Elephant In The Room

Many people have asked me why I chose to support the plight of the Asian elephants, usually by the time I get around to the conclusion it takes a full 10 minutes to explain myself. Therefore I’ve decided to write it all down here, the beginning, middle and the foreseeable end (of this chapter anyway). October 2010 – Feb 2012

It began in October 2010. Chantelle and I had been saving for 2 years so we could go on an epic adventure to Asia. We were inspired by the mountains and stories of the Himalaya so we chose a 28 day 250km trek through the Everest region of Nepal. Needless to say it was an amazing experience, we climbed up to 5500m above sea level, marvelled at the worlds tallest mountains and were humbled by the generosity of the local mountain people. Nepal will forever be one of my favourite places on earth.

These kids were so excited to have their photo taken so they could see themselves in the LCD on the back of my camera.
They all wanted to get as close as possible to the lens, this was on my first day in the Himalaya, awesome welcoming by these kids.
Leaving the tree line at around 4000m above sea level, stunning views.
Me, Chantelle, Bibi, Ram and Anada on our way to Mount Everest Base Camp
Our group at Everest Base Camp (5500m)
A frozen morning on our way up to Kalla Pattar (5554m). The mountains here are Nuptse with the summit of Everest in the centre.
Chantelle with a frozen dreadlock on the ascent to Kalla Pattar.
Chantelle descending one of the 3 high passes we crossed on our 250km trek through the Himalaya.
The beautiful Gokyo Valley, simply breathtaking.
After our 4 week trip, our guesthouse manager recommended we travel to Chitwan National Park to see the Indian Rhinoceros. He told us that it is an endangered species and well worth seeing in the wild of southern Nepal. So we booked a 2 night stay at Temple Tiger Jungle Lodge, the journey into Chitwan National Park was spectacular, we left the mountains behind and entered the sub tropical jungle. Temple Tiger is situated inside the National Park and is fully self sufficient so we had to cross the river via boat before riding a jeep deep into the jungle to reach our accommodation.
The boatman ferries us into Chitwan National Park.
It was here that our involvement with elephants began. On our first night we had a briefing about the wild animals that live in Chitwan National Park and what to do if we encountered a Royal Bengal Tiger or an Indian Rhino. We were then told that the first day of our safari type experience involved an elephant ride through the grasslands to try and locate the Rhinoceros for photographic opportunities. This didn’t sit well at all with Chantelle, I kept trying to tell her that ‘they wouldn’t treat the elephants bad’ and that ‘everyone rides elephants, surely it’s not hard on them’. If only we knew…
3 elephants waiting to take tourists on ‘Safari’ with their mahouts.
The elephants were used to ferry peoples luggage to and from the river.
So our first experince with these amazing creatures was riding on a safari hunt for the Indian Rhinoceros. Funnily enough, after reading up about Chitwan National Park I discovered that the Asian Elephant is more endangered that the Indian Rhinoceros, so we were riding an Endangered Species to photograph a Vulnerable Species! We rode on a lovely, calm ele who had a young bull calf, he rang along beside us and his mother and could barely keep up on the journey back, he looked to be only 1 or 2 years old. The Mahout did have a metal hook which I saw him use twice. He struck the elephant hard on the top of its head when she wouldn’t step up a small river bank, he also struck her when she was apparently walking too slowly. Each time the mahout struck the elephant we both had our hearts in our throats and Chantelle almost jumped off the elephant in disgust.
This gorgeous young family cannot live in peace at Temple Tiger.
Who knows what the future of this young Bull will be, such a beautiful creature was meant for something more than tourism.
We did spot many Rhinoceros, and then stalked them until annoyance, I often wonder how elephants and rhinos get along in a wild situation, I’m sure it’s different from what we saw. Strangely enough, later on that day some Rhino wandered into the lagoon only 50 metres away from our Jungle Lodge, so it wasn’t really necessary for us to ride on the elephants after all.
On Safari to spot a Vulnerable Indian Rhino, while riding an Endangered Asian Elephant.
Rhinos frequented this lagoon which was visible from Temple Tiger Jungle Lodge.
The next day we had a tour of the elephants enclosure, we found out that the elephants (10 or so) of Temple Tiger came trained from India and were in the care of 3 mahouts. No. 1 Mahout takes the elephant on safari, No.2 Mahout takes the elephant to feed on the grasslands during the day and No.3 Mahout cares for the enclosure and other food/water the elephant needs when chained up for the night. As good as this sounds, the elephants at Temple Tiger looked to be chained up for a majority of the day and all night. We did find something special in these creatures, but it wasn’t to be fully realised for another few weeks.
The elephant enclosure at Temple Tiger.
We listened to a talk about elephants with this young Bull
We were even allowed to feed the young bull these sweet sticky rice parcels.
After our 2 night stay in Chitwan we caught the bus back to Kathmandu for 1 more week of sightseeing, we were well adjusted to the pace of the city and the cuisine was finally sitting well in our stomachs. It was sad to leave Nepal for our 1 month stop-over in Thailand as we really had no idea what the country had to offer us…

Bangkok. Crazy. Bangkok…

Our guest house in Bangkok was nearly under water, it still had great character though.

Our original idea was to stay a few days in Bangkok (which was half under water) and head south to the famous white sandy beaches and blue tropical waters. After all we had just trekked 250km in the highest mountain range in the world, we deserved a bit of luxury. Alas, it was not to be. All the roads south were closed because of the recent flooding and we couldn’t afford a flight to Phuket on our ‘3 months of travelling budget’. So we decided to head North instead to Chiang Mai city, a friend back home had highly recommended us to go there anyway so we were happy.

It turned out to be a life changing decision for both of us.
Chiang Mai is quite a nice city, not too big and not too small, surrounded by mountains and tropical jungle. We also found out that the mountains (Shan Hills) we could see from our Guesthouse are the most southerly mountains of the Himalaya, that fact alone was exciting for us. The food in Chiang Mai is amazing too and seeing that we’re both vegetarian the food lifestyle here really suited us, we gorged ourselves at the many vegetarian/vegan restaurants and had a great first week of rock climbing, market shopping and relaxing. There were 2 festivals during our stay in Thailand which were beautiful to be apart of, we celebrated Yi Peng (to make merit) and Loi Krathong (in honour of Buddha) The Yi Peng festival is famous for the floating lanterns of fire that everyone releases into the water ways, in conjunction Loi Krathong is famous for releasing lanterns of fire into the night sky. Its a truly magnificent sight, and wonderful to be apart of.
The fireworks went all night pretty much all week long in celebration of Loi Krathong and Yi Peng.
Chantelle releasing her floating lantern into the river.
A monk helped us light and release our floating lantern into the night sky.
Chantelle at our vegetarian cooking school lesson at Taste From Heaven restaurant.
One afternoon while sitting in one of our favourite restaurants, Chantelle was reading a brochure on The Elephant Nature Park (ENP), she suggested that we go there and see how elephants really live when they don’t have to work, to try and understand more about our elephant ride in Nepal. So we booked a day tour, what I remember from that day was many happy elephants, an amazing lunch and listening to Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert speak to us about the Asian elephant. What really impacted me the most was the stories of all the elephants at ENP, stories of loss, pain and suffering. Stories of hope, friendship, forgiveness and inspiration. You can read about all the elephants and their pasts here: ENP Herd
Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert giving Faa Mai a tasty treat.
Lek with two of her elephants. You can tell just how much she loves spending time with her elephants at ENP.
On the bus trip back into Chiang Mai, Chantelle and I spoke of volunteering at ENP for 1 week. To be able to live out at Elephant Nature Park, hang out with rescued elephants, help with their food and medical needs and helping out with park maintenance seemed like a much more rewarding holiday than sitting on some beach down south. Plus, after learning how elephants are trained we both now felt really terrible about riding on the elephant in Nepal. So it was decided pretty quickly.
It was a great welcome for the volunteers that week, we had the opportunity to release lanterns into the sky and make a wish in honor of Loi Krathong
Volunteer Co-ordinators Chet and Aek releasing their lantern, notice the full moon behind them.
Chantelle releases her lantern into the night sky at ENP
Good friend Katarina gets up close with her favourite elephant.
Mae Boon Ma & Mae Bua Loi taking a dip in the river at ENP.
Mae Somboon passed away shortly after our visit in 2010, she was  a favourite of many volunteers.
The Old Girls of ENP, Mae Tee and Mae Kham Kaew
Chang Yim, Sri Nuan and Dok Ngern wandering the fields.
Malai Tong scratching her foot which has been partially destroyed by a land mine.
Looking back now I can say that the two weeks we spent at Elephant Nature Park was one of the highlights of my life, our volunteer co-ordinaters were amazing people, very passionate, funny and enjoyable to be around. This transferred onto our volunteer work, organising the elephant kitchen with Michelle, cutting grass and corn with Chet and Aek picking up elephant poo with Jack and Chay, and working at the new property with Antoinette and Nat.
One of my favorite jobs at ENP was cutting fresh grass for the elephants to eat. Another child hood dream about walking around with a machete in the jungle…
The Park also is sanctuary for dogs too. This dog is named Number 2, he parked himself outside our room every night but wasn’t really an early riser.
One of the highlights of our first week was our overnight stay up at  Leks original property; Elephant Haven. We walked up into the jungle with Pom and Chet, accompanying us with elephants Hope, Jokia and Mae Perm. It was amazing staying up in the Jungle, looking for the elephants at night and tying blessed scarves around the trees to help protect them from logging. Pom told us many beautiful and funny stories about the elephants who now live in peace at ENP.
Sam, Chantelle and Pelote (Annie) on their way to Elephant Heaven with Jokia and Mae Perm.
Jokia and Mae Perm waiting patiently to cross the river on the way up to Elephant Heaven.
Volunteer friends Kodi and Pat relaxing in the jungles of Elephant Heaven.
Volunteers sitting around the campfire listening to the many stories of Poms time at ENP
On the return hike we were able to tie these blessed scarves around the trees to help protect them from logging.
Out and about looking for Hope, Mae Perm and Jokia, Hope somehow managed to get caught up in this massive vine system.
Pelote (Annie) took one mighty fall on the way back down from our elephant scouting, we all new she as okay as the laughter never stopped…
We were quite privileged to be at the park at the same time as Carol Buckley (Founder of Elephant Aid International) who is now doing some great work helping the elephants of India and Nepal, we had a chance to talk with her about the elephants in Nepal which was great. We were also lucky to be at the park at the same time as young Jack Chapman Lanting, Jack raised enough money in his home country New Zealand to rescue Kwanjai from the Surin Elephant Festival.
Read their story here: Kwanjai
Carol (not pictured) showing Karl how to train Chang Yim with positive re-inforcement. Amazing to watch.
During our 2nd week at ENP we travelled with Pom, Chet, Antoinette, Jerry Neslon and 7 other volunteers to the Thai/Burma border to rescue an elephant and bring her back to ENP. Her name is Dani and is pretty much the reason we started fundraising to rescue elephants. Her rescue was very traumatic as the previous owner of Dani was the only one who could “control” her. It was difficult to see an elephant treated so harshly after spending a week witnessing the kindness that should be given to elephants. It took Dani’s previous owner over 2 hours to goad her on to the truck that transported her to ENP. It then took us 9 hours to travel back to the park where Dani was taken off the chain and now lives peacefully. It was from the day of Dani’s rescue that I knew we had to do something to help these beautiful creatures.
Chantelle and Lacey doing the Chang Chang Chang dance on our way to the Burma border.
Dani (Left) with her Daughter and Grandson. Unfortunately, Dani was going to be sold to a known street begging operator in Surin. ENP intervened and purchased Dani so she could retire from her working days. It was not known until the day of Dani’s rescue that she had a daughter and a grandson.
Chantelle and Lacey realise Dani will be separated from her family.
Dani’s last farewell walk with her family along the riverbanks.
Dani being led onto the truck by her previous mahout and saying goodbye to her grandson. This was a heartbreaking moment for us.
Notice how this wooden pole is bent, poor Dani was put through so much.  Elephants around Thailand are treated like this everyday so tourists can ride on their backs, buy their paintings and watch them play soccer. Choose your elephant experiences carefully, research them at home before travelling.
After the long trip, Dani arrives disorientated and exhausted at ENP . Her new mahout Yo (pictured here) has treated Dani with the respect that she deserves
During our last days at ENP the 8 of us (rescue volunteers) pretty much spent every spare moment with Dani, trying to teach her how to pick up a banana or watermelon (which she’d probably never eaten before) and telling her that she’ll be happy at ENP. Needless to say it was a sad day when we had to leave the park.
Saying our farewells to Dani.
Left to Right: Steve, Myself, Lacey, Katarina, Chantelle and Dani’s new Mahout Yo.
When we arrived home to in late December 2010 I immediately began organising how to help, I didn’t want to let that feeling go so I booked in an exhibition slot for March/April of 2011 at The Wilderness Society Gallery in Hobart, TAS. So I had given myself 2 months to organise a professional exhibition of my own photographs captured at ENP. Considering it was the busiest time of year at work (cheffing at Cargo Bar Pizza Lounge) and I had used up all of my leave, there were a few sleepless nights to get everything organised in time. I called the exhibition Elephant In The Room (Well Chantelle thought of the name).
First I had to select and edit a suitable number of photographs that had the potential to look great on the wall, step two was finding a professional printer and custom framer to realise my ideas. This process was great fun and brought back many fond memories of my studies of Photography at University. Eventually I settled on 23 photographs, 17 stand alone portraits of the elephants at ENP and a documentary series of Dani’s rescue. After getting the photographs sorted out, we turned to publicity. designing post cards, posters and a 20 page catalogue to accompany the exhibition and organising interviews with newspapers and magazines.
After all the effort I was slightly worried that the show wouldn’t be successful and seeing that 3 of my great friends, my parents, Chantelle’s Grandparents and Mother had made the journey from the mainland especially for opening night, I was even more apprehensive. But as they say “The show must go on”.
The local Hobart newspaper helped out by running this short article.
March 4th and opening night finally arrived and Dave (friend from Melbourne), Chantelle and I had literally just finished setting up about 15 minutes before the first guests arrived. I’d organised a couple of cases of Chang Beer as well as wine and bubbles for the night and after a hectic few days I calmed down after a couple of Ele beers. The night ended up being a huge success, Bill Harvey (an alderman for Hobart Council) opened the show with a short speech, followed by me talking a bit about the plight of the elephants and what we can do to help. Friends (Toni and Jo) who I met at The Elephant Nature Park attended from thousands of Kilometres away and spoke about their experiences with the Asian elephants. We celebrated into the night and had sold a total of 9 photographs on opening night! Needless to say, I was ecstatic our fundraiser got off to such a great start.
Dave making sure the photographs are lined up nice and straight.
Opening Night guests.
I was very happy with the turnout of people on opening night.
Left to Right: Me, Chantelle, Jo and Toni. All volunteered at ENP during the same week. It was amazing to have these gals at the exhibition. (photo by Toni)
Inspirational, Sweet Action!
A few of the guest made the local paper.
The exhibition was open daily for 2 months, and saw some great traffic pass through. Sea Shepherd captains Paul Watson and Alex Cornelissen, former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown and a former rocker from the Violent Femmes Brian Ritchie. I sold 20 of the 23 photographs and raised just over $6000AU for our fundraiser and The Elephant Nature Park.
Review in the Saturday magazine
After the exhibition we moved away from Hobart, Tasmania back to a small town in North East Victoria called Mount Beauty. We have organised and held two more fundraising events which have been a great way to keep motivated and involved. I ran a limited edition series of framed photographs which have sold steadily for the last 8 months adding an extra $1800AU.
The highlight of our fund raising together was at our charity dinner in Mount Beauty where 60 people attended. Chantelle organised an amazing 5 course Thai vegan banquet and she and I prepared and cooked the whole 5 courses! We had great help from local volunteers Kylie, Hannah and Kirsty who kept our ship afloat. It was an amazing night and the people of Mount Beauty where well fed on wholesome cruelty free food. We cooked a Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, a Pineapple Red Curry, Warm Glass Noodle Salad and Mango with Sticky Rice. At the end of the night we had raised $2400AU, not bad for a days work 🙂
All the produce we had to create with.
Chantelle and I doing the Chang dance after 13 hours of prep, and service. We needed coffee if you didn’t notice. Unfortunately we actually didn’t take a single photograph all night, which is a shame as it was a highlight of our fundraising together.
In January/February, Chantelle and I visited Thailand and ENP again for 1 week of volunteering, it was so nice to see that Dani was getting along with other elephants and that she even is getting close to little Faa Mai (Baby girl elephant). It was also great to catch up with friends at the park again and create some great new friends and memories of Thailand and ENP.
Medo suffers a terrible limp, she was tied down and forced to breed and consequently suffered a dislocated backbone that was never allowed to heal properly. She was rescued in 2006 by Lek and ENP.
Medo and her best friend Mae Lanna
Chantelle is reunited with Dani after 15 months, she is so much happier now.
Chantelle and I with Dani and one of her new friend Mae Boon Ma.
Left to Right: Jodi, Chantelle, Lek and Myself at the end of our week.
The highlight of our trip in Feb 2012 was seeing Faa Mai and Dani together, obviously she still has a strong maternal instinct. I couldn’t hold back tears of joy behind my camera when I was taking this photo. Beautiful…
Our Volunteer crew in February 2012.
After being involved with elephants for over a year it was time to embark on the biggest awareness campaign yet: Ride Bikes, Not Elephants. A 4000km solo unsupported bicycle ride from Melbourne to Cairns. Stay tuned for my next post about the 10 week adventure, visiting 23 of Australia’s elephants, and raising as much awareness as I could.
Matt Rousu

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