Currently at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand there are two different elephant areas – one is near the communal volunteer lunch area and has two enclosures; one for Boonmee, one for Nam Chok.
I have been spending most of my days “up top” at the second elephant area. This area has several enclosures and houses the other five elephants currently at WFFT. Pai Lin is on her own, then there is See Puak and Duanphen together, and finally Somboon and the only bull elephant Khan Kluey are kept in the same habitat.
Khan Kluey is an eight-year-old male elephant who has been here for four years. He went through the Phajaan at only a year old, which is relatively young considering elephants are usually three to six years old when they are forced into ‘domestication’. Khan Kluey was used as a dancing elephant in Cha Am where his mahout forced him to beg for food by swaying his entire body, including his trunk, from one side to the other. Sadly, he still expresses this behaviour four years later, and has even taught some of the other elephants to ‘dance’ for food – they watch him and mimic his behaviour. Usually, in training, you would not reward an undesired behaviour – but Khan Kluey will almost always start swaying as soon as we begin preparing a meal for him. Of course he will always get fed, thus his ‘dancing’ his constantly rewarded.
Khan Kluey has been somewhat adopted by the older female, Somboon, he is housed with. Somboon used to be a very personable elephant, but since being paired with Khan Kluey has developed strong mothering instincts and has become less and less a ‘people’ elephant. Khan Kluey is developing quickly, and not even mahouts will get anywhere near him or Somboon. He is not yet sexually mature – male elephants enter musth (a period of increased testosterone levels) at about 14 years of age. In captivity, sexually mature male elephants are extremely unpredictable, strong and dangerous – during musth they are even more aggressive. Even now at only eight years of age Khan Kluey will test the electric fences, pick up large rocks from his exhibit and throw them at volunteers if they stand too close to the barrier, I have seen him attempt to grab a mahout by the legs with his trunk, and his main enclosure is bare in the way of trees and vegetation due to his destructive nature. He would probably be the only elephant at WFFT suitable to be released into the wild due to his lack of dependence on humans, but no national park or the like will take him.
We are limited in the enrichments we can give Khan Kluey; he will eat sacks (which is dangerous to his health), will throw tires and other objects at volunteers or the fence to try and destroy it, or completely annihilate almost anything you try to give him. Khan Kluey and Somboon have a second enclosure they get moved into once a day so that their main habitat can be cleaned and enrichments hidden around. Their second enclosure is full of tall trees and bushy scrub, and has two tall poles that spurt water to act as a shower. In this enclosure Khan Kluey and Somboon can explore, forage, and enjoy playing in the water. At least this is something we can work with on a daily basis – trees provide places to stab, hide and smear fruit. Some of the elephants receive whole banana trees – unfortunately Khan Kluey and Somboon’s trees have to be cut into pieces due to the fact that Khan Kluey would probably use it to cause property (or person!) damage.
Another thing carers have found is that Khan Kluey loves to chase things – so we use this to our advantage. We recently decorated his exhibit with balloons – he had a great time going around trying to pop them all. I have added some photos in a previous post and will upload a video we took a couple of weeks ago when I can.
As Khan Kluey is still growing, he gets a supplement in the form of ‘banana balls’ – a mixture of pellets formulated for elephant weight gain and nutrition, calcium supplement powder and squishy bananas to help keep everything together. Twice a day we mix all the ingredients together, form them into balls and roll them under Khan Kluey’s fence. He will also eat scattered pellets if we hide them around his enclosures. Somboon would eat them if she could, too, but as she doesn’t need them we feed her whole fruit while Khan Kluey enjoys his banana balls.
The elephants get showered or bathed at least twice a day. Because nobody can have hands-on contact with Khan Kluey and Somboon, we make use of their enormous muddy lake; we chop up a basket of fruit, and throw the food into different areas of the lake to encourage swimming. Khan Kluey is adorable in the water – he will fully submerge himself, spin around in the water and use his trunk like a snorkel. Somboon is not as confident in the water, but lately has been staying in the lake for quite some time – it’s really nice to see.
Edwin, the WFFT founder, is currently fundraising to buy land and construct a huge, very secure habitat for Khan Kluey. I really don’t think the fences will hold him for long at the rate he’s testing them already. This week Khan Kluey managed to pull a live wire into their exhibit that had been attached to a post metres away from the barrier. We don’t know how he did it. And only two nights ago he absolutely smashed their giant concrete water container – we came to feed them at 6:30 yesterday morning and found it in little pieces.
I respect Khan Kluey’s strength and determination. He somewhat reminds me of Janie – an old, solitary chimpanzee at the Auckland Zoo that I looked after – mischievous, scheming, dangerous and perhaps even bitter at humankind. It isn’t natural for elephants to want to ‘be friends’ with humans, but he goes to such an effort to pose a danger it makes me feel so sad for him. I hope WFFT are quickly able to fulfil their goal to create a new enclosure for him with almost indestructible barriers so that he has a larger area to roam with trees and scrub in which he can forage, and hopefully he will be happier than he currently is. Lately he and Somboon seem to be getting into little arguments more frequently over food – some of the mahouts and elephant volunteers went on a huge harvest today, so hopefully there will be more than plenty of banana leaves to keep them occupied for the next few days.
If you are interested in seeing more about WFFT’s fundraising, upcoming projects or Thialand wildlife news in general check out our site at www.wfft.org