Written on Sunday 23rd June
See Puak and Duanphen are wonderful elephants, and two of the three that I have had the most experience with since arriving at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s Elephant Rescue and Education Centre. Both females, they are housed in a huge paddock with a big lake, a gazebo shelter and bushy scrub opposite Khan Kluey and Somboon’s enclosure.
See Puak is known as an especially ‘attractive’ elephant (although they are all beautiful to me!) and has been used in the film industry as an animal star. She is extremely food-driven – volunteers should not enter the girls’ enclosure without a mahout present because See Puak does have a habit of charging at people, especially if she thinks they have food on their person. I have been with her on walks a few times now and she does get rather pushy if she spots you holding corn or any tasty fruit. I can see how she would easily sneak up on you if you aren’t careful. I don’t know what would happen if she got too close, but I don’t want to find out.
Duanphen is also a bit of a tricky lady – she has been known to kick volunteers, including in the face when they are bending down to pick up compost from the ground. I am very careful around her. As much as I love the elephants and would like to bond with them more, I don’t trust them. You can’t trust them. Unless you are working with them for months on end, I don’t believe you can get to know absolutely everything about their personalities. I think some volunteers do relax too much around them – I suppose my zoo days have taught me that as much as you adore and respect the animals in your care, you can never get ahead of yourself and believe that you can predict all of their behaviour.
Duanphen is in her 50’s and came to the Centre last year after being a working street elephant. The veterinary team weren’t sure if she would survive much longer in captivity – she was skinny, malnourished and weak. Now she is in much better shape but does require additional supplements throughout the day in the form of ‘banana balls’ (a mixture of banana, calcium powder and elephant pellets that provide extra nutrition and help with weight gain). See Puak would eat these if she could, so she must be distracted with corn or some other food so that Duanphen can receive her extra feed. In my first week I made the mistake of heading straight for Duanphen with a bowl of banana balls before See Puak was distracted – she saw me and walked very swiftly in front of Duanphen to prevent her from getting any. It took me a couple of days to get into the rhythm of how to properly distract See Puak, and now she follows me when I call (as long as I’m holding something she’s interested in eating).
Duanphen also receives additional veterinary treatment – abscesses are common in elephants, and Duanphen has a particularly nasty one on her left cheek. At the time I started my work at WFFT Duanphen was having her abscess treated once every second day. It is improving, however, and now only requires attention every week or so.
Duanphen and See Puak must be fed in two separate areas. Although See Puak is younger than Duanphen, she is very dominant. If Duanphen gets fed a morsel of food before See Puak, See Puak will swiftly wander over and shove Duanphen out of the way. She often lifts her trunk over Duanphen’s body – this is a performance of dominance.
Both girls get walked together, and lately we have been leaving them out in the paddocks around their exhibits to forage at their will. Usually with walks a mahout and a few volunteers will take an elephant out to a specific destination, wait for them to forage for a while and then bring them back. An advantage of letting See Puak and Duanphen out into nearby paddocks to roam as they like is that we can continue working with them in sight, and they can trundle along at their own pace. I use the opportunity of their enclosure being empty to take the time to hide enrichment around it – enrichment can be difficult when the girls are in their habitat because you can’t get past them (especially See Puak) without the elephants seeing you and following you to ruin the surprise. Today we stuffed thin tyres with all sorts of fruit, hung them from trees and hid them in the scrub. They still hadn’t found them two hours after we put them in there – which is great. The girls usually spend most of their time during the day up near the fence where they know they will get fed, but I have been up to their enclosure in the darkness and they are always out the back exploring. I’ve put a quick video below of Duanphen getting into a sack full of hay and fruit – we tie them so tight that they end up having to rip open the sacks in whatever way necessary. Very cute!
After a walk, elephants are showered right away. Elephants with a lake will be encouraged to use it – we throw buckets of chopped fruit and corn into different areas of the water and wait as the elephants go swimming for it. Duanphen historically hasn’t made much use of her lake, but lately has been spending a fair amount of time in it. See Puak has no problem going for a dip – I love watching them swim around. If they don’t use their lake then we will get the big hose out and give them a good scrub. Naturally, the elephants take mud baths and cover themselves with dirt or sand for the day – this helps protect them from the sun. In the wild elephants will bathe where they can. The elephants at the sanctuary, of course, have not lived as wild elephants for years, so they need to be encouraged.
We shower them at least twice a day for two reasons: 1) to cool them down and 2) scrub all the mud away from their skin. The mud and dirt can harbour parasites – because the elephants don’t tend to bathe themselves here, it is up to us to make sure we do it for them and thus reduce the chance of parasites etc. It also means the elephants will then go and give themselves more mud or dust showers – they love it, and it gives them the opportunity to express natural behaviour.
I really do enjoy working with these two, and quite wish I was here longer to get to know them even more.