On the responsibilities of being a proud father (say hello to Nong 'Phil)
In these days of social networking when anyone with a camera can shoot the news to four hundred folks, who can then send it to another thousand it is, I think safe to say, quite hard to keep a secret and so I think it is easy to speculate that the cat is out of the bag and some of you are expecting a word through our official mouthpiece: here it is...
On the 23rd of May at ten past four in the morning Boun Na gave birth to a healthy baby boy, like any sensible elephant she had waited until the proper onset of the wet season and, unlike Bua Tong almost two years ago, politely chose a time when we'd got most of our nights' sleep out of the way and when I was on site.
'Na's just like that.
At 91 cm tall & 120 cm from the top of nose to the top of the tail (we don't go between the pegs on eles, that would be cheating) which is about the same size as Am was when she was born but he is a full 10 cm larger around the chest - we guess he's around 100 kg.
He is Boun Na's fourth baby (the most famous being Jungle Boy who currently lives in Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai), for the camp, he is our third birth but the first conceived here, his father being the ever handsome Phu Khi.
He has four different sized feet, which is apparently normal, but may explain the short stagger he currently calls a walk, either way he was up and about by the time we got down to the camp about 10 minutes after the birth (the older I get the more difficult it is to find my teeth in the dark when the phone goes in the middle of the night) and, perhaps because of Boun Na's shorter legs but definitely because of her experience in raising babies, he was suckling within 2hrs - by daylight he'd had his first feed.
This is in contrast to the other two babies born here (Nam Khong & Nong Am), both born to long legged mothers of little experience, who were subject to six hours of comedic routine while the equally experienced young folks amused the older mahouts by building steps & trying to get the mothers to stay above them while persuading the equally odd footed babies to climb. The lesson that takes a lot of learning for anxious new fathers is that they always work it out somehow and all of our worrying & posturing come to nothing when it happens naturally just as we're resting - let's face it, eles wouldn't have come far as a species if this didn't happen, our best role is to try to be an Aunty.
But I digress, Nong 'Phil (as he was quickly nick-named for reasons that will be explained below) & Boun Na needed no such help.
Nong 'Phil, he will get a proper full Thai name in due course, but, like most Thai folks will be known by one or two syllable nickname for the rest of his life, was named for a law he broke with his first breath, luckily a human law and not one of nature, he was in fact born while under curfew so his full nickname is in-fact Nong Curfew - but curfew around here is pronounced in something akin to Chlorophyll (there is no Thai word for it seems), the name works because it happily points out to everyone who remembers it that life was completely unaffected by events in Bangkok (the local folks, it seems, are bored by politics & most of us are in bed by 8pm anyway).
'Phil's a good name because it is easy for you guys to remember.
Now, regular readers of this blog and camp followers will have smelled a rat at the very beginning of this piece, a whiff of controversy, they'll say: "John, if I recall correctly, over the years I've sat through several self important pieces with your name in the bi-line pointing out the futility of breeding elephants, that while there are elephants on the streets of Bangkok, or working in underpaid, underfed trekking camps, you really don't feel they should be creating more elephants, you rant that those claiming to be saving the species from extinction are misguided, you hit us with your belief that the real work of saving the species is going on in the wild, building elephant corridors & maintaining the viability of the wild populations, & yet here you are trumpeting a new arrival like it was the best thing in the world; hypocrisy, Roberts, hypocrisy, please cancel my subscription forthwith."
Hmmmm... well, yes, and I do believe all that, and those are the reasons we don't have a breeding programme in camp but everyone (I'm told) has urges both elephants (the natural urge that you all immediately thought about) and elephant owners (who are - for the most part - traditional mahouts who's lifestyle has revolved around elephants for generations) whose urges may be more about continuing their lifestyle for their children or, perhaps slightly less romantic, but realistic, a doubling of your family's assets.
So, correct, from a conservation point of view I'm worried about the rampant breeding of elephants but we walk a knife edge here, part of what we set out to do is preserve a mahout community and they feel rightly-or-wrongly that there will be a place for their way of life for the next 60 to 70 years so I don't argue too hard with them and I'm not one to get between amorous elephants to enforce my scientific beliefs, besides, in keeping with everyone else, I am actually besotted by baby elephants...
...I challenge our most die-hard scientists & conservations to look young 'Phil in the eye & say, "Morning young Mr Chloropyll, I'm scientifically opposed to your existence" - nope, it doesn't work, does it?
Besides, my video of his conception has been of use to paleontologists studying dinosaur reproduction (I kid you not) and, as we know, we are a camp involved wherever possible in scientific research, so we add to our responsibilities, not only (as honourary grandfather) do we have the responsibility of keeping him & his Mum fed, comfortable and safe, while allowing him to grow up as an elephant, maintaining the balancing act that will allow him to live with and be cared for by humans (unfortunately, though we can hope, the chances of him ever living in a natural forest are, at this stage, slim) and do our utmost to see that these conditions continue for him after he has left our sphere of influence (for he will hopefully outlive all of us here now) to that we add another responsibility in this organically growing camp of ours.
We will guarantee to try, by creating conditions conducive to such work and by encouraging the work of young researchers from Thailand and abroad, to allow him, throughout his time with us, to be scientifically studied in any way that is not harmful to him or his way of life, in order that the data gained may be useful in the preservation of the species in general and specifically wild elephants...
...and in that perhaps there is a place for domestic elephants into the future an additional duty for their guardians?
PS. We're not all serious self justification, there's at least 75% besotted proud father in here!
PPS. Here's hoping that Nong 'Phil can be the good omen we've been looking for for the nation (or at least cheer folks up a bit).