Too many elephants? (have they bitten off more than they can chew)
I'm standing in a field, more of a flat plane, dotted with shelters, those with walls for humans, those without for something larger & less intent on privacy, with a few honourable exceptions - built early on by generous donation - there is little distinction, other than the walls and a floor, between the two. They are roughly the same height & made of whatever materials seemed to be at hand.
In the wild (which we are not) one way to count elephants (or any beings) is a line transect, you draw a line on the map and attempt to follow it (or, in ideal cases, tell someone else to follow it over vertical cliffs, through raging torrents & don't let them stray even to avoid charging tigers) counting the amount & density of elephant sign along the random kilometer that you walk. In this method you then look at the number of similar kilometers in the piece of habitat you are looking at and bingo (or not, statistics being what they are) you have an idea (or a concrete number if your politician boss needs to hold a press conference) of how many wild elephants you have in the whole area (which, for press purposes often has to be more than it was last year).
In estimating the number of elephants on this open plane, though, I adopt a different method (not quite so serious as I've already been told how many elephants there are), I pick a random spot and I rotate myself through 360 degrees, counting the elephants I see.
No matter where I place myself I see between 18 - 23 elephants. The official total for the plane is 190-something and this is borne out by the 'Roberts Counting Method' (patent pending). Whichever way you crumble your cookie, there are a lot of elephants here, a lot of mahouts and a lot of their families too.
Now you know me by now, you know the thrill I get at being in an elephant town, the sort of town where you see an elephant on it's way to graze, or carrying some firewood, or just following it's mahout when you first drive down the main street. The sort of town where you sit on your host's verandah drinking your early morning sweetened instant coffee from a glass and the neighbour is preparing his elephant for a day of work in the misty chill of his front yard, the sort of town where every house has some sort of elephant equipment tucked away beneath the eaves, where every chair seems to be an elephant bench. I get a special thrill being around this many elephants, to be at the source.
The town I am in when I conduct my little counting experiment is a special one for me, home to most of my mahouts and elephants, it is Ta Klang near Surin in North East Thailand.
Even given the special relationship we've built with this town (for one reason or another the t-shirts we give out to mahout visitors and family seem to be the number one fashion item - we didn't tell them we were coming so I have to guess, ego to the fore, that this is the case year round) I can't help but feel some unease at the number of elephants here.
I have to wonder if, when earlier this year, the Governor of Bangkok & the Governor of Surin shook hands and agreed a deal to get the elephants off the mean streets that the former is responsible for keeping clean, they realised quite what they had agreed to do. Whether they realised quite how many elephants there were out there & how many other elephants might appear out of the mist when they agreed a good deal to help the mahouts live in their home village.
200 elephants is a lot of elephants - & there are more coming: you put boys & girls together, take away their toys, you get babies.
Initially the whole place felt like a refugee camp for elephants.
There can be no doubt that their Excellencies have been enormously successful in the task they set themselves, they've answered their critics, both Thai and International who cried 'GET THE ELEPHANTS OFF THE STREETS'. Funny, no-one from the critic's camp really thought, what next?
Well, what next? Well, I know (though I didn't catch up with him) Alex from The Surin Project is in Ta Klang trying to help, giving four or five or six elephants, more if he can, something to do; some off-the-chain time & trying to address the enormous fodder supply issues that one feels are about to crop up - on the interminable drive up from Bangkok (shorter than the drive from the Golden Triangle but no chance of wild elephants, no forests, no interesting bendy bits) we were held up by a million 20 kph sugarcane trucks but the elephant village wasn't their destination.
What next? The mahouts could be forgiven for asking too, everyone we spoke to was happy to be home, happy to be paid to stay in one place & stop running from the law but they all seemed a little perplexed as to what they were supposed to be doing there.
What next? We asked the manager, a man from an ancient mahouting family, a man whose surname (though not his first name) goes on a number of our monthly cheques to the guys who live with us.
Well, it turns out there are big plans, my initial concern that no-one is thinking about the future, so patronising, turned out to be wrong. Though the 200 elephants are currently on a relatively small area of land, something an order of magnitude larger has been set aside for them, allocations for fodder growing are drawn on the map, allocations for elephant forest and to bring in tourists for various different activities. The timeline's a little vague but the plans are there.
I went to bed a happier elephant boy after the chat with Mr Salangam, always glad to hear of a long term plan, dreaming of ways in which we might be able to help them keep the elephants there, keep the faith of the mahouts until the plans are realised.
Despite the long term thinking that appears to be being crafted by the folks down there I'm still a little wary of unbridled (or perhaps, more properly, bridled but un-coordinated) breeding, is the long term thinking 70 - 80 years long?
Regular readers will know the drive to create more elephants troubles me on all fronts and is certainly not Ta Klang's immediate problem, interestingly when I told K. Sivaporn of the Reintroduction Foundation of my worries later he couldn't share them, confident that he will, in time, have enough forest to release them into and have perfected the technique for doing so - perhaps the only person I've spoken to whose organisational plans last the lifetime of an elephant and more. I think it is safe to say, though, that the current spate of breeding is not being done with this future in mind, at least at a mahout level.
I'll leave the final quote to Mr Salangam, when we raised concerns about the type of elephant entertainment currently on offer to bring the, mainly local (one of Ta Klang's glories but financial problems is that it is a long way from, well, anywhere) tourists currently bringing in much needed income. He said: "Yes, I know, many people who look after thirty elephants like you, & some who look after none at all, have come to me and said this, my answer is the same to you as it is to them: you come here, look after 190 elephants for awhile and then tell me how to do it better".
Can't argue with that.
You know you're in an elephant town when there's a tusker behind the larb shop.
Lung Buddha's corner
Lots of elephants.
...could the cuteness of baby elephants be one reason for all the breeding? Certainly their (unfathomable to me) huge sale price and perhaps (something we'd be guilty of) the payments being on a 'per elephant' basis may also be a factor.
...but does anyone know what life will be like for them in 70 years? We hope K. Sivaporn is right & they can have a life in a rejuvenated forest.
...there is room here, enough for musth bulls.
A gratuitous photo of our very own (young) Pumpui's father who now lives full time in Ta Klang.