By Paula Froelich
Often when you’re traveling you just stumble upon things, things that end up changing your life. I was in the hill station of Kalaw in Myanmar when I looked at the itinerary that Jacada Travel had printed for me and saw “Elephant Sanctuary.” This activity was not on the original document, and for some reason I was confused.
“There are elephants in Myanmar?” I asked my driver.
“Yes. Many,” he said. “The Asian elephant. They are used for the logging industry.”
“Oh, riiiight,” I said, feeling dumb. After all, I’d been looking into checking out a place where you could work with elephants in Thailand — which is right next door.
“You still want to go?” my driver asked, eyeing me in the mirror.
“Hell, yes,” I said.
Let me just say I love elephants. If I could have one as a pet, I would. We’d totally be best friends and go everywhere together, and in my fantasy land I wouldn’t even have to clean up its poop. Because my magical elephant wouldn’t poop and somehow would only be a foot high and a foot and a half long so he could fit into my New York City apartment … or in a carry-on bag.
But as much as I love elephants and have seen them in the wild, I’ve never actually been close enough to touch one. Because they are wild, and you normally should not touch them.
So we rolled on up to the Green Hill Valley elephant sanctuary, and my life changed.
Htun Htun Wynn and Tin Win Maw both grew up in Myanmar’s timber industry, and when they got married they decided to start a sanctuary for several of the elephants.
“My uncle was an elephant veterinarian,” Tin Win said. “He took care of timber elephants his whole life. And we had our own elephant. Htun Htun and I decided to start a place where they could come if they were too old to work or were hurt.”
And the elephants had been hurt. All of them were over 40 years old, with the exception of a baby who’d been rescued from a trap two years ago. All of them had been caught in the wild and “broken” — a vicious, brutal process in which an animal is “tamed,” sometimes involving beatings, fire, and other forms of torture (several of the elephants had long-healed scars). In the timber camps, some elephants are treated well … and others are not. TonKantae, a bull elephant, was “so skinny when he came here we weren’t sure we could save him,” Htun Htun said. But they did. The couple built a village around their property for mahouts, the men who work with the elephants. There are seven mahouts, and one elephant per mahout.
In the morning, the mahouts call out to the elephants in the surrounding forest. When they appear, the elephants are fed, bathed and checked by a vet before going back to the forest to forage for the night.
The Maws are hoping to add to their seven ellies. Myanmar is facing a crisis of epic proportions. The country has only 20 percent of its teak forests left, so a ban on timber was placed in April. By mid-2015 all the logging elephants will be out of work with nowhere to go. That makes them prime targets for poaching.
At Green Hill Valley, you can either pay $120 a day to feed, bathe and work with the elephants — or you can volunteer.
Despite surviving on tourism dollars, the Maws allow only 25 tourists a day so the elephants are not overwhelmed.
“They worked their whole lives for us,” Htun Htun said. ”Now it is our turn to give back.”