Anantara Blogs Elephant Tails

What language do the ghosts speak? (sneaking science in under the skirt of a celluloid snapper)

By John Roberts
26 October 2010 03:15:00

On the face of it the latest extension of Carol Stevenson's Elephant Photographer project, her idea to take it further than just (just!) a series of fine art photographs documenting life in our little camp as our babies grow up, as our mahouts (& ourselves) get more wrinkled &, ahem, characterful, is a great idea.

She's recruited Tim Kelly, a wildlife film'o'grapher of renown, to come & shoot three stories.  A young mahout facing the modern world, not from the dramatic 'stuck-on-the-streets-pity-me' side but from the deeper, more fundamental side, the "what on earth am I going to be doing in thirty years time?" side, where is my profession & that of my family taking me? - nobody has ever asked the local mahouts what they think they'll be doing into the next generation, have they even thought about it?

The second (in no particular order if that makes sense) story will showcase a young elephant; one that has been produced either by human intention or by degree-of-freedom eles sneaking into the bushes (haven't held the auditions yet) and ask the question, what will this elephant be doing in 55 - 60 years when they reach mandatory retirement age, will they be like Yom? (the Auditor General of Thai elephants, now down at the T.E.C.C. gently working into a quiet old age, past even her 65th birthday with no signs of wanting to retire), will someone have arranged for them to live free in the forest?  or, like certain other eles (& people, let's face it) we know about, will they be having to struggle on against life's hardships just to get enough to eat?

The third story is that of the Khru Ba Yai, the Kui spirit men, the ancient elephant catchers (only five of whom remain that can truly call themselves Mor Chang, spirit men that have truly caught a wild elephant, last done in an organised fashion some time back in the 1950's).  These are the guys who taught our guys to train the elephants without the crush or the spirit breaking ceremonies so often quoted (without evidence as far as I can tell) as the absolute norm for Thai elephants, the guys that taught Lung Lord to train with tickling & singing.

On the face of it the movie sounds a good idea, right? Right!  So without further ado I'll point you to a place where you can help Carol realise this dream & bag yourself some special rewards (thanks to some great folks, not least private jeweler Mr Joseph Knight; giving that gives, who could ask for more?) to boot.

"'old on, 'old on, old John" I hear you cry, "why do you keep saying 'on face value'" - what do you know about this that we don't?  Before we ship across our last brass farthing to support Carol is there something you want to tell us?

Well, yes, I suppose I ought to come clean.  You know us by now, when is anything we do ever done for the face value?  If we haven't thought it through, I hope you know it is not a Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation approved project; for, though we are supporting with logistics, contacts, negligible (you'll be glad to hear) creative input, negligible (from me at least) wisdom and perhaps we'll even shout a round at the post filming bar, it is not our project which is why I must admit to my subterfuge now.
Why are we recommending you delay handing over shekels to buy food & shelter for our girls and hand it across to this project instead?  It's not personal (well, not in a worldwide fame sort of way, if I wanted to be on the front pages then I wouldn't have spent millions suppressing my indiscretions would I?), it's not even because you get good prizes for donating, it is because the film chimes to where we want to take the Foundation and to my own personal fascinations, which, as it is not scripted, could backfire on me because my hard won preconceptions may, or course, be false.

These past few months we have been called upon by some very serious conservation thinkers to define who we are & where we're going, we have come to a fundamental crossroads, if we're serious about what we do & our slogan 'Helping Elephants who can't Help Themselves' we need to stop looking at the problem one elephant at a time and really look at what we're doing to help all of Thailand's elephants.  If we need to do that we need a plan for the future that goes beyond a vague idea to get some more land & keep bringing eles off the streets (particularly since the Government has become adept at this through their own rescue-rental scheme 'Chang Yim' & is much better funded - perhaps we're at almost 'job done' for this phase?).

Over a bowl of noodles with a guy called Rizwan (who does this stuff free & will be embarrassed to be mentioned - & for whom I still haven't done my real homework so hopefully he won't read this!) we came up with a couple of long term goals.

Goal I: For Thailand to have a sustainable number of domestic elephants living comfortably within 25 years.  

Now, this is deliberately vague, domesticated can mean living 'as wild' looked after by mahouts, it can mean limited work trekking camps, it can mean a small number kept only for ceremonial purposes considered essential to the Thai psyche.  I believe Thailand herself has to decide how many is a sustainable number or how to make the number we currently have sustainable, certainly, at the moment when some elephants are still on the streets & many more have to work too many hours to scrape a living, while arguably the number is financially sustainable, there are certainly elephants that are not comfortable.

I recently asked a panel of experts from different elephant fields what they thought was a sustainable number of domestic elephants for Thailand, none had a number in mind.  

Through the 'young elephant' storyline in the movie we hope to begin to ask that question.

Goal II: For the next generation of mahouts to feel they have a choice but to follow their fathers & grandfathers.

Goal I leaves us with a problem (& there are organisations out there, far more extreme, who state that all elephants must go into the wild NOW regardless of the human cost & the lack of appropriate wild, but that's another story).  If Thailand decides she needs fewer elephants she will also need fewer mahouts.  We're not going to preach to anyone what they should, or should not, do with their lives & we believe that for the elephants to to live comfortably Thailand needs the born-on-an-elephants, grew up using the tusks as parallel bars type of natural mahout who understands an elephant as only someone who grew up with one can.  i.e. the kids growing up in our camp & their families elsewhere.

That said, it is a hard life with, currently, very little reward & facing opposition from an encroaching modern world, our work now must accept the fact that there might not be mahout work readily available by the time the camp kids want to start families of their own and help prepare them (currently through ensuring they go to school, providing English tuition & role models) should this prove to be the case. 

Through the 'young mahout' story we hope to ask a boy mahout what he thinks his future might hold, is he following his father because he wants to or does he feel he has no choice?

The third storyline is more personally fascinating & I've been over it before in trips to Vietnam, in talking about the ancient wisdom of the Khru Ba Yai & possible connections with other elephant keeping peoples, the movie will give us the chance to get Thailand's oldest holders of that wisdom together in one place so I intend to borrow a voice recorder from Dr Josh, a set of protocols from folks who set out to record dying languages (or perhaps one of the linguists themselves?) and try to record some of the stories, traditions (did you know our Surin mahouts won't eat honey, ant eggs or ducks when away from home?), myths & legends of the Kui people in such a way as to store them clearly for posterity but also in such a way as the traditions can be compared with the other people who have similar roles in their society (in the old days catching, now raising, elephants) and see if there are links.  Where did these people whose language isn't Thai & isn't Khmer but who live on the borderlands come from - or were they always here & are we the imposters?

There's also the fascinating connection of the so called 'spirit language', a trait allegedly used, though perhaps with a different vocab, when on elephant catching missions by the elders of many of the traditional elephant keeping peoples from the India & Sri Lanka all the way over the Himalayan hump to here & onward, through Vietnam, on down.  Further there's the odd story of Alexandrian coins turning up in Surin.  Can we find out, or get some baseline data to allow others to find out, what's going on here?
So you see, Carol & Tim, we're just using you, what already feels like a huge project with logisitical & funding nightmares is just a part (though a very big part) of my grandiose scheme to permanently do some good for elephants.

For those of you, reading this, who think this may be a good way to go about it (& don't mind me hoodwinking our innocent artists) you can donate to the Elephant Spirits project here & help us all realise our dreams (+ incidentally, get some great stuff!).

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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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