Last month, I had the joy of travelling to the magical & captivating country of Nepal.
This was my fourth trip there and I make no secret of the fact that Nepal holds a very sacred place in my heart. Im not sure exactly, what it is about Nepal…. The people are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The landscape is breath taking, the food is mind blowing, the language is almost musical. The way of life is tough, but easy at the same time. Family is everywhere and everyone has a smile – every time I go back, I feel like I am going home, not away….
The reason for my most recent trip, was to intern with Carol Buckley and her organisation, Elephant Aid International, helping to care for the captive elephants in a province called Sauhara, where there are 120 elephants, both owned by the government and privately. We were there to specifically work on the elephant’s feet. Carol has been travelling to this area for seven years now, building relationships and gaining respect. The people in Sauraha are clearly very fond of their ‘Sister’ – you feel like you are with a celebrity when you are walking beside Carol! Everyone has a hug or a hand shake for her!
Our days started at around 9am each day. We would work on three elephants, break for lunch, travel to a different location and then work on three or more elephants there. The health of most of the elephant’s feet we saw, was disturbing. Urine burn, thinning pads, overgrown nails, deep splits in the nails, bacteria growth – the issues were endless. It was fascinating listening to Carol diagnose the condition of the elephant’s overall health and the way he/she was managed, by simply examining the feet.
This was not my first time working beside Carol, but during this particular trip, I feel like I learned more than ever from her. The one thing that always blows me away about Carol, is how generous she is with her knowledge, experience and deep understanding of elephants.
Working on the elephant’s feet was invigorating. The mahouts, who are all comfortable with Carol and can communicate with her in a mixture of broken Nepali and English, were always eager to get hands on and so often, we would step back and watch, as the mahouts mastered the skills of foot care. Watching them correct and direct each other was fantastic and to see the absolute pride Carol had beaming out of her as she ran around supervising and guiding them, bought tears to my eyes. One of my mantras for life is, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ and that is what I was seeing – a change, a positive movement, to improve the wellbeing of captive elephants.
One of the highlights during my time in Sauhara, was spending time with my dear friend Lean Quenard and learning how she is also creating change. Lena is a whirlwind of a woman and someone I admire very much. I love how she affectionately calls the elephant in her care, Lucky Kali, her, ‘Goddess’ and I really enjoyed our sunrise walks, through the morning mist, watching Lucky Kali throw dust all over herself, for hours on end. Lucky Kali is the first, privately owned elephant to be retired in Nepal. Typically, once elephants get too old to carry tourist around on their backs, they are sold to India and used as temple elephants, which is one of the worst fates possible.
While we were there, we were lucky to meet little Samrat Gaj, a young bull, who is currently being supported by another woman, which means for now, he gets to spend most of his time enjoying freedom with Luck Kali. The two of them are the best of friends and it is my greatest hope that they can stay together, forever…
Hopefully, with Lucky Kali and now other elephants in Sauhara, proving positive change is possible, showing an ethical alternative and leading the way to sustainability, more and more of the privately owned elephants will want to follow suit.
You can support Lena and find out more about her organisation, Assosiation Moey here – http://association-moey.org/site/lucky-kali/
Another huge high point of my trip, was visiting my good friends at Tiger Tops! I can not say enough good things about this place. The hospitality is faultless. I was excited to get back to Tiger Tops and see the elephants there and it was no surprise that they all looked extremely healthy and happy. Tiger Tops has been pioneering the way for ethical elephant management in Nepal for years. They were the first facility to stop using elephants for safaris and they were also the first facility to allow their elephants to go chain free. These changes have been groundbreaking and now more facilities are following the example set by Tiger Tops. A visit here is an absolute must. Thanks to the tireless conservation projects led by the Tiger Top’s staff, Chitwan National Park now homes 68 mammal species and boasts over 543 bird species. These can be seen and heard when you venture out with one of the naturalists, (Mr Bhim is my favourite!). On our nature walk, we watched not one, but two male rhinos, go about their business! It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I didnt dare breath – it was beyond thrilling, watching the rhino, graze, snort, lie down – doing what rhinos do!!
I think the biggest treat for me during this trip, was seeing Mal Kali again. I first met Mal Kali three years ago. Her story is one of hope and it still touches me beyond my being. Mal Kali is an elderly elephant. Some say she is 70, some say she is 80… But everyone agrees she is special. About four years ago Mal Kali collapsed. She was working as a patrol elephant for the government at the time. Carol worked with the mahouts and veterinarians there to help save Mal Kali’s life. Once Mal Kali regained her strength, it was decided that Mal Kali would be retired and she was released in to Chitwan National Park.
Nobody expected to see Mal Kali again, but still, to this day, she has established the ideal routine for herself. At around 4.30pm everyday, after spending her entire day roaming through the jungle, she will appear and then slowly walk towards the government facility. The mahouts there all know she is coming and they prepare cooked rice, with masalas and salt and have it ready and waiting for her each evening. After she has slurped up the entire contents of the pot, she wanders to her chain free enclosure and feasts on her kuchis (elephant sandwiches). She spends her nights, close to her old human and elephant friends, knowing she is safe with them. At sunrise, the mahouts open her gate and she walks away, with her head high, ready to start another day, roaming through the Chitwan jungle. Nobody knows what she gets up to out there and I think that is just fabulous!
The first time I met Mal Kali, I was going through a tough time. I was questioning my existence and wondering if I was cut out for the animal welfare world. Watching her walk, as free as an elephant should be, towards the people who care for her and watching them dote on her every need, reduced me to tears and at the same time reignited that flame within me. I now have her photograph on my bedroom wall and she is the first thing I see when I open my eyes each morning. It warms my soul, knowing there are captive elephants in our world, living as if they were wild. Knowing there are humane humans, dedicated to their wellbeing and I am proud to call them my friends.
So now, here I am holding on to Mal Kali’s strength and elegance, and allowing it to lead me through my next rescue mission, here in Thailand – the retirement of Pang Fai.
Pang Fai is an elderly elephant, who for the past 32 years has lived in our village of Baan Na Ton Chan. She has spent her entire life working in the timber trade and performing in processions and now, her owner, is ready to let her go. He recognises that he can no longer take care of her, as he himself, is also getting on in age and the hard, physical demands of providing for an elephant, is now proving to be too much for him.
We are trying to raise 12000 GBP or 16700 USD, to secure her retirement. By donating to our fundraiser, you are helping to give this lovely old lady back her life. She will be free to explore our forests, eat whatever she likes. She will be able to freely interact with other elephants and she will never have to day another day’s work. Isnt this something worth contributing to?
Please help us, help Pang Fai – https://www.gofundme.com/pang-fai-retirement
Trunks of love and thanks for your compassion and support xx
‘Dhanybhad’ to my Nepali friends