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Catching Elephants Before They Fall (The Power of Partnerships)

By John Roberts
14 February 2017 00:42:00

For someone who does what I do it might come as a surprise to hear me say that I haven’t had a connection with an elephant for quite some time.  

If we think of elephants the way we want to think of them, with something approaching (if not surpassing) human complexity and if we look at my life in human terms then my decision to keep my distance makes sense.  It might be OK to have favourites, to have some bonds when managing a situation but, as with humans, it is not sensible to have friendships or deeper if you have to manage with a clear heart and for the benefit of all.

Look back through the archives - if they go back that far - and you can probably guess the last ele I allowed myself to develop a relationship with.

The other day I met an ele, though, with whom I felt affinity.  I am not narcissist enough to believe it was reciprocated; elephants are complex, you don’t get their attention on an emotional level on a first or second meeting, as with humans, friendships take months, years to develop.

But this guy turned out to be exactly my age, well nearly, born in 2516, same year as me.  

Plai Nin, like me, has been a working man damn near all his life - well that’s not true, despite my father’s best efforts I wasn’t sent out to do hard labour at the age of four but I have done my fair share of physically challenging stuff to make cash.  I doubt he really started at four either - in Myanmar elephants don’t enter the workforce until 17, in the less regulated Thai timber industry it might have been earlier but 6 or 7 would be the earliest - six is when my son will be off down the salt mines if he’s not careful.

Like me he’s recently come into a more sedentary role, though unfortunately not the management one that keeps my brain active, having joined the Zoological Parks Organisation under the Royal Patronage of His Majesty the King’s project for elephants to live in Ban Ta Klang he no longer has to work for a living, his wage & lifestyle are covered.

Like me he is beginning to feel his age, unlike me - whose diseases, syndromes & tics that follow me into old age will be largely the accumulation of lifestyle choices down the years - he was never given the choice of lifestyle, his mahout & owners did this for him.

Like me, though generally polite, he had that grumpy demeanour that made it clear he wasn’t in the mood to speak to strangers - perhaps especially ones that were inclined to imagine they had something more than birth year in common.

Unlike me he was lying on his side and had been down there for two days, his legs having given way beneath him for reasons his mahouts put down to overwork in early life and the vets thought long term malnutrition.  To be fair, for an elephant that had been lying on his side for two days he was remarkably cheerful, not in a mood to talk with strangers - as I have mentioned - but eyes alive and eating well, alert to food and the approach of people he knew.

There was life and fight in him, even in adversity.

This wasn’t a random meeting, Plai Nin & myself.  I was visiting him for a reason: you may remember I visited Ban Ta Klang about this time last year and was somewhat disquieted, in fact I promised to find ways to help.

When we say help, we mean long term, sustainable help; such help as only comes of building partnerships and designing projects based on experience and some best practices.  Which is a long winded way of saying that, since my promise to help, I’ve had precisely: one lunch, two Skype calls and been photographed with a large cheque.

So bugger all then?  Plenty of words but no graft?  Well, you might think that, and the visit to Ban Ta Klang this time was still largely ‘needs assessment’ but this time with vets and project managers, people who actually know how to assess needs.  

A project is born, a partnership between the Zoological Parks Organisation under the Royal Patronage of His Majesty the King, Veterinarians International and, er, us.  As with all good projects  common goals lead to blurred lines when it comes to responsibility but, broadly, the ZPO has a clinic infrastructure and on-site admin, between Veterinarians International & ourselves we will provide mobility, equipment, veterinary support and expertise.  Well, we’ll provide money and try not to interfere too much as ZPO use that money to provide the rest.

There are currently 175 elephants living in the village, unknown how many more living in the surrounding villages and thousands who might come home if they could.  This partnership has the power to do some real good not only in helping the elephants but, following the lead of hospitals & veterinary partners in the North, teaching mahouts basic first aid, preventative medicine and some animal husbandry.

There’s some more good news, there’s really a fourth partner in this project - while we’ve been talking, building partnerships, trying to fit giant cheques into taxis too small etc. - the Department for Livestock Development vets have been making the hour long drive up to Ban Ta Klang three times a week - more when needed - treating the elephants mahouts tell them are sick and doing everything in their power (bearing in mind that they are responsible for every buffalo, chicken & goat in Surin province as well as all the elephants) to keep the elephants healthy.

We were not actually taken to meet Plai Nin but the heroic vet Dr Nut to learn more about the challenges he faces.  After all, what better way to do a needs assessment than to ask the bloke who is currently doing the job where support is most needed?

…and what of Plai Nin?  Good news here too, while we were there Dr Nut got him back to his feet.  The next step is to ensure that he and his colleagues get the support they need to catch these eles before they fall.  


P.S. We haven't really been doing nothing, since last year we have expanded our English Teaching project to cover schools in three surrounding, also elephant, villages and taken the entire graduating class to Khao Yai National Park on a Conservation Education weekend.  All in the name of broadening the horizons of the next generation of mahouts.  Indeed the project discussed above also has the goal to provide scholarships so that this community can begin to provide it's own vets - something for which the English grounding we are giving them will prove invaluable.

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