I have enjoyed being able to spend an extended period of time observing different facilities and programs. One day is really not enough time to get a true sense of how a program works. This, my second day at Lek’s Elephant Nature Park brought a deeper understanding of the operation.
The elephants genuinely spend the majority of their time out on the pasture grazing, paying little attention to the volunteers and guests that occupy the boardwalks bordering their habitat. I have watched for hours trying to figure out why the elephants do not return to the public areas to beg for food. One reason might be that each elephant has a mahout who follows them around to ensure their safety. The mahouts might encourage the elephants to stay out in the pasture but I really saw no indication that elephants were prevented from moving anywhere they pleased, except the construction area of course.
The other reason might be because of the designated feeding time. The elephants are released from their stables at 7am and guests are allowed to feed them produce from a feeding platform at 10:30am. A “feeding bell” is rung and the elephants can be seen heading for the feeding platform right on time with no encouragement from their mahouts. After eating, they head back out to pasture until evening, when they return to the platform for a second guest feeding, and then return to the stables for the night. In between they go to the river twice a day for bathing. It is all very calm and casual. The elephants move around like cattle with no noticeable prodding from the mahouts. It is obvious that the elephants are comfortable with the day’s routine. It is designed around them to meet their needs.
Today I was honored to be asked to assist the mahout of the youngest calf. He is not yet one year old and already a handful. Understandably, he is the focus of the guests’ attention and, since he has contact with the guests from behind a wooded corral, he can be a little pushy.
The first session with the mahout and calf went well. The calf is sharp as a tack and in no time he was responding to his mahout’s request to “come here.” After a few minor instructions, the mahout was expertly maneuvering the calf from one side of the stall to the other. Of course this is easy to do, since the calf was given a piece of banana as a reward.
Lek has a new project in Surin that I plan to visit next week. In conjunction with the government, Lek is helping to design a new pilot project for mahouts and their elephants. I look forward to seeing the projects and reporting back about it. Lek has accomplished so much in such a short period of time, and there is no sign that she plans to stop. Elephants and elephant lovers alike owe her a debt of gratitude.