not try to run off.

The fact that all this goes on while you are right next to the elephants and no
one gets hurt speaks highly for Lek’s relationship with them.

The basic principle is to use the elephants’ natural propensity for sociability and then use positive reinforcement (ie rewarding desired behaviour as opposed to punishing undesired behaviour), to accustom them to human beings. These methods create a group of elephants that will welcome newcomers, both elephants and humans, to the herd and take care of them, adopting waifs and strays and teaching them to do likewise. This is all natural behaviour for elephants in the wild and you can see it in action at the park. While the Phaa-Jaan builds fear, Lek’s methods build trust.

Lek wants to spread these methods throughout Thailand, Asia and eventually the world. She is having some success in this by training mahouts, both foreign and national, and both Yale and Oxford Universities have sent teams to study her methods.

These kinds of methods have worked with horses and there is at least a prima facie case for thinking that they can work with elephants. As far back as Xenophon we have accounts of forming relationships between human and horse that do not require brutality. Based on the ideas of Monty Roberts is the notion that the herd instinct of the horse can be manipulated to mutual benefit. It is sometimes known as ‘gentling’.

That this has been successfully applied to horses is not very controversial, but there are questions as to the successful applications to elephants that need addressing. One problem is the lack of selective breeding in elephants (compared with, say, horses), which would seem to pose the problem of sometimes producing intractable animals.

Another serious issue is that of male elephants, who can become so obnoxious and unmanageable that their own families throw them out at adolescence. At the moment male elephants (like Jungle Boy) are at the Nature Park, although Lek’s big success story Keng Mai was killed. He was a living example of how a male elephant brought up without the psychosis-inducing Phaa-Jaan could become sociable around humans. Even given all this, it would perhaps have to be admitted that the current system of confining elephants in Musth because they pose a danger to others would have to continue for the foreseeable future. This is a problem that would not go away even if PETA’s dream of ‘letting the elephants go’ was made real. And where would they go? Into towns? Onto roads? Onto farmland? All places where they will surely die.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2005