I’ve played tug-of-war with a cow elephant – when she tried stealing a fruit basket meant for her baby. The baby in question untied my shoe-laces daily while her playmate rummaged through my pockets, trying to hijack my keys.
Elephants are irresistible. Yet they are more dangerous than tigers.
I should know. As a wildlife volunteer, I’ve cared for more than 30 abused tuskers and over half a hundred striped big cats.
Elephants – including the smaller Asian species, which man has domesticated for over 5,000 years – kill over 500 people a year, versus the tiger’s less than a handful.
Death-by-elephant is horrible. Elephants usually clobber you with their trunks to knock you down. The bulls kneel on you and spear you with their tusks. The cow elephants, who do not have tusks, grab you with their trunks and trample you underfoot or toss you about like a toy and bash you to pulp.
Still, the privilege of interacting with tuskers – both wild and domestic – is for me, worth the huge risk.
This despite the fact that elephant communication is much more complicated than the panthera and the canid families I’m most familiar with.
Although elephants rumble and trumpet, for the most part, they communicate with one another in very low frequency infrasonic sounds that carry a long way –over 80 kilometers – but are impossible for humans to hear.
Tuskers constantly rumble between 15-30 Hertz whereas humans can only hear at 20Hz and 20,000Hz. They recognize up to 100 other individuals via their distinct infrasonic ‘voice’ which they pick up on the ground through their trunks and their feet.
Oddly, captive elephants can mimic human sounds just to be “social” with their keepers, not necessarily to communicate. Koshik, a young tusker in South Korea’s Everland Zoo, can speak recognizable Korean by putting his trunk in his mouth.
Koshik imitates the pitch and timbre of his trainers – the only companions he has known, though experts can’t ascertain whether he understands the words he’s uttering or whether he can enlarge his vocabulary which includes: “annyong” (hello), “anja” (sit down), “aniya” (no), “nuo” (lie down) and “choah” (good).
Aside from dogs, elephants are the only ones who instinctively understand what a human means when he points to an object. Even chimps struggle to understand that something being pointed at is supposed to be of interest.
Tuskers have huge brains triple that of ours, 12 pounds versus our 4 lbs. But to be obeyed by an animal that towers 13 foot tall and weighs as much as 15,000 pounds, “mahouts” (elephant handlers) instill fear in their charges very early in life.
Babies born to captive elephants undergo ritualized torture. They are immobilized in a bamboo cage called the “crush”, beaten and gouged with nails for a week to break their spirit.
Half of all baby elephants die from the procedure each year. Some commit suicide to escape the ordeal by stepping on their trunks and holding their breath. The ones who survive develop a hatred for people and become killers.
Punishment continues past adulthood. “Mahouts” control elephants with brutal devices such as the bull hook, a short stick with a metal hook at the tip to wound their 107 most sensitive points. Injury to these nerve centers maim, blind or kill the animal.
“Mahouts” also use long poles tipped with heavy metal balls and four-inch knives along with a short blunt stick for administering blows.
Needless to say, when I volunteered in Thailand, I cared for rescues – all dangerous. Many have killed people before.
They were taken from logging camps where they were used to haul timber. Others were cast off from circuses and the tourist trade after they ferried people on wooden seats strapped to their backs or performed tricks to amuse foreigners. The rest were ex-beggars.
They were beaten, maimed, blinded, shot, starved and run over by trucks. Their size and strength brought out the utmost cruelty in men who tried to control them. They have every reason to hate people.
Hence, volunteer caretakers like me followed strict protocols for interacting with these powerful, intelligent but unpredictable behemoths. It was vital because everything I did with them was direct physical contact, without protective barriers.
I took my charges to their foraging grounds in the forest every day. I bathed them twice daily, scrubbed them, fed them, treated their sores and gashes. They can skewer me with their tusks or trample me to death anytime if I make a single mistake.
The most basic rule was never turn your back on the elephant. It was the same protocol I followed when handling tigers. Both are opportunists who attack from behind.
The “mahout” warned me never to crouch before the tuskers or make myself vulnerable in any way. Needless to say, you don’t harass or tease them. They never forget and they’ll get even with you, no matter how long it takes.
Don’t pet the bulls in season (in “musth”) and the aggressive cows. Don’t sit on the feeding platforms or place yourself within striking distance of their trunks.
Be 100 per cent alert when they are around. Announce your presence when you approach them and make sure they always know where you are. They spook easily and a startled elephant can turn on you in the blink of an eye and kill you.
When bathing them, don’t venture between the legs when they lie down. You’re wedging yourself in a trap should the elephant decide to get up. He can suddenly stomp on you.
Be careful where you scrub, too. The spine is very sensitive. Keep your hands off his tusks even though he looks friendly. That’s taking a liberty guaranteed to piss him off. He can gore you instantly.
Scrub around his back and leave the belly to his “mahout”. Be mindful where you go if you are not a strong swimmer because the river where I bathe them twice a day, runs fast and deep – and elephants love to go where it’s deepest. They swim very well and use their trunks as snorkels.
Somehow, I don’t know why they accepted me, even the killers among them. I don’t know if they saw something in me that I never saw in myself. I love animals. That must be obvious. Perhaps I resembled people they liked. Or I was just lucky.