Yesterday Judy and I visited the Kerala Elephant Sanctuary. Other than a few pictures of elephants being bathed in the river, we really weren’t able to get much information about the sanctuary itself. So, after some hesitation we were convinced to go see the elephants. Our driver, Jose, picked us up promptly at 6:30 am. Along the way Jose stopped the car in front of a stall at the side of the road and said he was going to buy bananas for the elephants. Assuming he was buying them for our enjoyment of feeding the elephants I offered to pay but he simply shook his head no. Later, when we were feeding the elephants Jose said “I love veeeery much this elephant. I know her 22 years”. It was then that I realized he buys the bananas for the elephants pleasure. Kristine, who runs our homestay with her husband Antonio, informed us upon our return that Jose is the only one allowed to bring in outside food for the elephants. A few years back someone fed a poisoned piece of pineapple to an elephant and since that elephants death no one else has been trusted.
We arrived at the river just before the elephants. Jose has been driving “clients” to see the elephants for nearly 2 decades and he has timed things to perfection. On the drive back to our homestay later that afternoon he proudly tells us that he drove the woman who wrote about the elephant training camp in The Lonely Planet. If I’d heard mention of an elephant training camp before committing to this day trip I certainly would not have gone. 3 baby elephants came walking down the dusty path to the river and were instructed to lay in the water. The mahouts vigorously began scrubbing the rough skin of the elephants with a water soaked coconut shell. Then Sunita, the biggest and oldest elephant came down to the river to bathe. Her mahout was a rough little man who was very fond of using his bamboo stick to beat her if she didn’t immediately comply to his commands. Sunita is 39 years old and was the most gentle of the elephants. It was difficult to watch such force being used on her. The babies were poked and prodded by their mahouts but I did not see the same level of violence directed towards them, despite their obvious misbehaviour.
I felt uneasy. We were the only tourists who didn’t line up to have our photo taken with one of the elephants as they either sprayed water or held their trunks up high to pose. We did feed the elephants all of the bananas Jose had bought for them, which they readily accepted. The elephants are trained to open their mouths to be fed rather than use their trunks to feed themselves.
I asked Jose, who is clearly fond of the elephants, to tell me more about the elephants of India. He told me that the Indian government banned the capture and ownership of wild elephants in 1979. The 5 elephants at the training camp were found orphaned in the forest. He said when the babies lose their herd they cry. This is when the mahouts are called in. They must try and locate the herd and reunite the baby with its mother. If they cannot find the herd or if the herd does not accept the baby after 3 days, it is taken to the training camp.
The elephants at this training camp or sanctuary are better fed than many people are in India. They are treated better and live in better conditions than most of Thailand’s elephants. They are orphans who otherwise would have perished in India’s forests. And yet I still feel a deep sadness for these intelligent and emotional creatures.