Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp

Yesterday was perfect! I ate a delicious breakfast (an omelette, toast, bananas, coffee and avocado juice) in a garden hut at the Nature Land Hotel. I freaking love this place. 

At 9:00, a driver picks me up for a journey of a million switchbacks through the verdant Shan hillsides. It is such a windy road that the 18 mile trip provides an hour of scenic entertainment.

Arriving at the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, I was handed a hot towel and a fresh-squeezed lime soda. Four more people arrived within moments, and completed my group. I met Maw (who I have corresponded with many times this year) and our guide, Puri. Matt and Melissa live in Vail (though he hails from Hinsdale, Illinois--small world indeed), and Robin and Claire live in central London. Both couples were married this year, and this was a sort of unofficial honeymoon for them. They were a really nice bunch to spend the day with. 

Puri stayed with the five of us most of the day, providing lots of information about the elephants, the mahouts, the camp, the community, and the business. After a short introduction in the main building, we walked about five minutes down a dirt road toward the mahout village (more on that further down), where the seven elephants (2 rescue, 5 retired logging industry laborers) had just been brought down from the forest. 

These elephants spend 70% of the day wandering freely in the forest. There are no fences. Of this "free" time, they spend roughly 3 hours sleeping and the rest eating and practicing tae kwon do and knitting. At 5:30 each morning, the mahouts leave the village and wander into the forest--individually--tracking their elephant. 

Yes, their elephant. Being a mahout is typically something a man is born into, following generations before him. When he has an elephant (whether it's in a labor setting, or an entertainment enterprise, or in a camp such as this), he stays with that elephant--often for life. 

When an elephant moves, a mahout (and the mahout's family) moves. For example, when these five timber-work elephants were retired and came to Green Hill Valley, the mahouts and families came too. Homes are built. Other family may be employed in other areas of the camp. GHV even built a school in the small community adjacent to the camp to educate the mahout and other local children. There are currently 65 students. So you see this is a community operation, indeed. 

Back to the mahouts grounds and our first glimpse of the elephants. There are 2 large concrete discs--bases for the thatch roof structures that provide shade to the elephants during the time when they "meet the tourists." Each elephant has a small rope loosely around on ankle. This seemed more for the tourist's reassurance: if the elephants wanted to, they could easily break free. Heck they could take down the entire structure if they wanted. They don't. We saw them lift their foot for the mahout to put the rope on. They seem to really enjoy this time: they get fed a bunch of good squash by small groups of adoring fans, who then tenderly wash them in the stream. As I said, I was in a group of 5 people and we spent a few hours in the elephant's company. Other groups walked by, greeting the elephants briefly, but went on to trek the hills (a very common tourist activity in these parts). GHV keeps a tight restriction on number of tourists that visit and how much time is spent with the elephants: they don't want to stress the elephants or strain the environment. 

So we learn about the differentiations between these Asian elephants and their African counterparts--that are not as close as one would assume. Some differences (if I remember them correctly) are: 

Asian elephants have one "finger" at the end of their trunk, a larger head and smaller ears, a convex spine, a bump (for lack of a more accurate term) on their foreheads, 4 toenails on the front feet and 3 on the back. 

African elephants have 2 fingers at the end of their trunks, a smaller head and larger ears, a concave spine, no forehead bump, 5 toenails on front, 3 on back. 

Asian elephants are also shorter: the average 6- to 8-feet tall as opposed to 9- to 11-foot African elephants.

Tusks are more complicated. I remember that Asian elephants may have long tusks, short tusks, only 1 tusk, or no tusks. It has nothing to do with gender. 

Of these seven, the baby (3 years old, orphaned) is male, and the largest of the group with the 2 long tusks is male. The other five are female. One female was blind in the right eye: when she was working, she was poked in the eye by bamboo. To feed her, we had to approach on her left side so she could see us. Another had bad scarring all over from being beaten--particularly on her trunk, so she doesn't like to be touched there. Rather, she likes to be fed directly into he mouth. Another one, slightly more petite, was greedy and rambunctious. At one point when I was standing at her side she swatted me with her tail. I moved to her front and she made a little movement as if she was going to shove me with her head. I'm not sure if she was being playful or was annoyed - but I went to play with the others instead!

But my favorite, by far, was this beauty. (Pic to follow, of course.) Let's call her Betty White. She's in her 50's if I recall correctly--at least. Betty is very gentle, and she has taken on a surrogate mother role for the baby boy. She is whip smart with a great sense of humor. Before I explain that, let me talk about the affection and bond between the elephants and their mahouts. You can see it, as you watch these elephants and mahouts interact--they are super-connected. They frolic together. Puri told us that when one mahout tries to command another mahout's elephant, often the elephant won't listen, as if to say "you're not the boss of me!" Back to my clever old gal, Betty...

When the mahouts go into the hillsides in the morning, they track their elephants by the distinct sound of the bamboo bell collar they wear. Sometimes, when Betty is feeling playful, or just wants more time with her thoughts in the forest, she stuffs mud or leaves inside her bell collar so that it takes the mahout much longer to find her (usually via tracks). See? Looks and wit: she's the full package. 

The elephants eat about 150 kilograms of food per day (or maybe just in camp, not including what they eat when they are wandering--I can't remember). Squash, leaves, a whole lot of molasses and wheat powder mixture, and whatever they find foraging. They have roughly the same lifespan as humans: they can live to 80, 90, even 100 years old, or they can live just to 50 or 60 when they have had a hard life of work, stress and/or injury.

In the morning, it can take the mahouts a few hours to find their elephant. But more often than not, Puri says, the elephants tend to wander in the direction of camp in the morning because they know they've got a good thing there. Effortless lovin'. If they find one another quickly, the mahout and elephant may hang out in the forest a while. The mahouts bring them to camp around 10:30am

Our group spent about an hour feeding squash to the elephants. Then we changed into mahout pants and walked the elephants up the river. We bathed them and splashed them (they like to splash back), and then walked them back for more squash! 

Around 1:00 we hiked up a hill to plant a teak tree. All of the primary forest in this region was destroyed about 50-60 years ago by the timber industry and trees were not replanted as they were harvested. It was only within the last couple decades that efforts have been made to restore the forest. Sure it looks lush now, but the trees are still far from mature. So visitors can plant a tree if they wish--every person leaving their mark on the restoration process.

We headed back to the main building for lunch. Great backdrop, nice meal, lovely presentation, fun conversation with like-minded travelers. 

After lunch we could do as we pleased: walk around and/or go back and feed the elephants. This was a no-brainer.

Shortly after 3pm, the mahouts took the elephants back to the forest--each one heading off in a different direction to reduce damage that a "herd of elephants" can cause. 

Walking back to the main building with Puri, I learned that he lives in Kalaw with his wife and children. His English is very good because he is curious and motivated, attributes which have led him to work in tourism in Malaysia and Thailand. He was childhood friends with the fellow who opened GHV in 2011, and so his friend offered him a career change, the chance to come give visitors this experience. 

GHV is truly impressive, especially considering its short existence. They have built gorgeous grounds, including a village for the mahouts' families. They engage with the community, educating children and adults alike. They keep a very close watch on the health and care of the elephants and mahouts, and keep their visitor numbers to a minimum. It is a balance, because they are a privately owned business and do not receive support from the government or an NGO. They rely on the visitors to earn the funds to keep this operation afloat, but clearly they make the funds go a long way. It's a family-run enterprise. Maw runs the guest relations side. Her father worked in the timber industry, and her uncle is an elephant veterinarian--both now running pieces of GHV. 

I cannot say enough good things about this place, the experience, and the great work these people are doing. I strongly encourage all to come for a visit! Reservations are required: remember they keep their visitor numbers very small. 

I don't see an option for donations on their page, yet, but where there's a will there's a way, right?