Mae Sai Roong lays on the ground. She looks so little compared to the throngs of people around here — the Elephant Nature Park volunteers, the vets, the mahouts, Lek — all scrambling to make sure she doesn’t give up on life just yet.
Every now and then, the old girl swings her heavy head up from the mound of dirt she’s resting it on. Swings her trunk to power her torso up, off the ground. Somehow, she manages to find the strength to do it. She looks around at all of us for a moment. Sits. Blinks.
We stand, frozen. Our hearts race. We pray she can stand. Fists clench. Hopes high.
Then, she gives up. Laying back down into the dirt.
The sigh from the entire group is audible. It echoes in the piles of dirt around us.
More scrambling ensues as people try to adjust the sand bags, the tires, the dirt, to contour to her body so she is comfortable, so her legs don’t lose circulation. So she doesn’t die in front of us.
Me? I can barely watch this scene.
I had heard there was a sick elephant. But, I never imagined … this. This beautiful girl, her six tons so tiny on the ground. Her body nearly lifeless except for a few short whisps of air going through her trunk when she breathes deep.
After a lifetime of being in the logging and elephant trekking (giving rides to people like us) industries, they have taken their toll on this beautiful animal.
My last full day at the park isn’t supposed to be like this. It isn’t supposed to be sad. It isn’t supposed to be a reminder of the repercussions of what happens to these elephants who spend their lives delighting tourists who don’t know any better.
And yet, it is.
My day started out so promising. So happy.
Still glowing from the afternoon before and my time with Lek’s soft singing of “Que Sera Sera” to one of the park’s baby elephants, the sun finally came out Saturday morning, casting the entire park in that warm golden hue that sends little sparks of happy to the soul.
Over a breakfast of pancakes, Lucy, Katy, Adele, Marie and I sit, looking out at the park and the elephants making their way out on the grounds.
We all say the same thing. “They’re so beautiful.” “This week has been so amazing.” “I am so glad we learned about these elephants.” “I can’t wait to start spreading the word about why people shouldn’t ride them.”
We are all so happy.
Even after a morning of scooping, a few of us gather on the ledge of the medical shelter, simply taking pleasure in watching as the elephants stroll along with their mahouts nearby. As the water buffalo graze. As the visitors to the park explore the grounds for the first time with pure delight at what they were seeing.
I had my plan for the morning: to grab my camera, a soda, and go to the feeding platform and watch the elephants eat their buckets of fruit.
It sounded like the perfect way to spend two hours before lunch.
It never happened.
Instead, just as I am about to sit down to watch the blind elephant, Jokia, open her mouth in anticipation of food, Jack finds me.
“We need your help. There’s a sick elephant and we need to go fill sand bags. Can you come?”
Of course, I oblige.
Of all of the days for the sun to be out and strong, today is the worst for it.
Under the scorching sun and humid air, a group of 10 of us shovel dirt from the same mound that the elephants had rolled in two days prior when I had toured the park and gotten to be up-close with elephants.
Dripping sweat, we are quickly covered in a coating of flour from the bags, along with a layer of red dirt.
When the truck fills, some volunteers get in to go and take the bags to where the sick elephant is.
I opt to stay.
Then, after a few minutes cooling off under a tree, taking a breather from the summer sun, we’re back out, filling bags again. Only, when the truck fills up this time, we are all instructed to climb in and head to the elephant’s location.
I already know I don’t want to see it.
When we arrive, my heart breaks.
Jumping down from the back of the truck and seeing what was in front of me is something I will remember for the rest of my life. My own, personal reminder of why I will never ride an elephant or go to a circus or buy an elephant painting.
The image is burned into my brain.
So, this is what a dying elephant looks like.
Mae Sai Roong doesn’t move much. She lays silently, half watching as we form an assembly line and pass out sand bags, stacking them around her legs, trying to get her to re-position herself so she doesn’t cut off circulation in her back leg she is laying on.
Someone wraps a thick woven band under her belly.They are going to try to pull her up to a standing position with a crane.
Lek counts off, and the truck powers on, the crane begins to lift. Slowly, the Asian elephant’s body begins to elevate, but she fights it. She begins to fall sideways, looking horribly distressed as her eyes snap wide open.
“Stop! Stop!” People scream.
She is slowly lowered back down.
They wait a few minutes, and then, repeat the process. She again fights it. Her front legs coming out in front of her.
I choke on a sob and pull the neck of my dirtied T-shirt over half of my face so no one can see it is now covered with streaks of tears.
This time, when they begin to lower her back down, I turn around. I can’t watch this.
As staff continue to work on the elephant and readjust dirt, tires and sand bags, Lek tells us to head back to the main building to get lunch, and then return with all of the volunteers when we are done.
The few of us still there race back to the group, find everyone else, and tell them what has happened.
I eat lunch quickly, filled with dread at having to return to Mae Sai Roong. I want to help. I just don’t want to see her suffering like this.
We head back after lunch and are immediately put to work digging. We need to move dirt from one spot to another and form it around her body.
Mae Sai Roong hasn’t changed much. She still lays there, only the efforts to get her to adjust her weight have ceased.
People try in vain to get her to eat. She doesn’t. Instead, she takes the cluster of bananas wrapped in a coil of her trunk and just leaves them hanging in her mouth.
A vet hooks her up to an IV. Someone else takes a mister and hovers over her body, letting the light wash of water cool her hot skin down.
Then, I hear singing.
“Que sera, sera …”
I spin around from where I am standing behind the elephant and see Lucy, Katy, Pam, Evelyn, Sarah, Marie and Adele, all splayed out on the mound of dirt behind Mae Sai Roong. They lay there, scooping up handfuls of earth and rubbing it on her back. All the while, they sing to her softly.
“Whatever will be, will be …”
I crawl up on the mound with them and take my hand in the dirt, rubbing it into her tough skin, scratching. I try to join in, but I’m overcome with sadness and instead of singing, sob.
“We all need somebody to lean on … lean on me …”
Each song takes on meaning as we lay there, not caring about being filthy, not caring about being eaten by ants. All we care about in that moment is comforting a creature in her last moments. In letting her know she is not alone.
We spend nearly the entire afternoon with Mae Sai Roong, and then head to another shelter to make a bed of dirt for another elephant who needs a little help getting up from sleeping.
Even though our last night is special, and the park creates a feast of Northern Thai food for us, the mood is somber. Our group of girls go from happy to sad, smiles to tears, quickly.
After dinner, Lucy, Adele, Marie and I decide we want to return to Mae Sai Roong to see her. To likely say goodbye.
I know I can’t do it alone. It’s too sad. Too heart-breaking. Especially after the week I have had, the things I have learned about the plight of the Asian elephants.
As we walk down the dark path towards the sick elephant, we all grab each other’s hands for comfort, and united, walk up to her.
Now, a fire burns and only a few park staff are there. They will sleep with her, making sure she is comfortable the entire evening.
When we get there, she looks even smaller than she did earlier. Her mahout has moved the bags of sand, helped her re-adjust.
Around her, in the dark, I can hear elephants in a nearby shelter moving about.
“Do they know she’s sick?” I ask one of the staff members.
“They don’t care,” she says. “She doesn’t have any friends.”
Except for humans.
The four of us sit together on the gravel, silently. I let myself cry. Not just for Mae Sai Roong, but for all of the elephants whose fate is the same as hers. For all of the elephants who went through the Phajaan. The abuse. The treks.
We get up after a few minutes and whisper our goodbyes to the sweet girl, and then head to the river.
It’s Saturday night, and loud Thai music from another camp wafts down to us. We sit in darkness, watching the strobe-light fireflies blink past us. We cry.
The girls decide to return to Mae Sai Roong in the morning before breakfast, but I pass.
The memory I have of her is enough for me.
I fall asleep that night listening to the music. Thinking about Mae Sai Roong.
In the morning, the girls visit her.
“She doesn’t look good,” Lucy reports as soon as I find her at breakfast. “I don’t think she will make it.”
I’m glad I didn’t go.
We all sit together at breakfast, quiet.
This is our experience. Together. And, as sad as it is, I cannot be more thankful I am experiencing it. I feel like this was meant to happen so I can truly understand what happens to these elephants and then come home and tell everyone.
We split off into groups on our last morning with an air of sadness lingering. We’ve all been through this tragic experience together and no one wants to talk about it.
“Do you see over there?” Jack asks, pointing his finger towards a blue tarp in the distance.
“What?” We ask.
“Mae Sai Roong,” he says. “She’s standing.”
Suddenly, the sadness is replaced with elation. She’s alive. She’s standing.
We all smile, grateful to have gone through hell in order to be a part of this momentary bliss.
And, deep down, I’m warmed thinking our love and support had something to do with the elephant’s little victory for the day.
[Editor's Note: Mae Sai Roong passed away a few weeks later. To read about her life, her death and more about how you can ensure other elephants don't face the same fate, please read "Speaking for the elephants." And, check out "A Brief Education: The dark side of the elephant tourism industry." For even more information and reasons why you should never ride an elephant, read "Why elephant riding should be removed from your bucket list." It is up to each of us to help spread the word about the plight of the Asian elephants and how we can make an impact and send a message to not only the tourism industry, but to other travelers who want to spend time with these magnificent creatures. And, special thanks to Gabrielle Esi Aw, Julie-Anne O'Neill, Lucy Tallis and Pam Brace for photos.]