Michael's Dispatches

The Jungle Twins

01 January 2011

A Mother’s Watchful Eye

In October 2010, a rare set of elephant twins was born in Thailand, leading to vibrant media interest.· The birth was a happy surprise partly because it had been the second set of twins born in Thailand in 2010.· Many Thais consider this auspicious, and two sets of twins in one year was very welcome news in the Kingdom.· Stranger still, the first set born this year were reportedly the first male twins in world history.· I cannot verify these claims.· In any case, I set off into the jungle to find the second twins -- both are girls -- and their mother.

World without borders

Thailand and surrounding countries such as Burma, Laos and Cambodia have been traditional elephant country.· Neighboring Laos is still called “The Land of a Million Elephants,” though that number is far fewer today.· Some years ago I was in an upstairs museum in Venice, Italy examining very old maps of Asia, and the area that today is known as Laos was marked by drawings of elephants.· In Thailand, elephant symbols, sculptures, paintings and T-shirts are prevalent.· There is even “Chang Beer,” or elephant beer sold in Thailand.· When Thai children see a baby elephant they can be heard saying, “Luk chang, luk chang!”· (Baby elephant, baby elephant!)

The red trace is the GPS route of the journey

The journey began after sunrise in the town of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

Beggar elephants are common in Thailand.  They are banned from the cities but can be seen in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

The relationship between man and elephant is long, wide, and complicated.· Most elephants in Thailand now are domesticated, and though it’s popular to characterize the elephant as hapless victim, the fact is when elephants get the upper hand they can just as well be the bad guys.· In Thailand, elephants have been known to stand in the road to stop a truck and steal all the pineapples out the back.· In India, a cannibal warned me about angry drunken elephants, which sounded incredible, but I checked into the cannibal’s warnings and they were true.· Elephants in some places like to get drunk on raksi (moonshine) that they steal from the villages, and then will destroy entire villages during drunken rampages.· A drunken group once attacked a power line and several elephants were electrocuted.· Hundreds of humans and homes have been flattened.· Indian villagers have tied hot peppers to ropes and hung them from trees to burn the elephants’ eyes, or used fireworks to frighten them, or killed the elephants, but the struggle between man and drunken elephant continues.

Elephants and man have competed for the same territory and probably at one time the elephants always got what they wanted.· They are no different than dogs, monkeys, or man: elephants will take what they can get.

As we approached the area where the twins were said to live, we saw an elephant chained to the side of the road, apparently just the prop of a beggar.· We stopped to ask about the twins and this “kwan chang” (mahout) said they had gone far into the jungle but he didn’t know exactly where they were.· He pointed the direction and we kept going.

Little did we know that today’s journey would take us 246 miles (by GPS), and deep, deep into the jungle.

Image made with iPhone4 using HDR Pro app.

As we headed off the two-lane pavement, at first the road did not require jeep-strength, but soon a 4-wheel drive was needed.· Much of the jungle had been chopped down, and other parts were dotted by primitive agricultural villages.· Looking at their fields one couldn’t help but notice that expert farmers had introduced science to these villages.

iPhone4 photo.

Mile after mile, millions of flowers lined the way.· The journey was a feast for the eyes.

Comments   

 
# john lawrence 2011-01-01 06:01
I really like the new format, picture / letters.
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# Dennis 2011-01-01 06:22
What's true for elephants is true for people too. Great work Michael! Your travels/insight s help us see the world (and the people in it) as our brothers & sisters on this planet. Enjoy your vacation and time at home!
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# Steve Carson 2011-01-01 06:32
Love the format, great content. Thank You.
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# Pete G. 2011-01-01 06:37
Michael,
If this is a sample of what your new "raw" format will be like, then you have found the best way yet of posting new dispatches. Great pictures, great story. But it's nothing short of what I've come to expect of your reporting no matter where it is coming from. You are a breath of fresh air in a world of polluted stories from every other corner of the globe. I have followed your dispatches for several years and like fine wine, you just keep getting better as time goes by. I wish you the very best in this new year. May you stay safe, healthy and happy. Take care and God bless!
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# Marjorie Harris 2011-01-01 06:41
Love the elephant and people pictures. You take us places most of us will never go - I know I won't. I love all your photos and the commentary with them. Be safe and keep up the true and good work.
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# Linda Lee Brecht 2011-01-01 06:49
Love the "Picture letter." I couldn't stop reading! Really I need to get to work but was enthralled. GREAT CONTENT!
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# Virginia 2011-01-01 06:57
I really enjoyed the foemat of pictures/letter s. Thanks!
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# Susannah 2011-01-01 07:10
I read it aloud to my children and we really enjoyed it! The baby elephants are so cute! And I loved that you slipped in a Major Payne reference. LOL! Also, "as the rocket flies" amused me.

Thank you for sharing with world with us, Michael.
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# Bill Cattley 2011-01-01 07:20
Brother Michael,

Nice format and as always, your pictures/writin g put us right in the action. Hope you had a great Christmas and Happy New Year while recharging your batteries.

Sincerely

Bill Cattley
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# Mary Houser 2011-01-01 08:27
Michael, Just saying "thanks" doesn't seem enough.....can' t even tell you what your stories do for me and my kids. Today, on the first day of the year 2011, I went to see the baby elephants with their mama in the Thai forest....thank s for taking me there! Keep the dispatches and pics coming. They are healing for our souls.
Mary
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# Carol E. 2011-01-01 08:56
Fascinating glimpse of life in the Thai jungle -- like spending time between the covers of National Geographic! Interesting to note the clothing some of the children were wearing (Superman logo) and speculate on how the clothing got there. No way could I squat like the adults were doing in that circle formation with their feet flat on the ground. (I tried!) Really enjoyed this photo-letter. Thanks so much!
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# Sharon Hern 2011-01-01 09:22
This was such a treat. I have been in remote Thai villages and enjoy the people and the scenery. I stayed four days and nights in one village and got to see how the people live and interact with them. It was an Arka village and I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to meet these wonderful people. I didn't get to see any elephants in the wild like the experience you had, thanks for sharing. I really like the new format. Thanks again.
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# Traci Wilberger, Las Vegas 2011-01-01 10:29
Thanks Michael! What a fascinating life you lead! Love the story! Your photos and info give me much to ponder and appreciate. I love to see different peoples of the world, so many smiles! Also love the format. Happy New Year!
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# R. Bradley Bonds 2011-01-01 12:19
For many years, that is how I feel you treat us and care about us...extra nice. Actually, a lot more than ever. Your voice gets stronger and better. No wonder everyone is so loyal to you. What Mary said is for me too: "Thanks for taking me there [to see the twin baby girl elephants]! They are healing for our souls." Another thing is, I predict one of these pics could be another one of Michael Yon's world class iconic photographs. It's the first one on page 7, about her gnawing on Mr Kapor’s shoulder! Pretty and fun! I hope we can save the elephants!
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# Kelley Smith 2011-01-01 13:20
Michael- what a great format! It's really great to go trekking with you. I had seen most of these pics already, but this was next best to going with you. You continue to amaze us!
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# Sanford 2011-01-01 13:59
Fascinating dispatch on the twin Tailand elephants! I forwarded this to my daughter, Heidi, who works at the San Diego Zoo.
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# Sanford 2011-01-01 14:03
If this is sent twice, its because I made a mistake. I forwarded your elephant twins dispatch to my daughter, Heidi, who works at the San Diego Zoo. I know she will appreciate not only your pictures but also your commentary. I can tell you love the animals and people. I appreciate your perspective much more than any other news source.

Respectfully,
Sanford
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# sandy 2011-01-01 14:08
I love the new format......... ......... amazing........ ..it almost makes me feel I am there with you. love it.
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# John Roberts 2011-01-01 14:09
Hi Michael

Try to answer a few of your queries in the piece, though I'm just getting a handle on the Garieng methods of looking after elephants (http://bit.ly/e3xdCm - for a brief overview) as we work mainly with the Isaan Chao Gwi however.

Chain: no way of telling whether she was chained or not but sometimes they leave the adults out there with a 30 yard 'drag' chain - so not attached to anything but so that it makes a noise and a trail when the elephant roams - easier to find.

The Vet/House call thing: The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre offer a free mobile clinic to all the elephants in Thailand (but at the moment, practically the North as they're based in Lampang) our vet, Dr Cherry, goes with them sometimes - can give you more details when you're ready to write that 'other story'.

Great piece and feeds into my fascination with the old ways of elephant management, incest breeding would be a bit of a worry.

Thanks

John
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# sjd 2011-01-01 18:50
...For the baby elephants and for 2011. God Bless you and your work. Be safe.
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# TerriLPN 2011-01-02 01:46
I Love seeing the World through your eyes, Michael! The babies w/ the momma elephant opens us to see things we may never get to see but dream of. It is a Fabulous World! Thank You So Much! May God Bless you and keep you safe. Looking forward to more dispatches!
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# scott Dudley 2011-01-02 03:22
Worthyof a National Geographic spread with the elephant eye as a cover!
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# Doya Meade 2011-01-02 05:18
I follow you now all the time. I love your e-mails and posts. This one was especially good. I like the way you tell the stories - truthfully! Keep up the good work Michael and keep them coming. Hope 2011 brings great things your way. Good Luck and be safe.
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# Joe Norman 2011-01-03 00:46
What a wonderful "New Year" gift from you to us! LOVED it!
Be safe. We depend on you for the TRUTH!!
Good luck and GOD bless.
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# John Lukens 2011-01-03 04:44
My wife Thitiya loved the elephant pictures. Cute little rascals. An elephant baby about that old butted a friend who was taking a picture of the baby. My friend never saw it coming! You have a nice feel for the countryside.

One or two inaccuracies, not surprising when you come in on a flying visit. On page 3, I think, you said the Karen are hilltribe people and have opium. Although they look it, they aren't a hill tribe people, and never grow opium. On the sign with the village name, below it there is a board painted red that says there is a penalty for bringing drugs of any sort into the village.

The Karen traditionally have made their living from logging, using elephants. The houses are made of bamboo so that the buildings in the entire village can be dismantled within a day and moved to a new location. However, this village might be relatively permanent, because it has a school. The sign on the school says that the school is a project of the Mae Faa Luang foundation. (The sign also mistakenly says that they are "Thai Hilltribe people".)

The Foundation’s purpose is to help hill tribe people who grown opium to turn to cultivation of other cash crops. It’s not completely effective because nothing is as lucrative as growing opium, especially when you are a day or two from the nearest road. Don’t know how or why the Foundation is working with the Karen, unless the Foundation has broadened the scope of their activities. But that might account for your thinking that the Karen grow opium.

Nice job.
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# Michael Yon Author 2011-01-03 05:16
I greatly appreciated the kind words and also some with clues that can help in further research.

Small note: These Karen told me they had grown opium but had switched to other crops.

It's really worth your time to go out there if you get the chance. Very nice if bumpy ride.
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# J Kaur 2011-01-03 14:42
the first page you made reference to a cannibal in India --- what are you talking about ???? this person eats other humans???
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# Randy Klug 2011-01-03 20:07
Very interesting and great photos!
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# J. Worthington 2011-01-04 10:26
Michael,
Excellent as always - you are a superb story teller that makes a person wanting to hear and see more.

John
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