9 min read

After Decades Of Giving Tourists Rides, Retired Elephants Fall In Love

<p><a href="http://www.bees-elesanctuary.org/" target="_blank">BEES</a></p>

The elephant had started refusing to work, shaking tourists off her back as they rode her through the forest in Chiang Mai, Thailand. To try and make her behave, the mahouts (people who work and ride elephants in Southeast Asia) would beat her with a sharp nail on a piece of bamboo, leaving huge welts on her sensitive skin. Even with the constant beatings, the elephant - Mae Kam - refused to behave.

Due to her temperament, Mae Kam's owner believed that the only way to transport her to BEES was to ride her using the basket. | BEES

Before she was forced to take tourists for rides, Mae Kam spent 37 years working in the Thai logging industry, hauling heavy logs through the jungle. She'd also had two calves - one was stillborn, and the other calf died after being bitten by a cobra. Mae Kam had actually watched the snake bite her calf. Mae Kam had screamed, and pulled hard against the foot chains that tethered her to her concrete stall. When the owner finally unchained Mae Kam, she rushed to protect her baby, but it was too late. For hours afterwards, she charged anyone who tried to get near her.

After the tragic loss of her baby, Mae Kam was never the same.

When Emily McWilliam and Burm Rinkaew, cofounders of BEES (Burm & Emily's Elephant Sanctuary), learned about Mae Kam, they asked her owner if he'd allow her to retire at their sanctuary. At first, Mae Kam's owner was reluctant. How would he make an income and provide for his family without renting Mae Kam to the tourist camps? McWilliam and Rinkaew offered a solution: they'd pay the owner "rent" to keep Mae Kam at BEES. Pleased with the compromise, the owner agreed.

When Mae Kam arrived at BEES, McWilliam began to understand why her owner had worried about her carrying tourists. "She was very challenging and didn't like being around humans," McWilliam tells The Dodo. "She only trusted Burm and her new mahout here at BEES."

Despite her dislike of people, Mae Kam settled in well at BEES. She spent her days doing exactly what an elephant should do - bathing, dusting, foraging, exploring and playing in the mud. She was also able to scratch herself on any tree or rock she wanted, which is something she couldn't do while in captivity.

Then, two and a half months later, another retired elephant - a 71-year-old female name Mae Jumpee - arrived at BEES. Similar to Mae Kam, Mae Jumpee had spent her life working in the logging and tourist industries. She was generally good around other elephants, but McWilliam and Rinkaew worried about introducing her to Mae Kam. "Mae Kam was very damaged," says McWilliam, "and we were unsure if she'd accept another elephant into her new home where she'd spent the last two months exploring."

When the day of the big meeting came, Mae Kam's caretakers slowly led her towards Mae Jumpee. "At first Mae Kam was very cautious," McWilliams wrote in a media release. "She was slow and sniffed the air. When she came across Mae Jumpee's dung, she let off a huge trumpet and ran away. It took about half an hour to calm Mae Kam down."

After several hours, the caretakers tried introducing the elephants again. This time, instead of running away, Mae Kam lifted her truck and touched Mae Jumpee's bottom. And then, something magical happened. "These ground-shuddering vocalizations broke out and the two began to squeak, trumpet and rumble," says McWilliam. "They slowly and gently began to sniff around each other's genitals and temporal glands, even inside each others mouths. They gently rubbed against each other and were being very affectionate towards each other."

From that moment on, Mae Kam and Mae Jumpee were inseparable. The two of them now go for long strolls through the forest together to forage for grasses, fruits and bamboo, and take mud baths in the river. When they find a good tree, they take turns scratching themselves on the rough bark. Mae Jumpee might like elephants, but she doesn't like dogs, so Mae Kam helps her chase away the rescued dogs at BEES.

"We can never really know why they became such good friends," says McWilliam. "It was a bond that formed instantly, similar to when humans find a soul mate. They love each other dearly."

BEES Elephant Sanctuary was established in 2012 to provide a home for retired elephants working in the tourism industry in Thailand. During the day, the resident elephants get to roam over 300 acres of government forest, but at night, they have to be secured with chains. As McWilliam explains, this is the only way to keep the elephants safe from wandering off, and getting injured or killed by villagers who are unhappy with the elephants on their properties. McWilliam and Rinkaew are working to build a chain-free elephant enclosure. To help make this happen, you can donate here.