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Posted by Tim on Aug 10, 2006
Jumbo 2: A Cry For Help

(Note: If you haven't read Jumbo 1 yet, you should do so before reading this entry.)

I crack my head against the roof of the truck as we pitch and bounce along through the jungle. Each bump is more violent than the last, and I'm not exactly sure how the others are holding on back there in the bed of the truck.

In Ecuador, we deviated from the "gringo route" and took a local bus through the Amazon Rain forest for about eight hours. In Cambodia, we ventured off into the less-developed Northeast, hiring a car because the route we wanted to take was too inhospitable to buses.

But nothing, nothing I've ever seen compares to these, the most vicious, hateful, carnivorous roads I've ever had the displeasure to travel along. As we careen around hairpin curves stuck out over plunging precipices, it constantly feels like we might die at any moment. Our driver Chom, though, is having a ball, and the truck rings with his cocky laughter each time we nearly topple over the edge.

And it's just beautiful. There really are no words to convey the spectacular vistas that we pass through. The view out my window ceaselessly goes from stunning to mindblowing.

It's killing me not to be sharing this experience with her.

I catch Lek looking back at me, and smile. She's been reading my thoughts.

"I so sorry, Tim," she calls back to me, pausing as we all crash over another massive bump. "I know you want Jessica to be here, too. But I need her running the park right now."

And it's at just about that moment that our tires go sliding off the edge.


The Village

Chom manages to save us, although his bravado takes a noticible hit. The rest of the drive passes mostly in white-knuckled silence. We all make a mental note to remember where that spot on the road was so that we have a chance of surviving our descent back down this mountain.

Not long afterwards, we pull into the village. At first glace, it appears eerily deserted, seemingly inhabited only by a small cluster of confused-looking water buffalo. This is a Thai village, but it's located almost directly atop the border with Burma. I suppose a truck pulling up unexpectedly out here, in the middle of nowhere, might as likely as not contain a group of Burmese soldiers, intent on looting and genocide. So perhaps everyone is playing it safe, and hiding out until they know our intentions.

Perhaps inevitably, it is children that are the first to emerge. First one or two curious tots appear, watching us from a distance. We've come supplied with toys and medicine to distribute, and soon enough there is a line of adorable kids of all ages, each collecting a small package from Lek and responding with a respectful wai. All the while, adults start popping up at the periphery, watching us intently. Lek's never been to this village before, and it will take a little while to earn their trust.

Lek, Jeff, Chom and Boonchu disappear to try and find Nitnoy, the elephant Lek is searching for. In the meantime, Halley, Katie, and I engage in some serious winning of hearts of minds. Among the toys we've brought are a number velcro baseball mitt-and-ball sets. Soon we're in the midst of a massive game of catch, the three of us interspersed among a dozen or so Karen children, which goes on for the better part of an hour. Everyone is laughing and having a good time, even the parents watching from the sidelines. The three of us, meanwhile, are having a blast: public relations never felt so good.

In the end, we spend nearly 12 hours at the village, and have far too many adventures to get into now. More on those another time.

The reason for this delay is that Lek is having trouble getting Nitnoy's owner to bring out his elephant. We've come to this village because he's already agreed to sell her, but now his story keeps changing: one minute she's too far away in the jungle to come to the village, and the next minute she's on her way and will be here soon. And an hour later, he's back to saying she's not coming.

Jeff thinks we're being jerked around, and wants to leave. Lek is unwavering, though. She knows too much about Nitnoy to give up on her. She keeps stalling, confident that sooner or later the man will come around.


Epiphany

Later, Lek has her laptop out, and is showing videos to some of the villagers. There are these two Thai children, a boy and a girl, that have one of the most popular television shows in the country. They visited the Elephant Nature Park about a year ago, and shot an episode there. This is the video Lek is showing everyone when it hits her.

Suddenly she understands everything. She's not sure exactly how she knows, but she knows. Everything she's learned about Nitnoy since first laying eyes on her last April suddenly snaps into place with the owner's mysterious reluctance.

He's ashamed.

He sees her show up with foreigners, and assumes that she's acting as a buying agent for them. And he knows that no white people are going to buy Nitnoy, not in her condition. So he stalls, hoping they'll leave.

(It turns out, in fact, that he's nearly sold her before, only to lose the sale when the buyer saw her condition. Not only did the buyer cancel the sale, but in fact spent several minutes excorciating Nitnoy's owner for letting her fall into such a state.)

Lek finds the man again, and makes him watch the video. She explains to him that she knows Nitnoy is injured, and that is actually the whole reason we're all here. She shows him photos of blinded Jokia, and hobbled Malai Thong, and unfortunate Max.

Suddenly, everything changes. He runs off to get Nitnoy.


Nitnoy

None of the rest of us are aware of any of this happening. For us, Nitnoy's arrival is heralded by the wave of silence that passes over the village.

The adults stop laughing and smiling. The children stop talking and playing. Where moments before there was joy, now there is this sudden, unexpected sadness. And shame.

Halley gasps and points, and I spin around. And I first lay my eyes on Nitnoy.

She looks like her back half is too small for her front half. Moreover, her left back leg is noticibly smaller than her right. Walking is an adventure, as she pivots and sways wildly from one side to the other while trying to maintain her balance.

When she stands, her left leg hangs limply, not touching the ground. Sometimes this places too much strain on her right leg, and she'll squat awkwardly as she tries to distribute her weight between all four mismatched legs.

And her face is beautiful. She has the bright, hopeful eyes of a young elephant.

My heart catches in my throat, and I feel my eyes filling with tears.

"Uh, Jeff?" I croak, "We're going to rescue her, right? Promise me we're going to rescue her."


Horror

This is how it happened. Nitnoy was traded to her present owner when she was a mere eight or nine years old.

The man put her to work straight away, doing illegal logging in the mountains. For the next three or so years, he worked her without mercy. And then he had himself an thought.

Like a human her age, twelve-year-old Nitnoy was physically able to bear children. Also like a human, though, it probably wasn't a great idea at that age. But the man decided he wanted another elephant. And he wanted it to be big and strong.

So he found the biggest, strongest bull elephant he could, and waited until it went into musth. Musth is a state male elephants enter when they are at their sexual and physical peak. Their behavior during this period, when their testosterone levels increase by a factor of ten, has been compared to the aggressiveness that accompanies the abuse of steriods.

The man chained both of Nitnoy's front legs to a tree, so that she couldn't get away. And then he unleashed the musth-maddened bull elephant upon her, confident that he would get his baby.

He was wrong.

What happened that day forever ensured Nitnoy would never bear a child. The bull crushed her hips, gored her with his tusks, and deformed her for life. She will never be the same again. She will never walk without pain, and she will never be a mother. All of this was ordained on that awful day, some eight years ago.

And the man, well, he put her back to work. For the next eight years she was made to pull heavy logs through the jungle, completely alone. She is twenty years old now. The only other elephant she's seen since she was eight is the bull who raped her.

And then Lek heard about her...


Rescue Me

It's as if she knows, somehow.

Nitnoy stumbles clumsily into the village, her owner trailing behind her. He stops at the village edge, but she doesn't. The deformed elephant hobbles towards Halley, Katie, and I where we sit in the bed of the pickup, and then abruptly (and shakily) changes course.

Almost as if, somehow, she knows.

Lek is sitting in one of the huts, which is perched upon stilts a few feet off the ground. Nitnoy walks directly over to that hut and plants herself in front of it. She stands there, her head almost inside the hut, and stares at Lek.

Lek will tell us later that to her, Nitnoy's purpose is clear: she is pleading for her life.

Help me, she is saying. Take me away from all of this. Please save me.

Lek smiled at her, her big eyes filling with tears as she reached out and stroked the elephant's head, hoping that Nitnoy would be able to read her thoughts just as easily: I will help you. I will take you away. I will save you.


Wrap Up

There is so much more to tell, so much that happened after we left the village. But all of that will have to be the subjects of another post, maybe several other posts.

What is important is that right now, as you are reading this, Nitnoy is at Elephant Nature Park. She has befriended landmine victim Malai Thong, and the two of them are now as inseparable as best friends Jokia and Mae Perm are.

With her new life comes another change: Lek has renamed her Medo ("beautiful"). She is happy now, with perhaps another 65 or so years of happiness stretching out before her. With all that has happened, she will never be able to be a mother. But I'm pretty sure that she's going to make one heck of an auntie.

One last note: while at the park, Jessica and I built them a new website. She wrote all the content (except for the News From The Park section), and I did the design and the coding. Now, keep in mind that this website hasn't been officially launched yet, and we've still got a lot of changes to make before it does (and at the moment there are more photos of dogs than elephants in the Photo Gallery).

But if you'd like a sneak peek, visit it at ElephantNatureFoundation.org,* and learn more about this place which has so stolen our hearts.

* That was a long time ago, the current site (which we had nothing to do with) is ElephantNaturePark.org.

Tim the hedgehog
August 10, 2006 at 7:44pm
Just a quick note to our readers: two of the last three posts have centered around stories of the horrific abuse Asian elephants experience all too often.

We realize this may have been a bit rough on our readers. So rest assured that we plan to move on to much happier tales starting with our next post. :)

daddy
August 10, 2006 at 8:23pm
i'm number one love always woofmeow chirp and binkies
C.J.
August 11, 2006 at 1:39am
Thanks for taking the time to share with us so much what has obviously been the most important and emotional parts of your trip so far (other than getting engaged).
Kristina
August 11, 2006 at 8:52am
It's always wonderful to get a post from you two, regardless of whether or not it is sad. Keep it up!
Seattle_Jackie
August 11, 2006 at 1:16pm
That one took the wind out of my sails. I know Nitnoy is now in better hands– what an amazing adventure. This *TRULY* has to be the be all, end all of this whole experience for you. It would be mine.
Janet
August 12, 2006 at 11:36am
I am humbled and brought to tears, not only for the plight of your large friends but also for the hint that we may lose you two to a wonderful cause.
My daughter saw the new site and said we should go together to experience first hand what you have described.
See, already you've won over two!
Shana
August 13, 2006 at 1:01pm
I really want to comment, but there are truly no words… Beautiful is what you've done, what Lek is doing. Commitment, vision, integrity… yes, beautiful.
Paul Reiss
August 20, 2006 at 4:50am
The last few post have been amazing, Words failed me as they do know.
MoonUnit_Polka
August 22, 2006 at 4:15pm
Medo's history is heart-breaking…thank God for beautiful endings. I was choked up for the full duration of this read and needed a happy thought to finish it off.

You two are incredible.

Crystal
August 25, 2006 at 3:49am
Whew! I saw your link on the Bootsnall boards, and spent the past week reading about your whole trip (great for passing the time at work!). Glad to finally be caught up on your travels!

Medo really is beautiful! She has such a sadness in her eyes, hopefully that will soon change!

Kristina
September 13, 2006 at 4:22pm
Missing our hedgehogs! Post again soon!
Sunnie
September 14, 2006 at 1:55pm
We miss you! Thinking of you both. <img src=' style='position:relative;' height='17px' width='17px' />
Klaus
September 14, 2006 at 4:11pm
You would be surprised if you knew where they are right now…
missy&derick
September 19, 2006 at 1:02pm
Does Klaus know where they are right now perhaps?
Thailand is sounding pretty shaky in the news… *worried face*
Tim the hedgehog
September 19, 2006 at 1:06pm
No worries, we're not in Thailand right now. (We'll reveal where we are very soon, we promise.)

*worries about friends in Thailand*

Janet
September 20, 2006 at 8:18pm
Aha, you ARE around! Love to you both.
James
December 19, 2006 at 6:17pm
Good for you two.
These mammals make us truely think about what we are doing to this poor little planet.

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