Heading for the hills (mountain folks returning to the old ways).
A recurring theme in these old pages is, I hope, a healthy respect for the traditions of the people we work with, in our particular case through a twist of fate - it was in their elephants that we first noticed the problem we first set out to try and solve - the folks we work with tend to be the Chao Gui from hard up against the border with Cambodia, perhaps the most noted of Thai traditionalists when it comes to elephants.
Elephant scholars such as yourselves will have spotted this as somewhat perverse (perversity, some may argue, being the underlying context of our lives - why do the simple thing when there's a perfectly complicated answer hidden on the back of a beer mat) as, as the English language literature will point out, there is a more famous to the outside world (thanks, perhaps, to the language the literature was written in) group of Thai people with a long history of catching, using, working with &, yes, looking after elephants. A people living in what is, comparatively speaking, our neighbourhood.
The old books all speak of the Karen (or Garieng) mahouts of the logging days, those days when the forests seemed endless and were seen as a resource to be harvested and sold to the outside world (or taken from commissions bought from the state not the locals and kept by yourself, yourself being the outside world). Those days, of course, are not so old as logging still goes on on an industrial scale in Burma and less so (because the big trees are running out) in Laos.
For the purposes of the piece, though, I'll refer to the good old days as those are the days when the traditions and protocols we're talking about were, allegedly, enforced, when the business was, allegedly (though, in the Thai case demonstrably not - there ain't no more forest left) sustainable.
In those days strict rules were written, the logging was to be only done in the wet season (softer ground for tree to fall on, softer ground for the elephants to build themselves 'stairs'), only a certain number of trees from each stand were to be taken, only certain types of timber were to be taken and areas of forest were only (& these concessions must truly have been endless for this to even have been conceived of being followed by the multinational commercial businesses of the day) visited in 90 year rotations.
In the good old days, legend has it, the elephants got the dry seasons off & were released into the forest when not required. Interestingly, as late as 2007, a group of researchers (Campos et. al. Working with Mahouts to Explore the diet of Working Elephants in Myanmar (Burma)) gained access to a Myanma Timber Enterprises rest camp & managed to confirm the persistence, at least in part, of old ways - the elephants were released for large parts of their rest time. In Laos it seems to be getting less elephant friendly as the rush to bag the last small trees intensifies.
With this sort of business, the elephant is King (or Queen - the boys were the forklifts of the timber yards) being the only tool available that can take out a single tree without destroying the rest of the forest.
As we know, when logging was stopped in Thailand many elephant caring communities found themselves in trouble, the only way to continue their ancestral lives legally seemed to be to embrace tourism and there were a range of elephant people and entrepreneurs ready to either help them do this (best case scenario) or use them to get rich while not caring too much about the elephants or their mahouts (worst case scenario). Both scenarios currently run, side by side, in various valleys around Chiang Mai today.
For all of these years, some of the Garieng mahouts have fought to keep the tradition alive, every year they've kept up a low season pilgrimage for the forests around Chiang Mai, so easy for the tourists to get to, are too denuded for the elephants to be let go, so annually they've walked back to their home villages behind Doi Inthanon - Thailand's tallest (ahem) peak - up on the Burmese border.
Recently we visited a project that aims to help them not only to do this but to go a step further and not make the return pilgrimage, to earn a living by staying in the hills and by exploring how the old ways worked and how they might continue to work in the modern world. The Elephant Vet Aid Outpost is run by a vet who cut his teeth at the Government hospital and private sanctuaries, witnessed the annual migration and worked with Garieng mahouts - took the time (& we like this) to ask them what they wanted for their elephants.
The first answer, as we all would say, was 'to make money', the second was, again something universal in we old men (if not the young dreamers): to return to the good old days.
Trouble is, the forests ain't endless & no-one can legally pay you to take out timber anymore (besides, that was never really safe work for the elephants, no matter how well controlled) so what Dr Pak (& his friend Jeff) arranged was a volunteer project and what they wanted Dr Josh's experience for was something like this - we've got elephants with mahouts willing to let them go for large parts of their time into the forest; we've got a village willing to put up with the occasional crop raid as they're elephant people too, deep down in the blood; and we've got these young, also willing, vibrant foreign volunteers - how can we do something deeper than just let these elephants go? (again we like this, it chimes with our 'just looking after the elephants under our direct control is not enough' philosophy.)
So, with Josh's help, they put a project together: work out how far the elephants roam when let go, what they eat, how they interact with other livestock (the villagers also keep buffalo who spend their days essentially wild in the community forests) and given that, at the moment, this is happening organically, in accordance with the old ways - what processes are involved in deciding when & where the mahouts let the elephants go on a daily, weekly, monthly basis?
In short, how did the old ways work? ...and, equally importantly, how can we (...they, ...us) work together to design a model whereby bits of the old ways can work in a modern world where the forests are still getting smaller as industrial style agriculture works it's way slowly up the valleys?
Shorter still: How can ancient Garieng wisdom help them (and us) better look after elephants today & into the future?
Did I say that, being an elephant community, crop raids were taken somewhat lightly? Well, so are kitchen raids.
Every day or so the elephants walk through the village & out to the pre-chosen grazing grounds.
Past the village temple.
...& into the forest.
...according to the mahout this baby had been sent by a sanctuary in Chiang Mai for training, this is something of a relief for me, I have to admit, as, of course, part of the Garieng tradition includes the capture of wild elephants and subsequent breaking of the spirit (often misnamed the Phajaan for the spiritual ceremony that would precede such a training), the practice seems to be pretty much stamped out now but in the old videos that first bought it to the world's attention the mahouts performing the barbaric acts seem to be Garieng. We didn't investigate but if the Chiang Mai sanctuaries are sending their elephants to the villages for training they must approve of the training methods used.
Separating those parts of a tradition that are superfluous to the modern world while learning from the pieces that fit the future is one of the complexities of our job; one reason why we go into any situation with an open mind and try to listen to all the points the whisky has to make.
...&, another old rule, if you're going to spend some time in the mountains, be sure and take a photo of the sunrise.