On the arrival of our bundle of joy (being a curmudgeon is a lonely business)
By John Roberts
27 March 2014 04:53:00
OK, it’s time to do this, 20 something days into the life of a young elephant, the celebrations are not over but everyone’s calming down a little, he - like human kids as they grow up - seems to develop new character traits by the day, learn new things, persevere with errant body parts that just won’t seem to go where he’d want them.
In short: he could possibly be the cutest thing on planet earth right now. Every video or picture of him that goes onto the information superhighway gets a thousand likes, shares, follows or whatever it means that people are watching it.
We’ve never been so popular in these times when the world has so much else to be looking at.
But every time I post something of him with a happy comment, every time I cheerily receive congratulations for another baby born in camp (birth number four, sixth under one year old taken in & taken care of - seventh if you count one we’re helping with in Indonesia), even every time I sit & watch him grow up I feel a pang of guilt.
You see, how to put this? I’m kind of opposed to his existence.
I strongly believe, persuaded by the facts on the ground (where I still live) that, whatever we do, we cannot guarantee to protect him for the seventy years he will live and while there’s no real plan to make the lives better for the captive elephants we have now, let alone those in the future, what the world really does not need is another captive elephant.
While still, for reasons unclear even to me who has done more than most to try to understand this business, a hot commodity this baby will always be a (hopefully loved) burden on his owner, he’ll have to work to make a living for the next sixty years.
Much like a human, the vast majority of whom still work to live in dull, unrewarding jobs that are taken on just to keep the family fed, the chances of him finding that job that allows him freedom of thought and movement are very low - OK, he started out lucky being born here, but we don’t own him and can’t guarantee his existence beyond the end of his current contract.
Of course a smart owner will want to keep him with us at least until he’s strong and healthy (& his owner, an old time Garieng elephant man from the mountains above Chiang Mai, was down in Bangkok rescuing baby elephants from the streets BEFORE we even knew it was a problem, so we have hope) but who knows what the whims of fate that effect us all over the course of our lifetimes will do to him?
The difference between elephants and humans is, of course, for the most part we are not owned and we choose to procreate based on an informed knowledge of our situation and our future.
Being the property of an enlightened owner his Mum, Boon Jan, was not ‘bred’ or forced to mate (many are) but even our partners Think Elephants have yet to prove to me that elephants make informed decisions based on perceptions of their long term future (for that matter, when it comes to breeding perhaps I give humanity in general too much credit too). She was also, I hasten to point out, secretly pregnant when she arrived - the conception didn’t occur here.
So what’s the point of captive elephants? If we don’t like the idea (as I don't) that they’re here only to make a living for their owners (funnily enough I have less of a problem with the, harder, more dangerous logging days - where they were perhaps skilled partners in an (albeit destructive) enterprise) and, unlike wild elephants who maintain & grow an ecosystem, they aren’t doing much for their environment then I believe we should aim to reduce the number of captive elephants and concentrate our efforts on saving the wild ones.
So ke garne? With this thought in my soul and with the job I do (let’s not forget that I make my living from introducing you to them) am I doomed to wander around gloomily for the rest of my lonely life? - everyone else is smiling, what’s wrong with that old blonde guy sitting in the corner thumping on his keyboard?
Well you know me & that’s not me - at least not in public; don’t ask my family or any of those poor souls who have to sit across from me when I’m wrestling with these things.
I’ve said it many times, if we don’t like the idea of elephants in captivity (or even if we do) it is our responsibility to make them ambassadors for the wild ones, for the rest of their species - use their presence with us and our power to introduce them to you to inspire you to get involved and help us save the forests by saving the wild elephants that call ‘em home and keep ‘em tidy.
As I’ve mentioned before, to stick to a dogma of no breeding or to pretend that the mahouts and owners don’t sometimes have different priorities to ourselves in a world where a baby elephant is worth two million baht or a mahout can earn 60,000 baht a month by working his elephant eleven hours a day at a Pattaya trekking camp is pointless. To do so is not only to drive yourself insane with angry frustration it is to drive your mahouts and owners to do business elsewhere to the detriment of their elephants.
You’ve got to be in the game to win it.
So something else we can do is use the elephants we have here to help develop best practice, either in caring for elephants or in working with mahouts and owners. We’ve never pretended this is anything other than a (hopefully grand) experiment: we’re trying new stuff, new relationships between ALL stake holders (whether their existence complicates the job or not), we can fail so others might succeed.
…and here endeth the first lesson, enough existential gloom, please now go back to our social networking sites and watch the videos of the young one, enjoy without guilt, as I enjoy with guilt.
I promise the second lesson will be more full of joy as well as an attempt to explain that final paragraph (of “the lesson”, the penpenultimate one of the piece if you include this one).
Elephant Tails Blog
Flirting with charming two-ton beauties and playing with jumbo babies, our Elephant Guru's blog introduces our colourful cast of gentle giants.
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27 Mar 2014
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