Leisa Tyler follows the campaign to give Thailand's dwindling elephant population a future.
The Thai jungle meets African safari for dinner at the Anantara Golden Triangle. Perched high above the resort's baby-elephant camp, a pavilion and two-seat dinner table have been embellished with zebra-print chairs, a giraffe-print tablecloth and bunches of foliage strapped to the poles. Cicadas trill and a centipede races across the table while two baby elephants, trunks locked, compete in a tug of war below.
My husband and I watch the antics of the show-off calves before feeding them a bucketful of sugar cane and sitting down to a few
up-country culinary treats of our own served by waiters in safari suits. There is larb moo - minced pork with juicy strips of fatty skin mixed with ground-roasted rice, fresh herbs and a liberal dash of lime and chilli; jungle curry, a feisty sour-and-spicy soup made with freshwater fish and laden with leaves from the forest; and luscious pork sausages that have been wrapped in bamboo before being deep-fried and served with a spirited plaa daek (fermented fish sauce).
While two young elephants might not be your average dinner guests, this meal is about more than just extreme dining situations; the proceeds of our dinner are going to help the very few Thai elephants left in the wild to stay wild.
In 2006 the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the Asian elephant on the verge of extinction. In Thailand, elephant numbers have fallen from about 400,000 at the turn of the 20th century to 5000 today, with only half of these living in the wild. (Vietnam's wild elephant population, in comparison, is about 100.)
Thailand has a strong connection to pachyderms. Revered for their brawn and loyalty, historically they were not only essential for transport and industry such as logging, but signified the king's divine right to rule and the spiritual figure Erawan. A decline in natural habitat and an increase in ivory trading are some of the factors that have led to the animal's demise.
Thailand-based hospitality company Minor International, which owns the Anantara Golden Triangle and nearby Four Seasons Tented Camp, is hoping tourism can be a catalyst for raising awareness of the Asian elephants' fate and for assisting their survival.
Founded in 2001, the annual King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament has been the lynchpin of Minor International's conservation efforts. Held in the seaside resort town of Hua Hin, three hours south of Bangkok, the game is conducted along the same lines as regular polo but with elephants, who run significantly slower than horses and aren't always as willing to do as they are told. Money is raised through corporate sponsorship and a glitzy auction, where everything from hotel accommodation to artwork goes under the hammer.
It's at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort and the Four Seasons Tented Camp, both near the Mekong River town of Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, where visitors can get up close and personal with the elephants.
Spearheaded by British conservationist John Roberts in 2003, the Anantara resort raises funds through a three-day mahout training program. Initially, these funds were used to take sick and distressed elephants and their human handlers off the streets of Thailand's tourist cities, Bangkok and Pattaya, where they are used to collect tips. Elephant begging earns good money; on average mahouts can earn about 5000 baht ($175) a night, slightly less than an unskilled labourer in Thailand makes in a month. But it is a difficult life for a young elephant, which is often taken from the wild in Laos or Myanmar, smuggled into Thailand and made to live in adverse conditions in the city. Street elephants frequently suffer from malnutrition and disease.
In the past 10 years Roberts and his team have rescued and relocated 32 elephants to Anantara's 65-hectare estate. With no more space available, they now concentrate their efforts on protecting wild elephants and assisting in the "human-animal conflicts that often lead to clashes", Roberts says. Among their endeavours are planting trees for elephant habitat, building electric or beehive fencing to keep the elephants away from crops, and educating kids on the status of the wild elephant and the effects of ivory trade.
I have followed Minor International's elephant projects for many years but never experienced the mahout training course, which I quickly discover is far from a leisurely ride in the comfort of a cane basket along sun-dappled forest paths. Instead, guests learn to command the elephants while sitting saddleless behind their floppy ears.
Purlarp is my ride for the day. She is a cheeky three-tonne 26-year-old with a penchant for swimming like a bucking bronco and grazing on fresh bamboo stalks - preferably while she is supposed to be trekking.
We are briefly introduced by her mahout, Chen, at Anantara's elephant camp, a scruffy clutch of thatch and wood buildings at the bottom of a forested gully, before Chen tells me to jump on her prickly big back and hold her ears tight as she lurches her knobby head forward and scrambles to her feet. It's terrifying.
The mahouts spend two very short minutes explaining how to get on and off and turn right and left before we hit the trail. I'm not entirely convinced of their safety procedures with novice riders, even less so when we arrive at a water dam and Purlarp wastes no time in snorting a wrinkly grey trunk full of water into the air before submerging herself. Diving deep into the water she waggles her great head from side to side, occasionally coming up for a gulp of air before diving back down. I am barely able to hold on to her, but fear more getting clubbed by her enormous grey foot if I fall. So I hang on for dear life, gripping her ears tightly, my legs clenched around her neck. Up and down she goes before finally I can't hold on any longer and I get thrown into the murky brown water. Purlarp screeches and snorts more water. Game over.
It's amazing to be on top of the elephants - which is less daunting by the minute - but the next day I can barely walk from clutching so hard the day before. Luckily, I discover that enjoying their company and contributing to their welfare doesn't always mean having to be on top of them.
At the nearby Four Seasons Tented Camp, guests can participate in on-ground activities such as the behavioural research overseen by scientist Joshua Plotnik from Think Elephants International and the University of Cambridge. Plotnik and his team are documenting the cognitive skills of the elephants, which in turn they hope will help to better protect them in the wild.
The program uses games, tasks and rewards to determine how important smell is for elephant cognition. Using a thatched shed at the elephant camp, our experiment involves a table on rollers, a curtain, two buckets in which we randomly place sunflower seeds and an elephant who gets to smell both buckets before having to remember which has the seeds. The elephant can't be tricked and wins the seeds every time.
That night at the Four Seasons Tented Camp I join a group of elephants and their mahouts at the top of a nearby hill for cocktails. The views are unsurpassed, soaring over three countries; to the left a patchwork of small farms scattered over roller-coaster hills is the forbidden Shan state of Myanmar; to the right the giant swath of the Mekong marks the border with northern Laos and its Chinese-owned casinos; behind us the creamy blue outline of Doi Tung mountain marks the far western edge of northern Thailand.
It is estimated that the Asian elephant's habitat has shrunk by 70 per cent in the past 30 years. Looking out over these three nations, it's not hard to imagine a time when they roamed here freely.
"Of course it would be lovely if all elephants lived in the wild," Roberts says. "But the truth is there is no wild left. Where are you going to put them?"
The writer stayed as a guest of the Four Seasons Tented Camp and Anantara Golden Triangle.
Thai Airways has a fare to Chiang Rai for about $1060 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Bangkok (about 9 hours) and then to Chiang Rai (1hr 20min); see thaiairways.com. Chiang Saen is a 1½-hour drive from Chiang Rai airport.
With views over Burma, Laos and the Mekong, the Anantara Golden Triangle is an incredible location for a resort. There is a spa, a cooking school and 77 rooms. The resort is comfortable but in need of renovation. Double rooms cost from 41,195 baht ($1455), including taxes, transfers from Chiang Rai and mahout training. See goldentriangle.anantara.com.
The Four Seasons Tented Camp has 15 canvas tents, each with hand-beaten copper bath tubs, outdoor showers and decks overlooking a bamboo grove. The service is excellent and the food is a highlight. Bring strong mosquito repellent. Minimum two-night stays are from 183,675 baht twin share, including a half-day mahout training program and a massage each. Participating in the research project costs an extra 11,000 baht for two people. See fourseasons.com.