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Book Review

Book Review: by Jacquelyn Suter

The Great Elephant Escape

With a Paul Theroux-like title, a stunning cover photo, and the usual meticulous design by Thailand’s Silkworm Books, this small volume represents nothing short of an adventure in courage and determination.

It starts here: One night in the hills of Northern Thailand, two women talk late over a fire about the fate of Thailand’s elephants.  One woman is a Thai worker at the Elephant Nature Park near Mae Taeng, and the other?  Well, perhaps, not the most likely candidate to get involved with elephants – a willowy blond fundraiser by profession from the Netherlands, just ending a volunteer stint at the Nature Park. 

For this woman, Antoinette van de Water, her experiences with the elephants have affected her deeply and, somehow, it cannot end here.  She’s smitten with the gentle giants and immensely touched by their plight roaming Thailand’s mean streets and being trekked to exhaustion and injury in the country’s camps.  So that night, a desire … a just-‘maybe-I-can-make-it-work’ plan was born: a project called ‘bring the elephant home.’

This delightful, easy-reading book, The Great Elephant Escape, is the story of that dream made real.  As we live the adventure with Antoinette, we learn that bringing elephants home to their rightful place in a natural habitat is not so easy.

There’s the issue of poverty in Isaan which forces the mahouts to keep elephants in the first place, and then to leave their homes and march them to city centers to beg for food with a degrading plastic bag tied to their tails as a reflector.  Elephants in the city are not allowed – Thailand’s 2003 law says so.  But like so many other laws in this country, they are made not so much to be broken but, more accurately, to remain ignored and unenforced.

Elephants making their own living is, unfortunately, the least of it.  We learn how a baby elephant is ‘trained’ by being locked in a small cage in which it cannot move around, with its front legs bound together.  Villagers beat and poke at it; it goes hungry and thirsty.  All the while, the mahout ingratiates himself as the elephant’s protector, bringing it food occasionally.  This cruelty goes on for about a week, until the young elephant’s will and spirit are broken.

“I find it strange in a Buddhist society, where respect for life is strongly felt,” Antoinette muses, “that the elephant has been turned into nothing more than a means of making money.”

Those of us who have lived in the country for a while understand that these kinds of contradictions riddle Thai society and, indeed, are precisely what define ‘Thai culture’ in many instances.  But to a westerner, unfamiliar with Thailand, these contradictions are begging to be resolved.  Cruelty to animals and, yet, a love for them cannot come together in any meaningful way. 

Then, how to do this?  The most prevalent Thai way of resolving societal contradiction is through a rather vague concept of ‘reconciliation.’  Never specified, however, is what is to be reconciled with what and, then, to what degree will the final outcome meet basic needs and retain the dignity of both parties.  I suspect what this term really implies is that the most powerful of the poles to be ‘reconciled’ expects that the weaker side will see the advantages of the more powerful one and rally to its side in the name of a higher cause.  I think the vagueness of ‘reconciliation’ appeals strongly to the Thai inclination to avoid conflict.  But it provides no sustainable solution.

Harmony is a cultural bedrock all throughout Asia.  For example, it trumps the concept of human rights in the modus operandi of ASEAN.  But if one looks closely at cultures who promote harmony over justice (recognition of one’s human dignity), one finds that it’s built in many instances upon one side acquiescing to the other and voluntarily throttling grievance, anger, and hurt. 

In the western world, where diversity is commonplace and conflicting interests are openly acknowledged, a strategy of negotiation is employed.  This is the approach that Antoinette uses in trying to solve the complex world of the Thai elephant.  On the one hand, for the sake of elephant health, they must be taken off the streets, have enough proper food to eat, and ideally be in a habitat appropriate to their natures.  If this were done, what would satisfy the needs of the Isaan families?  What would be an ongoing workable solution without lingering grievance?

As a logical extension of her ‘bring the elephant home’ project, Antoinette, in cooperation with the Thai Population and Community Development Association, has set up a village microbank in which Antoinette’s project deposits 20 baht for each tree planted as food for the elephants.  In return, the villagers can apply for micro-loans to set up tourism-oriented projects such as homestays.  To date, 104,000 trees have been planted as an ongoing endeavor.

The conflict resolution approach of ‘bring the elephant home’ does not rely on the vague concept of ‘reconciliation.’  Instead, the approach is to carefully analyze the precise problem by talking with people who know well the elephant situation, and then devising a compromised, dignified, sustainable, best settlement to meet the needs of both elephant and mahout.  

By book’s end, Antoinette’s adventure has all come together – when the cruelty and overwork is redeemed for at least two rescued elephants, for the time being.  Her project has been a success.  As she sleeps in a tent to be close to the animals in the fields, she can hear their breathing and teeth grinding.  “I even see them lying asleep in the moonlight - a sight to remember.”  Words don’t convey the full sensual and poignant experience of this comment, but you can’t help but want to be a part of it.  And you can.

Check out the web site:  The Great Elephant Escape can be purchased at Suriwong Books for 550 baht.