Recently, The Bangkok Post and The Washington Post had press coverage regarding the death of eleven elephants at Khao Yai National Park which has been the subject of other elephant-related articles by The Elephant Story. As meditation is a central concept in the practice of Buddhism, the mindfulness following meditation is often contrasted with the mindlessness of baby elephants. The attention span of baby elephants up to age three is measured in micro-seconds. Moreover, they have not developed the dexterity and strength to accommodate their awkward size. One news account stated that adult elephants trying to save a baby elephant trapped in cliffs in a waterfall in the Khao Yai National park ended with the deaths of eleven elephants. Some of them are shown below in the image at the base of the waterfall.
The death caused considerable response in that the containment and recovery of the bodies was required to control any contamination of the reservoirs downstream which are a source of water to other villages and communities. The park set up large nets to catch the carcasses before they drifted to a canal that empties into the reservoir at Khun Dan Prakan Chon dam in Nakhon Nayok. It turns out that eight elephants suffered a similar fate in 1992 when they plunged from the top of the Haew Narok Waterfall (the ravine of hell) in this tourist destination and World Heritage site.
The standard explanation is hungry elephants trek to the spot in search of food in spite of the high risk. The compassionate instinct of the mothers and aunties of young elephants is that they do anything possible to recover the mindless youngsters who stray and get themselves into trouble, thereby often sacrificing their own lives. Following the incident in 1992, concrete barriers were established to prevent the elephants from taking the trail to a more desirable food source.
Anyone who has been around baby elephants knows the mindlessness of babies as well as the preference of elephants for certain delicacies in the rain forest that are only appreciated by them. Therefore, that explanation might suffice as the reason for this tragic experience but elephant conservationist, Khun Khemthong Morat, has a different view. His premise is that the park management has built restaurants and other buildings which blocked the elephant’s safe trail through the elephant habitat. Khun Khemthong, shown below in the middle, began a hunger strike on October 11 demanding that the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation meet with him to find a solution to the problem. He ended his hunger strike after eleven days taking only liquids for a portion of the period.
Khun Khemthong (tart taste of gold in English) is desperately hoping that his hunger strike will impact the conscience of Thai policymakers so that they take care of the country’s elephants. He said that he had been told that the hungry elephants had trekked to the spot in search of food. The adult elephants knew how to maneuver through the treacherous terrain while the young walked without care. Once one of the young calves lost their footing and fell into a crevasse, the maternal and compassionate older elephants would try to rescue it causing their own demise.
To close out this chapter of the elephant experience in Khao Yai National Park, Khun Khemthong, with his tart comments, proposed that the elephant deaths were not an accident but were something that could have been prevented. So, where do we go with this observation? The basic conflict is to offer people the opportunity to interact with elephants while providing some measure of economic support and at the same time afford them the privacy to live like they did in the wild in a world that offers very little wild.