THAILAND: WALK WITH GIANTS
Head to northern Thailand for a jumbo-sized treat
Sophie Bergin still shakes her head in disbelief when she looks at her business card: Elephant Camp Manager, Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort. It has to be a job in a million.
We are sitting in the elegant open-air dining area of this luxurious Thailand resort overlooking a branch of the rich brown Mekong River and, in the hazy distance, Myanmar. Below us, 20 rescued elephants graze happily in a clearing fringed by bright green jungle. “From when I was a very small child, it was always my dream to work with elephants,” says Bergin, who hails from Camberwell, Melbourne. “But I always kept it to myself. It was very much a pie-in-the-sky secret [that] seemed so, so impossible. I have always dearly loved animals. I told my mother when I was three I was going to be a vet. When I realised that was not going to happen, I chose biology instead, studying at Deakin University. After graduation I worked in genetics but it was always my goal to volunteer to work with elephants. I figured if I spent a month of my life with them I would have washed that dream right out of my hair, so to speak, and I would return to Melbourne and continue my career. Every day, I spent hours researching for places where I could volunteer.”
Bergin eventually made contact with John Roberts, director of Elephants, Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, and asked if he accepted volunteers. He said he did so she “jumped on a flight”. Bergin says her timing was lucky as “John’s role was evolving and taking him off-site more and more” and after she wrote herself a job description, she told him he should hire her. “And,” she says, laughing, “he did.”
From her office, which doubles as a workshop, Bergin is in charge of all the day-to-day running of the camp, which involves everything from training and managing the health of elephants through to planning their interaction with guests. She also keeps an eye on the mahouts, making sure their daily jobs are done.
Guests enjoy a range of activities at the resort but the most popular programs are Walking with the Giants and the Mahout Experience. The two-hour walk on traditional jungle tracks is even more of a treat at present thanks to the antics of the camp’s much-loved baby, Suki, who joins his mother on the walk. Like all youngsters, he is out for a fun time, splashing about, rolling in mud, slipping down slopes, jumping on a pile of sandbags and digging in the sand pit.
It is as surprising as it is rewarding to stroll behind these jumbos and observe their immense power and intelligence. “When the mother, Boonjan, came to us from Chiang Mai and got off the truck, everyone commented how chubby she was,” Bergin tells me. “The gestation period [for elephants] is up to 23 months so you are never quite sure.” It turned out she was pregnant and on March 3 last year she gave birth to Suki. He was sponsored by Citibank Asia, which organised a naming competition that attracted thousands of entries. The names chosen by five finalists were wrapped around pieces of sugarcane and he selected Genla, which is now his second name.
According to Bergin, Suki’s talent for picking winners was put to the test further during the FIFA World Cup. “We showed him two balls marked with team colours and whichever one he kicked first was the chosen side to win. He did really well until about halfway through the series.”
During the Mahout Experience, guests clamber aboard a fully grown elephant and sit on its huge neck as close as possible behind the ears. My lovely giant is a fe- male called Lanna. The mahout is alongside but it’s easy to convince yourself that rubbing the elephant’s inside ear with your bare toes achieves the right response. Just as I am certain I’m in control, my four-tonne plodder decides it’s time for a bath. With me hanging on to her ears like grim death, Lanna fills her trunk, then playfully blows a fire hydrant’s worth of (happily) warm water directly at me before immersing herself in the rich browncoloured depths of the river.
Most of the 20 elephants at the camp were used in the logging industry, which was banned in 1989. Overnight, about 4000 were no longer needed. Mahouts with an elephant that was, say, 20 years old, faced looking after the animal for another 60 years — and an elephant eats a lot.
“It costs us around $US17,000 a year to feed just one,” Bergin says. “As the elephant was part of the mahout’s family they had to find a way to look after it and increasingly the mahout resorted to begging on the streets of Bangkok. Tourists would buy sugarcane and bananas to give to the elephants or pay to have pictures taken with them. Our charter has been to bring the giants back to where they belong.
“As well as caring for the elephants, we provide everything for the mahouts and their families, including health and life insurance and schooling for the children.
“We actively discourage breeding, and when these elephants are gone our job will be done. Fortunately they live a long time so don’t expect me back in a biology lab any time soon.”
Just as I am convinced I’m in control, my fourtonne plodder decides it’s time for a bath
An elephant and mahout by the river at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, Chiang Rai, above; Sophie Bergin with one of her charges, top right; the resort pool, above right