Elephant Tears – learning why elephants cry

A melancholy brown eye stares at you from the grey, wrinkled face, fringed with luscious eyelashes. A tear stain reaches down the trunk of the poor, sad creature and you feel compelled to reach out and help.

A familiar image? It’s certainly one that has been used to generate much needed support for the dwindling elephant community on this earth. But is it the truth?

In my lifetime, in the last forty years, elephant numbers in Thailand have almost halved. That, in itself, is a travesty. What’s worse is that those that are left are often ill treated, broken, and abused in order to entertain tourists and the like. Anthropomorphically, they certainly have a reason to cry.

Elephants are complex, social creatures that need space, and variety in their diets and routines, not a concrete box and three shows a day. And that’s where Patara Elephant Camp is different. It is not a visitor center, a circus, or a place to watch elephants play football. It is a safe haven for rescued elephants, run by a Thai family who have taken in these poor creatures and supported their recovery. They are not ‘Conservationists’. (I use the capitalisation and inverted commas deliberately here because there’s conservation and ‘Conservation’ and Patara do not wish to be associated with the media circus surrounding elephants.) Neither are they activists, they are not trying to fight the good fight. They simply see elephants as part of their global family and have chosen to dedicate their lives to enabling these creatures to become happy and healthy through rehabilitation. They also have a reproduction programme that has successfully supported several offspring, with five more due by the end of 2015.

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My day with this elephant family started with a meet and greet by two mothers and their offspring. We were encouraged to stroke and pat them as they consumed sugar cane, cut up for them by their handlers. This wasn’t part of our day but a bonus while we waited for other people to arrive. In spite of our gushing interference, the elephants and their babies continued to eat and drink steadily, barely pausing between trunk-fulls of food.

Soon, we were called together for ‘the talk’ where the philosophy of Patara was presented to us and we started to learn about elephant care and how to make friends with the elephants we were to look after that day. Initially I thought it was a bit late for that lesson, having been let loose on the group earlier, but as the host explained I realised what an amazing job Patara do in rehabilitating these creatures to the extent that strangers can approach them and touch them without cause for concern.

Elephants are wild animals, but, like humans they show their emotions through body language. An angry elephant would have held its ears wide, away from its head, whilst happy elephants, like the ones we met, flap their ears every so often and flick their tails every once in a while. The best way to ensure an elephant stays happy, and becomes your friend, is to feed it.

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Elephants eat all the time. Wouldn’t you if you had to heave tons of body weight around with you for eighteen hours a day? This is the average time an elephant is on its feet. Even when they are meant to be resting they only sleep for forty-five minutes then get up, eat and play before settling down again. Interestingly, elephants lie down to sleep. A test to check that they are healthy is to check that both sides of their body are muddy. If they’re not then something is wrong with the clean side. If they sleep standing up it is because they are scared to lie down because they won’t get up again, so they rest against a tree, and that means something is really wrong.

So I fed my companion for the day, fourteen year old Manoi, and met her two year old, Passar. Manoi was also pregnant with baby number two. Elephants gestate for up to twenty-four months. Through observation, the camp has learnt that babies can arrive any time between nineteen and twenty-four months. They’ve also learnt that if they arrive between nineteen and twenty-two months they’re likely to be female, with the males being a little slower to appear! Manoi was only five months pregnant, poor thing. She still has a long way to go.

Feeding an elephant was a little like putting my hand into a gooey vice. I had to say ‘Bon, Manoi’ to ask her to raise her trunk and open her mouth, then I placed the small banana or sugar cane in as far as I could. Elephants have no front teeth and barely any lips therefore if I withdrew my hand too fast the food would drop from her mouth and I ran the risk of appearing to tease her with it, SOMETHING YOU SHOULD NEVER DO TO AN ELEPHANT, so I ended up having my hand repeatedly clamped in her soft but strong jaw and had to tug to release it! Every time I got my hand back I patted her trunk and said ‘De De Manoi’ which means ‘good girl.’

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Manoi and I made friends quite fast; at least, I think we did. The basket of food disappeared very quickly and if I stood in the wrong place her ears would dust me when she flapped them. Passar preferred to stay with her Dad and pose for photos with other members of the group, only choosing to join us later.

Another test of their health is the state of their dung. In true Gillian McKeith style we inspected the poo of our elephants. Size, consistency, and water retention are all considered. You can tell an elephant’s age by the fibrous structure as older elephants chew less so their poo is more straw like than a youngster’s, and you can also tell if they have drunk enough water by squeezing the dung to see if water comes out. If it’s dry then the elephant hasn’t drunk enough, which is another sign that something’s wrong. Elephants drink gallons as well as eating all the time and as a result they poo and wee almost every hour, if they’re healthy. Believe me when I tell you, ours were VERY healthy!

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A further test of their drinking habits is to check that they are sweating. Gross? Well no, not when you learn that elephant’s sweat glands are in their feet so they only sweat around their toenails. A nice sweat stain around each nail is all you need to look for to check if an elephant is fit and well.

Both Manoi and Passar were quite healthy. In fact, as we learnt the signs, it was increasingly clear that all our elephants were happy and healthy. For a small camp like Patara, who have sixty elephants and approximately 150 acres of land, that is a credit to them as many of the older elephants came to them after less salubrious starts to life.

With the feeding and health checks successfully completed, the next part of the day was the trek, a bit like taking your dog for a walk, only the elephants took us. I have ridden an elephant before, on Koh Samui, where I used a chair on its back and rode bareback on its neck. A seat can cause all sorts of problems for an elephant. I hadn’t known this when I did it and I certainly wouldn’t do it again now I do. The correct, most comfortable, place to ride an elephant is right up against the back of their heads on their necks, with your knees tucked up on the top of their ears and your feet dangling behind them. When I say comfortable, I mean comfortable for the elephant, because I suffered from acute cramp in my hips and knees after a while! It is quite secure though, as long as you trust the elephant and counterbalance yourself as they move so that you don’t fall off. Manoi had a rope around her shoulders to hold onto if I felt worried, and when descending steep slopes on a tall elephant I did feel worried.

Passar is too young to ride. She simply walked with her Mum. Or rather, rushed off into the undergrowth, bulldozed every tree she saw then ricocheted back onto the track on her knees right under her mum’s feet! Apparently, this is ‘play’ and the sign of a happy elephant. I was inclined to call her a liability, like a bulldozer with no driver and no brakes is a liability, and she caused many hair raising moments for us all, whilst also being the most adorable thing I have ever seen!

After about an hour, we came to a waterfall, where our elephants were to have their bath. Elephant’s skin is very thick and hairy, and of course, they get dusty every day, so they must be kept clean on a daily basis, just like us. We all had lunch first, and then it was bath time. Let me tell you that cleaning an elephant is not all about splashing and laughing and having your photo taken. There is an element of that of course, but actually, it’s bloody hard work! While Pon, her handler, used a wicker bowl to splash Manoi as she lay down in the pool I was handed a scrubbing brush and told to scrub. I clambered onto her back and worked over her head, back and shoulders, then slipped into the water as she rose so that I could do her flanks, scrubbing hard for a good fifteen minutes to ensure all her skin was clean. Then I had to keep throwing water at her to rinse her down. I actually bathed an elephant, and it was amazing!

Eventually, we had to return to the camp. I was exhausted, but jubilant. The trek through the forest had been brilliant, the weather overcast but not raining and not too hot, the insects had whined but not bitten and the hills had worn cloud caps that created an otherworldly feel. It was probably one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. Patara do a great job of caring for their elephants and their guests. Their philosophy, that we are one global family and we should treat everyone and everything as such, is born of Buddhism and a lesson we should all remember.

So, why do elephants cry? It is not, as is sometimes suggested by charitable campaigns, because they are sad. In fact, if the tears stop, you should start to worry. An elephant has no tear ducts so continuously weeps to keep the eye healthy. Equal tear stains on an elephant’s face indicate that all is well rather than misery or mistreatment. So next time you see an elephant in Thailand, or anywhere, check the signs: flapping ears and tail, dusty sides, tearstained eyes and sweaty toenails (I’ll let you off inspecting the dung). It sounds disgusting to us but it means nirvana for elephants.

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