An elephant’s skin is tough. Wrinkled. Hairy. Yet soft. Grey from the years of dust bathing. Warm. The tip of the trunk is wet, soft, and pink. It reaches out toward me, searching, sniffing, snuffling for the sweet treat I am holding. Thong Dee’s trunk grabs all five figs from my hands and shoots them into her mouth. Before her tongue can even make jam out of the fruits, her trunk is already waving about, sniffing my hands for more. I feel blessed, and honored to be sharing this moment with someone so magnificent.
Elephants worldwide are abused, bullied, misunderstood. According to Dictionary.com, the definition of “Sanctuary” is “a tract of land where birds and wildlife, especially those hunted for sport, can breed and take refuge in safety from hunters.” The key word here is refuge. Elephants all over are being poached for the ivory in their tusks (more often, it’s the African elephants being poached, as female Asian elephants do not have tusks. However, they might have what are called tushes, which are like little tusk nubs. Male Asian elephants don’t always have tusks, and if they do, they are much shorter and smaller than the African ones).
Asian elephants, even without tusks, are still under threat. They are more often used for logging, circuses, zoos, riding, and tourist attractions, because Asian elephants are more tolerant, and more likely to accept training and humans. I can sort of understand why we want to interact with them; they are beautiful, majestic animals that have quickly developed a place in my heart. What people don’t understand is that this is breaking them. Riding elephants is bad for their backs. Carol Buckley from ‘The Elephant Sanctuary’ in USA explains “Instead of smooth, round spinal disks, elephants have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine. These bony protrusions and the tissue protecting them are vulnerable to weight and pressure coming from above.” On the other hand, horses are not hurt by human riding unless mistreated. According to Wikipedia, “Integral to the back structure is the rib cage, which also provides support to the horse and rider. A complex design of bone, muscle, tendons and ligaments all work together to allow a horse to support the weight of a rider.”
Riding on a platform chair on their back hurts elephants’ spines. Riding bare neck is better, but still, if you were a wild animal and you got taken from your mother at a young age, then trained to kneel, let an obnoxious stranger climb onto your back, and then go on a trek through the jungle, would you like that? In logging, the poor animals have to walk, working long hours, with very little rest. People can’t use whips on elephants because their hide is too thick, so they use a piece of rope, with a hook on the end to force them to do what they want. In the circus, they are forced to do tricks, and must live on concrete, or in a very small enclosure. The same goes with zoos. Elephants are in the same enclosure day, after day, after day. In the wild, elephants move from location to different location, following their matriarch in the search for fresh water and food. Therefore, the Asian population is dwindling faster than their African counterparts. In the past hundred years alone, we have lost ninety percent of the Asian elephant population. There is a campaign started to save the elephants, and “sanctuaries” are advertising no riding, no chains, no hooks. Some are better than others, but the elephants are still mostly forced to do the same thing twice a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, and this is why you should do really good research before choosing your elephant sanctuary. This is also why I am writing a recommendation for BEES.
Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary has three elephants. Mae Kam was their first ever. She is somewhere in her fifties, and doesn’t really like to be around humans. That makes sense, given her past. She was a logging elephant, before it was banned, for 50 years. Then she got transferred to trekking. She was not happy, and became very distressed after her second calf got bitten by a cobra and died. She could not work, as she started throwing tourists off her back, and was sold to BEES. The full story is on their website. I will put the link below. Mae Jumpee is their second elephant. She is around 73, and also started in the logging industry. She worked with tourists for a very long time, and has had 11 calves. That is a lot. (did you know that elephants are pregnant for twenty-two months?) Mae Jumpee (they just call her Jumpee) and Mae Kam are best friends.
The last elephant at the sanctuary is named Mae Thong Dee. (Mae just means Miss or Mrs. In Thai language. At BEES she is just Thong Dee.) Thong Dee is around 76 years old, and approaching the end of her life. She only has one tooth left, and in the wild would have starved to death. She came to BEES after logging and then 30 years with a kind-hearted man who rescued her from that. Thong Dee’s best friend was Boon Yueng. They were inseparable. Boon Yueng however, died in July 2015. Thong Dee is left devastated and alone from her friend’s death, and mentally and physically scarred from her days in the logging and tourist industries. Despite the scars, Thong Dee is the sweetest thing. She is lonely sometimes still, but that makes her crave the company of people even more. She was a lovely animal to be around, and I miss her with all of my heart.
BEES is a true elephant sanctuary. They allow the elephants to go where they like during the day, only followed by their mahouts. A mahout is a person who works with an elephant. The mahouts are only making sure these lovely animals don’t get hurt. One of the days we were at BEES, Burm took us on a walk through the forest to find the elephants. We got to see them eating in their natural habitat, and being happy in their nice, relaxed, retirement home. We stayed for four days, but I could have stayed four weeks! They had twelve rescue dogs on site with them, and it was lovely being able to pet, and cuddle dogs without being afraid of rabies. They also had around 10 cats, although we only saw like five.
Burm made excellent meals for us, and it is a really fun place to be. The elephants come back from the forest on their own—like I said, they are not forced to do anything—for dinner. Sometimes we made a salad for Thong Dee (remember she only has one tooth left) and sometimes we chopped up sugar cane (the elephants love it), or we washed pumpkins. Now, I am not talking about jack-o-lantern pumpkins, I am talking about smallish pumpkins that taste (when cooked) like pumpkin pie. I am not kidding. No wonder the elephants love them so much. Diana (or Di, who works at the sanctuary) says that if the elephants like it, we should too. Thong Dee’s pumpkins and sugar cane must be chopped into fourths or halves, but Mae Kam can eat a whole stock of sugar cane as tall as me! She can put a whole pumpkin in her mouth, and squish it with her tongue! And that’s not even close to what her trunk can do.
It was amazing, being so close to these animals. It was remarkable, feeding Jumpee pumpkin halves, stroking Thong Dee’s trunk. Although I felt amazed, and loved every minute of it, the reason I could stroke Thong Dee, I could feed Jumpee, the reason I couldn’t feed or stroke Mae Kam, was all because of what we (humans) did to them. We broke them. But this is why I love BEES. They are giving elephants a chance to retire, and hopefully die happy in the place that they were free again.
BEES website link: