In my previous post, I showed my encounter with a six-week old baby elephant. It was a thrilling moment and it happened as soon as we arrived at the park, which is about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai in very hilly territory. Later we learned that this little encounter was not a planned part of the program, that our driver saw the mother and baby out for a walk and our obvious interest so he stopped for us to get a closer look. As far as I was concerned, this alone was worth the ticket price and I felt like I wouldn’t be too disappointed if I didn’t see another elephant all day :-).
This “farm” is highly rated by those who have visited (TripAdvisor ratings) and I think I now understand why. There are many such farms in the area and many are less expensive (my cost was $180 for the day) but it sounds like this park does a better job of educating the customer and respecting the elephants than some of the others. The farm owner, a local Thai man named Pat, gave a nice overview of the program to start the day. We learned that Patara receives no grants from any government or celebrity but is run solely on the cost of our entrance fee. Pat’s family started it 17 years ago and they have been successful in rescuing many elephants from zoos, farmers, etc. and restoring them to physical and emotional health, giving them a place to live in the open with other elephants and protected from poachers who might want the ivory of their tusks. Each elephant has a human caretaker (I have heard the name “mahut” used for this but they did not use that term at Patara) who literally lives with their assigned animal 24/7. Their job is to monitor the elephant’s progress toward better health, with the ultimate goal being the emergence of healthy, happy male and female elephants who can reproduce without the need for expensive and intrusive procedures like artificial insemination. They have been successful. In the past year 5 new babies have been born and five females are currently pregnant.
I’m not sure how many elephants Patara has but it must be at least 200 or so. They told us they keep them in five different locations because close proximity of too many often leads to problems in the social structure. Given that they have a personal caretaker for every elephant, Patara is also giving meaningful employment for a lot of local boys. Pat said that, at first, he figured these young men would work long enough to save for a motorbike or something they really wanted and then move on. But he’s found they get very attached to their elephant and to the work and often stick around and start raising their own families nearby. As Pat describes it, he started out to try to do something positive for the elephants but it has turned out to also be a positive socio-economic influence on the local villagers.
As I said, the highlight of the day occurred in the first 20 minutes: the chance to hold and touch that 6-week old baby (no name yet, apparently too young.) He was obviously very friendly and playful and it was so delightful to hug him and feel his little trunk and mouth. As you might expect, elephant skin is very rough so it’s nothing like petting a cat or dog. But his demeanor shows a playfulness that is very pet-like: more than once he tried to lay down in one of our laps and, since he probably weighs 150 pounds, he knocked a couple of us to the ground (never enjoyed being knocked down so much before!)
But the main thrust of the day was to be an “elephant owner for the day.” Pat said this is not so much a marketing scheme as it is an attempt to help us understand what is involved in taking care of an elephant and in enlisting our help for some of the manual labor involved. Toward that goal, we learned some of the things that the elephant caretakers are responsible for and we helped groom and exercise the elephants. We learned that cuticle care is extremely important and that the best way to keep their cuticles in good health is to walk over rugged terrain regularly. (We also learned that elephants sweat but only through their cuticles!)
One of the things the caretakers (and we temporary owners) need to watch for is that their sleep patterns are normal because an irregular pattern is a sign of trouble. Normally, they sleep for about 45 minutes on one side, then stand for 10 or 15 minutes, then sleep on the other side for 45 minutes. In total they sleep only 4 hours per night! The caretaker inspects them in the morning to be sure the presence of dirt on the hips, ears, etc. is evenly distributed on both sides.
Another important activity is to check their dung regularly. First of all, when they poop, it should be at least 5 large pieces at a time: any less indicates a problem – 10 to 20 pieces is excellent. They check the dung to be sure it has enough moisture, is fibrous and that it smells as it should. We all handled and smelled their dung and I was very surprised that it doesn’t smell bad at all: it really smells like wet grass.
We went on to learn about helping to keep their skin clean and then about how to mount and ride them. You’ll see in the video below that this isn’t particularly easy (at least it wasn’t for me) as some of the elephants stand 12 or 14 feet high. But notice in the video, how my elephant – 28-year old May Bu Jong – raises her front leg to create a step-ladder for you.
After mounting our elephants our group of 8 started our trek through the forest. Now, you actually sit on the elephants neck, as walking movement would make staying on its back very difficult. I felt bad for putting my 200 pounds right on May Bu Jong’s neck but she seemed fine with it. I’m sure they matched me with her partly because she is one of the larger, stronger ones. When you sit on the neck, you raise your knees to place them behind the elephant’s ears.
The path through the forest was beautiful but also very steep in several places. They had ropes around the elephants midsections for us novices to hang on to and I was happy to do so. Falling off in that terrain would have been a serious problem (we signed release forms in the morning :-). We were told that if your legs feel uncomfortable you should just stretch them out straight for a while. My inner thigh muscles got very tired after about 20 to 30 minutes and were quivering from exhaustion (I thought May Bu Jong might think I was quivering with fear) so I tried stretching out my legs straight. This helped the cramping but felt extremely unstable so I didn’t do it for long. Bottom line is, I told my trainer I was getting very tired and that maybe I should walk alongside the elephant the rest of the way and that is what I did. I think the trainers thought they may have to carry me since I was an older participant and had complained about my legs being weak: the hills we were going up and down were very steep with slippery areas that even the elephants were sliding on. But my legs were fine for hiking, I just couldn’t continue to hold them in the position needed for hugging the elephant’s neck.
When we got to the waterfall area, where a little lake had been created for fun water activities with the elephants, we had a wonderful lunch of various kinds of Thai meats, fruits, sticky-rice, and pastries. Then, we had the chance to “bathe” our elephants in the water. The air was a bit nippy and the water was frigid so I opted only for a quick scrubbing of May Bu Jong. Some of the others took their elephants into the deeper water and all but two of us enjoyed being sprayed by the elephants with water as the day’s finale. I would have enjoyed that but felt it would be foolhardy to jeopardize my nearly-complete recovery from the cold I’ve had for about 10 days.
The video below shows some of the highlights of the day. Many were provided by the Patara photographers as part of the price of the ticket. If you like elephants, I would highly recommend Patara Elephant Farm.