The Elephant Diaries, Part 4: Community Cooperation

A wizened, bespectacled man sells bananas by the bushel at a street stall. Across the road, several dozens of people file into a nondescript building. This is where the local government holds town meetings. Today is a special occasion, as the county sheriff has organized a day-long series of meetings, inviting the elephant veterinarians (and the vet student interning with them—yours truly) to preside on this conference. Also in attendance were owners and mahouts representing 30 different elephant camps throughout the province of Chiang Mai.

The meeting agenda was split into different sessions. The morning was dedicated to announcements from the council committee on Chiang Mai’s expectations, standards, and responsibilities bestowed upon its elephant camp owners. The afternoon session was an informative presentation by the elephant vets on EEHV (Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus). The vets educated the mahouts and owners present on what clinical signs to look for, delineated the virus’ pathological progression, and emphasized the importance of early detection of this serious disease.

After a brief tea break, the vets took the stage once more to discuss the newly formed Chiang Mai Elephant Alliance. The objectives of this organizational body were described as combating both “internal” and “external threats.” The former refers to disease and other risks to animal health, whereas the latter refers to animal rights—not to be confused with animal welfare—activist groups who propagate misinformation and tend to particularly defame mahouts.

The final session was conducted by representatives of a tunnel corporation to discuss a recently approved irrigation project. Beginning next week, they would commence an underground bombing protocol to create a tunnel that would connect two neighboring rivers. Doing so would improve water supply to Chiang Mai—a measure that the townspeople deemed necessary and beneficial.

According to the construction company, the tunnel was projected for completion in two to three years. The initial stage involved creating the actual opening. To achieve that, there would be four months of bombing, once a day, with the bombs gradually increasing in strength. All this talk of explosives conjured graphic war images, but I was assured that the bombs would be detonated at a safe depth. There were no risks of crumbling buildings, landslides, or the earth splitting open beneath us. The bomb site would be well-contained and manifest only as an audible boom and vibrations in the ground—seismic signals that elephants have been postulated to detect and communicate with.

While an enhanced irrigation system that will benefit the people is something to be celebrated, one cannot neglect the hundreds of elephants who also happen to reside in that same locale. Fortunately, that’s precisely why the town council summoned this meeting. The committee recruited prominent members of the veterinary community to weigh in on this very issue: the welfare of the elephants.

In camps located near the bombing site, the vets were tasked with monitoring the elephants at the time of explosion. Given the sensitivity of these elephants to seismic waves, the committee was concerned about the animals’ well-being during the course of this long-term irrigation project. Behaviors we had to watch out for included loud trumpeting, slamming of the trunk on the ground, and stampeding—which would endanger the mahouts and their families living on the camp site. Chronic side effects from months of bombing could potentially develop, such as elevated cortisol (stress) levels and the cessation of eating/drinking. Since this project is ongoing, we have yet to see if any serious chronic health issues materialize. From the bomb trials conducted so far, the only responses we witnessed from the elephants were brief pauses followed by the resumption of eating—nothing concerning!

I was touched that the tunnel corporation entrusted the veterinarians with such consideration and responsibility, making sure we were present at each detonation to observe the elephants’ demeanors. Stories like these stand in such contrast to the age-old tale of “Big Business” pursuing commercial developments at the expense of—and lack of regard for—wildlife and the environment. The inclusivity, thoughtfulness, and involvement of multiple parties (e.g. mahouts, camp owners, vets, council members, town residents, construction workers) reflect how the exemplary members of the Chiang Mai community assembled to address the needs of various stakeholders while still supporting elephant welfare.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on July 28, 2017.

Read Part 1 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Read Part 2 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Read Part 3 of The Elephant Diaries here.

The Elephant Diaries, Part 3: Client Conflict

The office phone rings shrilly. An elephant camp two hours away is phoning in for a clinical appointment. The patient: a 1.5 year-old female baby elephant with bouts of diarrhea. While this chief complaint may not seem very urgent for the typical animal, elephant veterinarians treat it as an emergency case. Both the elephant’s young age and clinical sign of diarrhea point to the likelihood of EEHV (Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus).

After loading up our mobile clinic van and driving across precarious terrain, we arrived on site at the elephant camp. We were brought to the sick baby elephant and conducted a physical examination, which produced other findings such as facial edema, depression, and hemorrhagic stool. These signs further affirmed the veterinarian’s diagnostic hunch.

Since elephant calves with EEHV can often die within 48 hours of the disease’s onset, the vet urged the camp owner to bring the elephant to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) to receive critical care. Located in Lampang, TECC is a government-owned hospital that offers free veterinary services to elephants. Given the cultural reverence surrounding the elephant, the Thai government covers these expenses to provide quality medical treatment to the country’s cherished giants.

Surprisingly, the owner and mahout declined. Due to the patient’s young age, the mother would have to be transported along with her baby to the hospital in Lampang. Weaning does not occur until 2.5-3 years of age, and the staff cited the baby’s potential separation anxiety and stress during transportation as reasons against hospital care. Furthermore, they believed the mother may be pregnant and were concerned that transporting her could pose a risk to the fetus. However, the vet remarked that she had not yet started her next ovulation cycle since giving birth to this current baby, making pregnancy unlikely.

Another complication arose from the camp’s “no chain, no hook” policy—tools that, when used appropriately, are actually necessary for training the elephants to position themselves and be compliant for certain medical procedures. For example, the elephants couldn’t respond to a mahout’s command to lift a limb for foot inspection, stay still for an injection, or open their mouths for a dental exam, complicating our ability to deliver basic care. The lack of training would also pose difficulties in getting the baby and mother to willingly walk into the hospital truck destined for Lampang.

While acknowledging these logistical concerns, the vet continued to stress how time-sensitive the patient’s impending treatment was. Despite his insistence on administering anti-viral therapy at TECC, the camp owner again dismissed the option. He said they wanted to wait and monitor the baby longer, promising to call us the next day with any updates.

The camp had only been around for several years and had only experienced one baby elephant death so far. They had also decided to forgo hospital treatment for that patient, and the cause of death—surely enough—was EEHV. I’m not sure how many baby elephants have to become severely ill for the message to truly hit home with the staff. Furthermore, finances are a common and understandable reason why owners may not proceed with certain treatment options for their animals. However, in this situation, the medical bills would be entirely paid for by the government. Additionally, from a business standpoint, the camp risks losing 1 million Thai baht if the baby elephant dies. Although we mentioned these details to the staff, they were still unwilling to seek hospital care.

I began to feel crestfallen, gazing at the baby elephant as the veterinarian and camp staff continued to debate the issue. The escalating clash of viewpoints—though calmly spoken—made me rather anxious as her chances of survival were being heavily discussed behind me. It was heartbreaking knowing that the baby elephant I once saw gleefully slip and slide in the muddy river, munch on sugarcane stalks with reckless abandon, and toot out trumpet noises through her trunk, I may not see again.

While the vet is the ultimate advocate for the animal, we must also respect the owner’s final decision. Before the empty truck headed back for Lampang, the vet gave some multivitamins to the baby that would help stimulate her immune response. He also instructed that she be temporarily separated from visiting tourists, which may help reduce stress levels that would otherwise not aid her recovery from the suspected virus. We thanked the staff for their time and for calling our mobile clinic to examine their baby elephant, then scheduled a follow-up appointment.

Upon our second visit, we were relieved to find that the baby had been situated away from the tourists and actually appeared better—a rare finding given the rapid downfall of most EEHV cases. The results from her second physical exam improved, as she was less depressed, had better appetite, and exhibited increased ambulation and play behavior. The camp staff also expressed a change of heart and started a chain training protocol with the baby to facilitate any medical procedures she may need to undergo in the future.

What began as client conflict eventually crystallized into compromise. I admired the veterinarian’s composure despite the various frustrations. His persistence, client education on EEHV, and alternative remedies—tempered with respect towards the owner’s stance—contributed in turning a challenging client situation into an instance of communication and conflict management skills.

Read Part 1 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Read Part 2 of the Elephant Diaries here.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on July 26, 2017.