She had me at the first wave of her trunk. Khuan knew from experience that she was about to meet her new handler for the day -- and, more important, get to snack on some tasty bananas, sugar cane chunks and tamarind balls dusted with salt. And, it seemed, she really didn't want to wait.
I didn't blame her one bit. Khuan (pronounced Kwahn) was pregnant. Really pregnant. After more than two years of toting around a bull calf, she was allowed a little impatience. Our eyes locked and she wagged her trunk at me again, her mouth parting slightly to expose a giant, glistening, pink tongue.
"I know, Khuan, I know. Just a few more minutes," I said to myself, and her massive headed bobbed up and down, as if she'd somehow read my thoughts and was in full agreement. Although I'd met Khuan a mere five minutes ago, I was already smitten. I just had to be paired with her. But that wasn't up to me.
Here at Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the staff begin sizing up participants in the Elephant Owner for a Day program the minute they arrive, trying to determine who is the best match for each elephant. Since there were 11 other visitors that day, I had a 1-in-12 shot at getting Khuan.
Teerapat (Pat) Trungpakan, owner of Patara along with his wife, Dao, began calling people over to one of the waiting elephants. Now there were just two of us left, and two elephants, Do-Do and Khuan. Then Trungpakan said: "Melanie, can I please have you take care of this 19-year-old elephant? Her name is Khuan, and here is her mahout, Nakum."
I rushed to face Khuan, stopping a few feet back so she could get a good look at me, as instructed. Grabbing a small bunch of bananas from my wooden basket, I held them high and said, "Da?," a sound which roughly means "Food?" in Thai. Khuan nodded her massive head, ears flapping and tail gently swaying, and opened her mouth. "Hie," I said, indicating she should keep her mouth open as I began shoveling the bananas, tamarind balls and sugar cane onto her wet tongue. She quickly swept the entire lot into her mouth.
"Dee dee, Khuan," I said when the basket was empty, indicating she'd been a good girl. Patting her trunk, I stepped back to see what came next.
Elephants in Thailand
Thailanders domesticated elephants 800 years ago, using them initially as transportation for people and goods, Trungpakan told our group when we first assembled. The pachyderms were also used in battle. For the past 400 years, Thais mainly used them to log forests.
Unfortunately, that meant the giant beasts were forced to decimate their own natural habitat. After centuries of logging, 80 percent of Thailand's forests are gone, and the elephant population has shrunk from roughly 6,000 domestic and 10,000 wild animals 40 years ago to just 3,000 domestic and 1,600 wild today, Trungpakan said.
Eventually, the Thais halted their wanton forest destruction, then began reforestation efforts. Today, Thais have restored 10 percent of their country's ruined forest and are on track to make that 20 percent during the next 15 years, Trungpaken told us. And the elephants?
The Thais also created an elephant reintroduction program, but in Trungpakan's view, that's not the answer, at least not yet. "You can't just suddenly put domestic elephants into the wild," he said. "Their survival rates are too low. Plus there's not enough forest land and food yet. And poachers kill them for their ivory or to steal their babies to put into a circus or zoo."
The solution, said Trungpakan, is elephant conservation and rebreeding, which is what Patara Elephant Farm is all about. "I adopt elephants people don't want anymore -- healthy ones with the potential to live 80 years and produce a baby. Then we focus on mating here, not artificial insemination, because that doesn't work; spiritually, something is missing." Trungpakan might be on to something. Patara, Thailand's only elephant breeding farm, has 24 elephants. During my trip, an impressive four were pregnant.
To further its mission, Patara encourages guests to visit and learn about its magnificent creatures while helping care for them. Or, to put it another way, "You pay to come here and do all our work so we don't have to," Trungpakan said with a smile. That was more than fine with me, as well as my fellow visitors, who came from the United States, Canada, Austria, France, Germany, Puerto Rico and Singapore. We quickly climbed into our mahout, or elephant keeper, clothing -- simple, roughly woven tunics and pants -- and got ready to get down and dirty with the elephants.
Elephant Care 101
The basics of daily elephant care aren't that difficult. First, look for signs of a happy, friendly animal: flapping ears, a swishing tail and a willingness to "talk" to you. "If you talk to your elephant and it doesn't reply, that's not a good sign," said Trungpakan, adding with a grin, "It's the same thing with my wife."
Next, inspect their teeth as you feed them, and check for dirt on their sides, which indicates they slept on the ground the previous night. Sick elephants sleep standing up. Sweating is another indication of a healthy beast. Interestingly, elephants only sweat at their toenails, so you must check to see that the skin above their nails is damp. Last comes the poop inspection. "Lots of poop means they're eating," Trungpakan told his novice workforce. "Six poops at a time is the minimum acceptable quantity, so count them."
We dutifully began counting the large lumps around our elephants' behinds. To my dismay, Trungpakan then picked one up. With his bare hands. "Now you have to squeeze one to check that some water comes out, then smell it. If it smells really bad, something is stuck in their system." Next, he began flicking at the lump with his fingers, causing dried bits to float toward the ground. "Now check what's inside. If you find a whole leaf, that means the elephant has bad teeth, and an elephant with bad teeth won't live long."
As much as I'd bonded with Khuan, I didn't really want to smell, squeeze and flick her poop. Turning toward her turds with a sigh, I saw Nakum performing the poop inspection for me. Next came a brushing and a bath in the river. Although elephant skin feels thick and impenetrable, skin infections can occur if people climb onto a dirty animal and grind the debris into its skin as they ride. And elephant skin infections are notoriously difficult to cure. They can even kill.
Now came the fun part of the day: riding our elephants to a nearby waterfall for a picnic lunch. You can have an elephant lie down and scramble onto its body, but I chose to climb up via Khuan's lowered trunk -- and did so before I had a chance to be nervous. After quickly scrambling up, I turned to face forward and settled on her neck. Steering was a matter of kicking behind my ride's ears and uttering various Thai commands I'd phonetically scribbled on my arms before mounting.
While visitors enjoy this part of the itinerary, it provides elephants with daily exercise, plus a treat: The waterfall is one of their favorite places to drink and relax.
Our group stretched out along a small highway, methodically plodding along as cicadas whined in the midday heat. The view from Khuan's back was magnificent, and I felt like a queen.
Once at the waterfall, we dismounted to a bountiful picnic lunch that included sticky rice with chicken, rice with egg custard and steamed sticky rice with bananas, all wrapped in banana leaves. As we ate, the elephants slipped into the water to play. When we'd finished eating, we were invited to swim with them.
Back at the farm, our elephants rested a bit before one final ride through the countryside. We were encouraged to try sitting atop their heads this time, with our legs dangling over their faces. It was unnerving to ride without the relative security of being tucked behind Khuan's neck, but I remembered Trungpakan saying how surefooted the animals are. And I trusted Khuan.
Before departing, I had to find out why I'd been paired with Khuan. Perhaps Trungpakan sensed a mutual affection. Or maybe I exuded a calm, nurturing air perfect for a past-her-due-date pregnant elephant.
"We thought we had one extra participant coming today, and we'd have to double you up with another person -- and Khuan is the only elephant that can handle two riders," Trungpakan said matter-of-factly. For a moment I felt dejected. But Khuan and I had a great day together, and I'd felt a bond, of that I was sure. And that's all that mattered.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer living in Sun Prairie, Wis.