Joe Parsons is the owner of Aussie Dog, a company that makes toys for domestic animals and wildlife. He also makes elephant boots, which are used in zoos all around the world. A generous heart and these big boots have now led him to become involved in a remarkable project that is now and forever embedded in his heart. This is his story.
Sitting in my lounge room during Christmas 2005, watching in horror as the tsunami unfolded, I noticed elephants working in the rubble and mud, and thought, ‘that’s not good’. The reason for my concern was the elephants’ feet. We manufacture elephant boots for medical use, to keep bandages and dressings clean so that the healing process is not hindered by further infection when walking about in dust and water. Elephants’ feet are vulnerable to damage from sharp objects as they can become embedded in the sole. If the objects are not removed they will ‘pump up’ into the animals’ foot. This causes not only a great deal of pain but also, in severe cases, death.
A short time later, we had a request from Australia Zoo for some boots. They needed them in a hurry to help with the tsunami cleanup. We had time to produce four with thicker soles than the usual medical boots.
Several months later, I received a phone call from a friend of mine, Laurie Pond, who was in Thailand looking after the elephants destined for Melbourne and Taronga zoos.He asked if I would I come over to Thailand and meet a man who owned an elephant camp in Ayutthaya. The man knew about my boots but had no idea where they came from until Laurie told him: ‘Uncle Joe makes those!’ The man said he wanted to meet me.
A few weeks later, my wife Joey and I were standing in the middle of an elephant camp. I didn’t realise it then, but my life was about to become even more interesting in a very big way.
The man who wanted to meet me was Laithongrien Meepan, a very successful businessman, who purchased an elephant for his daughter Poi about 12 years ago. He became fascinated by the animal, so much so that he decided to make a personal effort to help these animals and give them a better life and environment in which to live. Laithongrien thought he could also start a breeding program and help halt the decline of these magnificent beasts.
Just pause for a moment and think of the enormity of this task! If you have a farm, you can grow food for the animals; you can sell milk, cattle and produce for an income, so the farm can become self-sufficient with a bit of profit at the end. But with elephants, they can only work and the only by-product is dung! Their average weight is about three-and-a-half tonnes, so you need more than a wire fence to keep them in, and they need food and lots of it – around 40 kilograms on average each day. They also need to be exercised, require veterinary attention from time to time, and one person, a mahout, is required for every working elephant. The mahout will stay with their elephant until either he or the elephant dies; these guys are devoted to their animals and have an incredible bond with them.
Man and beast also have to be housed somewhere. So where do you find enough space to set up such a venture?
As I mentioned before, Laithongrien is a successful businessman, but he’s also very aware of his people’s culture and history. He is a very devout man, both in his Buddhist beliefs and loyalty to the King and Queen of Thailand.
About an hour north of Bangkok is the ancient city of Ayutthaya, Thailand’s original capital for thousands of years. Here, there are hectares of ruins to be explored by the ever-increasing number of tourists. A few kilometres north is the Royal Elephant Kraal, used for hundreds of years to muster elephants driven down from the plains but unused since 1909. It is both crown land and a world heritage-listed site. Laithongrien thought there could be no better place to set up an elephant camp.
It just so happens that the King and Queen are friends of his, as the Queen’s summer palace is next door to his house. Laithongrien detailed his plan to the King and Queen and the Queen gave her blessing for him to proceed with his venture and lease the kraal.
With much work and many thousands of baht, the kraal was put into working order, enough to house a herd of elephants. Laithongrien purchased younger working elephants to work and start the breeding program, and old, retired bulls and cows, in order to give them comfort and happiness in their final years. On many occasions, he had to outbid those who were more interested in the tusks of the bulls for ivory.
Laithongrien also purchased elephants who used to stand outside city hotels and earn money for their owners by being photographed and fed bananas by tourists. Even today, when Laithongrien or his wife find these elephants, they buy them and take them back to the kraal for a better life.
Following negotiations with the tourist board in charge of the ruins of Ayutthaya, the younger working elephants began carrying tourists around the ancient city. Finally, then, there was an income, albeit small – but it was a start. Some may frown at this, but if they visited the kraal at 7 am and saw the elephants eager to get on the trucks to go to work, they might change their minds. It is truly amazing!
In fact, a complaint was lodged a while ago about one of the cows being used for this work when she was pregnant. The cow was removed from her duties and kept back at the kraal. Following three days of sulking, it was decided to let her go back to work. The result was incredible – instant happy elephant! Some time later, she gave birth to a happy, bouncing 100-kilogram boy.
With all the purchases of elephants from the city tourist trade and saving others from the ivory trade, the number of older elephants steadily increased. To feed them 40 kilograms of food a day was not cheap, and those elephants not working in Ayutthaya were often bored. Laithongrien decided the best thing to do was to find work for them too. So he enlisted the help of Michelle Reedy, an Australian who had worked at the Melbourne Zoo for nine years. Michelle is mad about elephants and along with another elephant enthusiast, Ewa Narkowitz, Laithongrien thought they could run an ‘elephant camp’. His idea was to run a camp program for people to come and stay, and for the duration of their stay, care for and feed their ‘own’ elephant while educating them about these magnificent creatures.
Michelle packed up and moved to the camp more than two years ago, and Elephant Stay was established. Although resources are tight, it’s been a very successful two years for the elephants, staff and tourists.
Since 2000, there have been 33 successful births at the Royal Elephant Kraal. More cows are now pregnant, so this number will increase by the end of the year. In April 2007, I was at the camp and a group of us were sitting around talking and about to head off to bed when Laithongrien announced casually, ‘There’s a baby going to be born tonight’.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, there was a shout from the darkness in the direction of the nursery. In an instant, everyone was on their feet and rushing to the nursery. When we arrived, the newborn was lying in front of its mother Kamliphet, still in its sac. Kamliphet removed the sac with her trunk, and after a big gasp of air, the little guy was breathing.
With the aid of her trunk and huge forefoot, Kamliphet then helped her calf to his feet in probably one of the most touching moments I have ever witnessed – such a big beast being so gentle. I must admit it brought tears to my eyes. It took 15 minutes for the little elephant to get up and run around, a bit shaky but nonetheless up and on his feet.
I asked Laithongrien, ‘Do you celebrate the birth with a drink, like wet the baby’s head?’
‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘it’s an old tradition.’
I then went and retrieved a litre bottle of scotch that I was going to give him on my departure and presented it to him. He thanked me graciously, removed the top and proceeded to walk around mother and baby pouring the scotch on the ground. Now this was not exactly what I had in mind!
When Laithongrien finished the circuit there was half left. He turned to me with a huge grin and said, ‘Now get glasses and ice, the rest is for us.’ So friends and family all joined in and toasted the birth. Now that’s what I had in mind! I can’t taste or see a bottle of scotch now without remembering that night.
Another thing I remember about that night were the mothers in the nursery, about six of them, crowded together. Their bulky frames were silhouetted against the night sky, and to me it was obvious they were congratulating Kamliphet and clucking over her new baby
Most births go off without a problem, but a recent birth at the kraal was rather upsetting and brought back the stark reality that elephants, although domesticated, still retain their animal instincts. All babies are born at night, and on this particular night in January this year, the babe was a few weeks premature. The mother, Namwan, was obviously distressed as she went into labour. Luckily her mahout picked up that things were not right and called for assistance. When the baby was born Namwan picked it up with her trunk and threw it some metres away in rejection. She then moved forward as if to stomp on it, and was held back only by her night chain.
Both the mahout and Laithongrien placed themselves between Namwan and her babe to protect it. It took more than four hours to calm Namwan down, and eventually they persuaded her to allow her newborn to suckle. Although her calf was premature it was perfectly formed, but as with all premature babies was smaller than normal. In this instance, the calf weighed about 75 kilograms instead of around 100 kilograms. They named the baby Sylvia, and she is a happy, cute girl.
One could call it foolhardy to take on a three-and-a-half tonne distressed animal, but to me it shows the absolute dedication of these men to their charges. Ask yourself what you would have done. I would have probably attempted to move the calf to safety, but as for confronting and calming the rampant mother, that’s way out of my league and capability. I think it shows the pure dedication of these men to their beasts and their compete understanding of them.
Last Christmas, there was another cause for celebration, not just due to the time of year. Although Christmas is a traditionally Western celebration, the Thai people love a party or celebration and any excuse for one will do. The kraal is no exception; however, unfortunately this time I wasn’t there for it. Apparently, the Christmas Eve party was in full swing and Santa arrived on an elephant with his bag of toys and gifts. Just before midnight, there was another call to the nursery.
They arrived just in time to see another calf arrive into the world, courtesy of its mother Galaget. The arrival was greeted with much jubilation and a much larger audience than usual. Due to the religious aspect of Christmas, Laithongrien said he asked Michelle and Ewa if it would be acceptable to name the newborn Santa. They were thrilled, and said of course it would be fine. By all accounts, they were very amused about it. So Plia Santa, a 100-kilogram boy, was named.
Because of my work with elephants, I’m often asked if they have a good memory, or if the saying ‘an elephant never forgets’ is a myth. Well, here’s my answer … Last year I visited the kraal at the end of April, and each day I was engaged for a short while in a game of ‘footsie’ with a four-week-old elephant named Pang Soilaya – I advise steel-capped boots for any game of footsie with an elephant baby. I didn’t get to see Pang Soilaya at Christmas when I was there, so when I returned again in February some 10 months later, I wondered if he would recognise me.
As Pang Soilaya was almost a year old, he’d been moved with his mum to the nursery. There are six youngsters there and they all look much the same. I walked over to the nursery and stood at the railings watching the elephants walk around. Suddenly, one of the elephants saw me and ran to the rails. He was so pleased to see me, he climbed the fence so he ended up with both legs over the top rail, waving his trunk around with much gusto. Yes, it was Pang Soilaya, and what a greeting! Do elephants have a good memory? Yes, I think so.
Of course, the reason I was initially summoned to the camp was for elephant boots. After our first meeting, Laithongrien requested working boots for his charges, so that if there is ever a similar disaster his elephants will be able to help, but their feet will be protected.
Measurements were taken and patterns were sent back and forth to the camp. Finally, we devised a prototype for a strong boot that would withstand rubble, glass and other debris, and not upset the biodynamics of the foot.
Some of the boots we had made were for a large, imposing five-and-a-half tonne bull called Cochalat. When I arrived with the boots, Cochalat was just coming out of ‘musth’, when the male goes into heat. Elephant bulls can get pretty nasty in this condition, and their mind is definitely not on fittings for new boots. The staff asked if I would I mind waiting for a couple of days. I must admit, fitting boots on a massive bull elephant coming out of heat is not how I like to do things, so I said, ‘No, that’s okay I’ll get the next plane home now!’ The team laughed for days at that while we waited..
When it came time to fit the boots, I was still a little nervous, as Cochalat is one massive elephant and I’ve seen the damage these animals can do coming out of musth. However, with the help of Laithongrien, Cochalat’s mahout, and half the camp crawling about underneath Cochalat, we ended up completing the job. And what did this massive bull do while we were working? Cochalat curled up his trunk on the top of his tusks and catnapped! We then had to encourage Cochalat to do a couple of laps around the kraal so that we could make the necessary adjustments. I think he liked parading around in his new boots; Cochalat is a real show pony.
During my February visit, I also noticed more changes. In Laithongrien’s quest for more than just pineapple tops for feed, he had purchased a large vegetable farm nearby and now grows elephant grass and other delicacies that the elephants love. He has also reserved part of the farm for people to work the land and grow vegetables. They then sell the vegetables at markets so they can earn an income, and a small percentage goes back to the elephants.
This is only one of the many benefits of the kraal, as Laithongrien said to me during one of our many conversations. He said, ‘You know, Joe, it is good for the people of Ayutthaya, as so many now make a living from those who come to see my elephants.’
And he is right. The kraal benefits restaurants, local tourist operators, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and even the guy who picks me up from the airport. When I first starting visiting, he had only one tuk-tuk, now he has people-movers – cars – and many tuk-tuks. Added to this are the benefits of employment for around three hundred people working at and associated with the kraal.
Yes, I cannot help but admire Laithongrien and his achievements. And now they have even established a plant and equipment for making paper from elephant dung! They are using the paper to make cards and bookmarks for the tourists – how ingenious is that?
For more information go to www.elephantstay.com