So on the first elephant hike, we were eased in lightly with a hike that only lasted around an hour, and were allowed to get up close to the elephants and feed them bananas. This helped us get a good look at the group and learn the differences between the four elephants, Tong Dee – oldest and wisest of the herd, Boon Jan – the more independent and introvert of the group, Mana – the hairy one and mother of the last member of the group, Bee Mai – the five year old who just wants to play. This is done every two weeks when there is a new intake of volunteers. As it is a low contact project it is a nice time to get up close to the elephants and get your pictures taken with them before they are left to roam the dense forest on the mountains.
As they are left to roam at their own will most the time by their mahouts, by Thursday they had travel quite a distance. This meant a rather challenging but beautiful hike up and down mountains before reaching a river after two and a half hours. This is where we had stopped, as the elephants where still quite a distance (over another mountain in fact) so the decision was made to stop and to have a rest and have lunch before heading back. When there were long days like this (elephants or no elephants) we made the most of being in the forest and having mahouts. The mahouts would start a fire and make some lunch making food holders from bamboo which was around us, and shooting birds, using sling , shots they had made to hunt squirrels, or damning part of a river, and using some bashed bark, to lure and catch some fish. We also had some elephant chats in the forest and made bamboo cups and mahouts made us some bamboo tea with little effort.
When we did find the elephants we would take down the note of the proximity between the four elephants, and the occurrences of touch between the group to monitor the social interactions between the group to see how they are acting as a herd, as well as interns looking and logging the foods that they are eating, and potentially at the medicinal purposes, ax elephants have the knowledge to self medicate. We would also learn about foods that are ok for humans to eat from the mahouts, who where just as knowledgeable as the elephants when it came to the forest. On a good day you could just sit back for two hours and watch them forage, drink, and socialize in the forest like elephants where born to do. It was fascinating t o see how they reacted to a different elephant if another villager had let their elephant into the forest, and how they made going up and down those steep gradients through dense forest look so easy and elegant (unlike the rest of us!).
Whilst out on these hikes we look out for biodiversity which includes snakes such as the green tree racer, many butterflies, frogs, many an interesting insect like sicadas and plant hoppers, and of course, when it was wet, leeches! We had a diary to enter this into to keep track of the biodiversity of the forest which is a great indicator of the state of the forest as the more insects and animals, the more plants and food should be in the forest to help sustain the animals, and the more animals in the forest, the more chance of plants being pollinated and help keep the forest growing. Even though you may not see them you also here all sorts of bird calls, and the amazing call of the gibbon which is echoed through the mountains which is just breath taking. It was always great fun when you would get back to base with your photos and look them up in a book and be able to identify what you saw.