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November 2004
How I Became an Elephant’s Mother
By Lek Chailert

 

Lek and Ging Mai
Lek and 'Jungle Boy'
Top: Lek and Ging Mai,
Bottom: Lek and ‘Jungle Boy’
Photos courtesy Elephant Nature Park

I have been working with and researching elephants in the wild for more than ten years. I have slept, eaten and stayed with them in the lush jungles of my home in the mountains of Thailand. I have followed their groups and recorded behavior in their natural habitat. I find their social order totally amazing—how they care for each other, the closeness of their relationships, and their complex ranking structure. Their demeanor is a gentle one. A creature full of love, intelligence and care for fellow herd members.

I love watching mother elephants show their affection and deep love for their playful babies. I have seen births in the jungle, and have acted as an elephant’s midwife two times.

My greatest experience and privilege was as a midwife for an expectant mother named Mae Boon Num. She had been a domestic logging elephant but was later released back to the jungle. This was her second baby and she seemed so calm when giving birth; a treasure to watch. It was one a.m. when she produced a healthy beautiful little boy. I helped Mae Boon Num clean and lift him up to show him where to get his mother’s milk.

I gave him the name Jungle Boy because he was born in the middle of the jungle; he belongs to the jungle. He was covered with baby hair, had the most adorable little blue eyes and a pinkish trunk. Once he was able to walk he would run between his mother and me. We really enjoyed playing with each other. At times Jungle Boy would run and knock me down, then turn to lie down on top of me. He was a very happy infant.

Usually, when a mother feeds her baby she is sensitive and patient. Baby elephants will drink milk, then run off to play till exhaustion then return to lie beside their mother. Ever caring, she will use a tree leaf to chase off the bugs and watch over the calf until he awakens.

The elephant mother teaches her calf by natural lessons; firstly, how to use the trunk to pick up food. It takes time to master, as this limp appendage is uncoordinated and difficult to use. The little student will try to use the trunk to lift food, getting it wrong more often than not. The mother will use her own trunk to give a naughty youngster a slap when discipline is needed. Next the youngster will be given a much-loved mudbath and taught to use the feet to dig roots.

While watching them I can see the great love between them, reminding me of my own great mother. I wonder if I had a chance of motherhood would I be great like my mother or this loving elephant?

Ging Mai—“Little Tree”
The answer to this question came quite unexpectedly when I received an urgent phone call from a Karen tribal family. They asked me to help rescue a baby elephant born just three days previous and whose mother was dead.

When I saw the calf I was so sad. He was so tiny; in shock and badly injured. His skin was sunburned and he suffered from injuries all over his weakened body. He couldn’t stand properly, his legs were so weak. We had to hold him or else he would collapse. His body was covered with deep cuts and wounds.

A Karen tribesman told me that the mother had died not far from the village and when he checked on her and saw her dead body they believed the baby was stillborn, so they left his limp body in the jungle. The next night the villagers heard strange noises coming from the mountain and wondered what it was. They heard this noise, over and over for three days and three nights. Some said it was the unsettled spirit of an elephant ghost. Nobody wanted to go out at night. Finally, a group of young village boys decided to search for the source of this noise.

Venturing out in the late afternoon, they unexpectedly came across a tiny baby elephant wedged between two trees. The baby was very weak and could not stand up. The boys tried to lift the baby, but he was stuck fast between the tree trunks. The baby’s struggle to free himself had resulted in scratches and cuts so deep that he would scream when his tender skin was scuffed by the scraping branches. Every time the boys tried to move him he would screech in agony. The boys went back to the village and returned with a wood saw to cut the trees and free him. When they had managed this, the baby elephant collapsed to the ground. His little trunk was down, his eyes drooped, and mouth was numb from the loss of so much blood. The village boys carried water from the river, and he greedily drank from the bamboo pipe container.

I fixed a mattress, ran to buy milk formula, and began preparing for the worst. The little elephant was so skinny and so badly injured. Both sides of the hip were cut deep to the bone. His wounds were infected and smelled very bad, puss seething from them constantly. He couldn’t stand normally. I thought he would not survive the night. He was so thirsty and drank warm milk from us—six liters non-stop.

That first night with us, the baby elephant was so mistrustful of those around him. He stumbled around sniffing the room. He would stand up and lean against the wall for support. He was trying—fighting—for strength. At that moment I recognized this as the natural behavior of a baby elephant, and walked straight to him to try to touch and hold him. I followed him when he would turn away—then, finally, he accepted me and came over asking for more milk. He put his head against my knee and slept there the whole night.

Next morning he had diarrhea and his wounds were getting worse. I cleaned his cuts and used medicine to keep flies and insects away. He cried for milk every half hour. After he drank I kneaded his chest and belly to make him belch.

The weather in December is very cold so I made a fire by his new pen to keep him warm. The milk also had to be warmed and given at the right temperature. He became more trusting and familiar with his new surroundings and he was happy to lie down and sleep on the mattress. I finally also had the chance to sit down and really rest for the first time in two days.

Looking after this orphan kept me busy the whole day. Cleaning wounds, applying medicine, making milk, boiling water, changing the mattress, cleaning his pen, and changing the straw were all jobs that constantly needed to be done. When he slept I stayed beside him and kept the flies from his wounds. They were still open and I feared that the bothersome insects would infest them with eggs. Sometimes the mattress would stick to his wounds. He would panic, trying to run around while I pulled the mattress from him.

He soon started to follow me everywhere. He also loved to play, using his trunk to pull at my arm, and he tried to suck at my clothes. After drinking milk he would lie down on my knee, but sleep would not always come easy. When he finally did, he slept with his dainty little trunk curled around my neck. He snored. Sometimes he talked in his sleep too. He was easily panicked by dog barks, cocks crowing, or anything else that moved around. I stayed close to him at all times and found that a hug pacified and put him at ease.

I gave him the name Ging Mai or Little Tree. I believed the trees had been angel guardians who held him safely. He had been so close to a cliff and, had the trees not been there, it is likely that he would have tumbled down the ravine and died from his injuries.

On the Mend
A whole month I had to stay with the baby elephant in his pen. And the more time I spent with him, the more I felt I could help him survive. Most people who first saw him doubted that he would make it, but I had promised myself that I would coax him to health. I firmly believed that my love would heal him.

The month passed so quickly, he began healing and getting better, his wounds closing. His skin had peeled many times from sunburn, but I had given him baths and coconut oil rubs. He had put on weight, but I had lost five kilos of my own. Finally, my own body couldn’t cope and I fell into a deep sleep. I was awakened by a gentle massage from little feet. I opened my eyes to see what he was doing. Ging Mai tried hard to push me to stand up. He used his trunk to touch my nose, checking to see that I was still alive. Impatience got the better of him and he started to trumpet and kick me to wake up. I finally stood up and hugged him. He shrank his trunk and shook his head, seeming so happy. Suddenly he opened his mouth and gave me big sloppy kisses.

After six weeks I took him out of his pen. His first time, he hesitated to walk. He used his trunk to touch, smell and check every single thing he saw. He walked slowly, his head rubbing against my leg the entire time. He followed in my footsteps into a new world. The following day I taught him how to use his trunk to pick up food and throw dust to cover his small body. It took this little boy a long time to learn that. My immediate concern was to keep him well fed. I carried milk bottles always ready for when hunger would strike. It was such a wonderful privilege to share his joy.

As much as I loved bringing him up, I realized I could not do it alone so I sought volunteers to come and help. Most of them applied through our website and many had seen parts of my project on TV documentaries. We had great success with volunteers. From around the world I found caring and committed helpers. I gave them training in the art of elephant rearing. I needed sleep and had set a tent in front of the baby pen. Volunteers took turns staying with the baby.

The first night I spent outside the pen I heard something moving around my tent. I unzipped the flaps and saw my little boy wandering around and kissing my tent. He had managed to escape from his pen as the volunteer slept. A morning priority was a new stronger door. For the meantime, I moved my tent far from the pen and some volunteers kept him in their tent. They took him out to exercise early the next morning. From the sanctuary of my own shelter I heard the volunteer call out “Oh no!” Before I could get out to see what had happened, Ging Mai ran into my tent, lied down beside me and began rolling around. I had to jump out before the tent fell to pieces.

Today my lovely little boy is over five months old. I began to wonder, if love could heal this lovely creature—couldn’t love heal the world?

A Tragic End: November 2002
This is without doubt the hardest report I have had to pen and it fills my heart with sadness to recall the death of this beautiful infant. On Friday night, November 22nd, 2002, Ging Mai was healthy, happy and full of the natural curiosity of an inquisitive infant. The following day he became weak and unable to stand. Despite round-the-clock supervision his condition grew steadily worse until his final passing in the early hours of Sunday.

Since his rescue in December of 2001, Ging Mai became a loved symbol of elephant freedom for visitors and volunteers alike from around the world. His friendly and affectionate manner left an indelible mark on those lucky to have spent time with him and his shocking death will be mourned in dozens of countries.

We are unsure of the reasons why an apparently healthy infant would become critically sick in such a sudden manner.

The test results were not conclusive but there were suggestions that poison was involved. A sinister visit by three Thai men on the Thursday prior to his illness was never fully explained.

Lek Chailert is the founder of Elephant Nature Park, a nonprofit sanctuary in northern Thailand. This is an edited version of an article published on their website, www.thaifocus.com/elephant/index.htm.

 


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