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Searching for the elephants of Dailand (yes, with a D)

By John Roberts
11 August 2012 06:12:00

You know you’ve been in a place too long when you start to regret tarmac.

When your journey, the one you took ten years ago and have been boring people with ever since, the intrepid four wheel drive trek through kilometers of endless mud, the interminable border crossings with guards who’d never seen a foreign car before, the sections of the trek where the army sought to escort, rocket launchers at the ready, the fear of bandits in the hills, yes, THAT journey.

You know you’ve been in one place too long when that journey (or at least the first half of it) can now be done in a day and without getting your tyres muddy and, worse still, there are now direct flights so you don’t even have to talk your cars through the border.

But once you accept that part of growing old is to have your stories trumped and finding yourself the boring old hand in the back of the bar grumbling about progress then you have to sneakingly admit that easy access can be a boon.  When just getting to the place alive in time to flop down under an (incongruously pink as I recall) mosquito net, awaking before dawn to check the oil & move on is the mission then there’s no time to discover the place itself.

I still have photos of that trip, travelling through Chinese forests (by this time on, albeit tortuous, tarmac) that promise elephants in the hills, “Surely there are no wild elephants in China?” we thought then.

As time moved on, of course, I learned otherwise, that there are pockets of eles living in the bits of China close to the Burmese and Laos border - & some surprisingly far into the country - in the far South of Yunnan Province (a place that stretches from Laos to Tibet) in the area the Thais call the land of twelve thousand rice fields.

Sipsongpanna.

Most famously there is the Wild Elephant Valley, a large tourist attraction where thousands of people a day can come and share an area with wild elephants.  Somewhat skeptical, my heroic guide Robin and I joined the throng, elephants use the area, we saw one captive elephant on a drag chain, grazing freely & hoping (or her owners, or both) to be impregnated.  Lots of other elephant sign but, perhaps unsurprisingly given the tour-group megaphones and the middle-of-the-day, no elephants.  Still there’s good forest and an area flooded with hopeful people may provide attention, money and protection for the adjacent valleys - not necessarily my type of elephant tourism but if 1% of the throng visit and take in the Elephant Museum (explaining elephants, China and elephants in China) at the end of the trek then education will have been achieved.

Captive elephant let loose on a drag chain

Robin & I used the museum for something quite different, contained within there’s a list of Human Elephant Conflict incidents, listing villages-off-the-map & roads-to-nowhere.    We jotted them down and headed back halfway to the Laos border, to Menglun town & the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens, a haven of plants and of scientific investigation and, most importantly, to the soon-to-be-opened Anantara Xishuangbanna.

Xishuangbanna being the name of the region, eerily close to Sipsongpanna in Mandarin phoneticised English.

But elephants and tourism we can find in Thailand where we have our own problems and a long history of elephants and people living together, besides, these elephants are already helped by the local Government and WWF, our motto is ‘Helping Elephants that can’t Help Themselves’. 

Tomorrow we’d head to the borderlands, time for a plate of fried noodles and a draught Tsingtao.

Now, there aren’t many maps of this area and those that exist aren’t very detailed, Robin, our taxi driver & I working off a map each (mine stolen from a Hotel in Jing Hong (again eerily close to the Thai: Chiang Roong)), by sheer luck our driver had grown up in the borderlands before moving to Menglun town and, surprisingly (because you wouldn’t find that in Thailand), everyone has an elephant story.

We poked around, a long drive down a river bordering some glorious looking forest, the roads are good, old and well made, a far cry from the Laos town of Muang Sing which a glimpse on a better map later told me we were closer to than our Anantara Xishuangbanna base. But that’s no surprise, in the 1860’s the French ‘Mekong Commission’ knew they’d finally reached China after months hacking, boating and catching diseases through what would become French Indo-China when they finally saw a stone bridge and a solid road - the mark of an organised empire - right here in one of these little towns.

This was a long range mission for the poor old taxi, though, we didn’t make it down to the Human Elephant Conflict hotspot, a town with a refreshingly Laos name, among these all-too-similar Chinese town names.  When time was getting short we turned left and drove until we ran out of tarmac, we stopped and asked some old men playing cards, we turned right until we came to a sign that said (apparently) ‘Danger: Wild Elephants’, we turned left and ended up in a large rubber plantation.  Here we stopped and asked.

Danger - wild elephants!

Yes, the forest is 10km away, yes, we see elephants from time to time even here making their way through the rubber plantations, but the villages closer see them all the time.  That car? Not a hope (much to the relief of the, already worried, taxi driver).

We talked awhile to the rubber tappers of unknown ethnic origin (Sorry, I don’t speak Mandarin or Dai well) and the plantation owner’s wife who’d wandered across to investigate the foreigner; of Government compensation for HEC problems (better for motorbikes than for rubber trees) of rubber (business is booming) and of food (hungry drivers do not good drivers make).

After a lunch served by a river, ice cold beer and mildly spicy food, while a Dai party toasted itself to oblivion in an air conditioned room nearby we headed along the white-painted stump, Cassia tree lined, local roads up to the new highway with it’s tunnels and birds-eye views of the endless rubber clad mountains and back to Anantara.

A Dai beer (tasty)

There ARE elephants here, people DO see them.

Another day, another dinner. One of my guiding principles in life can be simplified into “If it is alcoholic and comes in an old fuel container DO NOT DRINK”, I’ve learned this the hard way in Nepal and in various South East Asian countries.

Turns out I haven’t learned after all.

Somehow I found myself in a car the next morning, thankfully not driving, hot on a tip off of closer wild elephants.  The technique is similar to yesterday, but turn left instead of right, this time we didn’t even have to leave the tarmac, we stumbled on a village meeting, try the next village they said, we did and found a group of men boiling tea on an ancient wood stove.

Crop raiding elephants?  “Let’s go for a walk” they said “we’ll show you.”

Walk we did:

Bamboo Bridge...

...a little way in & things were beginning to look familiar to the rural Thai dweller...

Incontrovertible evidence elephant dung

...incontrovertible evidence...

Broken bananas

...one of many broken banana trees & stomped sugar cane plantations...

Footprints & Sugar Cane

...looks eerily like our camp in the places were ten or fifteen elephants pass per day...

More incontrovertible evidence...

...another calling card amongst the sugar cane leaves.

A herd of about twenty living in a small patch of forest, next to a larger National Park, not 50km from our base at the Anantara.  They come out every two weeks or so, either in one village or the other and have a good old munch on the local folks’ kitchen and market gardens.

This bears further investigation and, who knows, we may have to change our motto.

Something like “Helping Elephants that cannot Help Themselves, and, sometimes, those that can’t Help Themselves but to Help Themselves”?

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