The first time I met an elephant was in Phuket, Thailand in 2007 … I say met, as it felt like a real interaction vs. a sighting. Upon arriving to the JW Marriott in Phuket, my family and I were told about the elephants that frequented the hotel (at the time). There were babies that would come and walk around the pool area, stealing fruit off of guests pool side trays and sometimes dipping their trunks in the pool. There were also a few teenage elephants that would wander slowly with their handlers, stopping to take photos with tourists and give hugs with their trunks. As a child I had ridden on the back of an elephant at the Colorado Zoo and had seen them from afar at other zoos, but these were distant memories so I was excited to get up close and personal. Once checked into our room, we headed to the pool and I patiently waited, hoping to see one of the babies or teenagers before nightfall. The day passed and it soon became an after thought as we watched the sunset over some beers, soaking in the beauty of the resort and discussing our plans for the week.
The JW Marriott sits on the west side of the island towards the northern tip on a secluded beach. Other resorts and establishments, outside of the off beaten path food shacks, are all miles away. We had spent a few days exploring the island, and one of the afternoons back at the resort my family and I started walking south on the Mai Khao beach away from the hotel. In the distance there was a large grey blob floating in the water, which we didn’t give much though to at first. As we walked closer the blob floated towards and away from the shore with the waves, and we could a see a small man being thrown out of the water, swimming up on the beach and running back into the water of the Andaman Sea. As we inched closer we could hear laughter coming from the man, and water filled rumbles from the grey blob. It soon became clear that we were approaching an elephant who, un-expecting to us, seemed to be enjoying the surf like a big puppy. The Thai man was his handler and had brought his elephant to the beach for a swim – casual. The man would swim out with the elephant, who would launch him off the top of his head into the vast blue ocean, then they would catch a wave and body surf into the beach together. Upon hitting the shore the elephant would roll around in the sand and let the small waves crash on his belly before rolling back out into the sea. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we stood on the shore watching such a spectacle. The trainer noticed us upon the shore and motioned for us to join him. My brother and I approached the elephant with caution and excitement as he sat in the wave break, reaching out with his trunk to greet us. His handler spoke very little English, and as he navigated me around the elephant he looked at me with a smile nodding toward the elephant “Ding Dong!” We soon realized this was his name. As we enter the water he showed me how to grab onto his ear and launch myself onto his strong neck. Ding Dong stood strong against the crashing waves which would have knocked me over long ago, giving me ample time to feel comfortable. As I found myself situated behind his ears he could feel my excitement and let his slow methodical movements become fluid as he started to sway with the tide and head back into the water.
We spent the afternoon rolling in the waves with Ding Dong and his trainer. He would swim graciously & playfully towards us and surprise us with water from his trunk – like a one sided water gun fight we had no chance in winning. Swimming up onto his back we floated with him weightlessly, latching onto his ears before he prepared to climb out of the ocean. As we approached the shore his force was obvious and present, his kindness heard through his triumphant rumbles like a full belly laugh. Coming out of the water you could feel the strength of this amazing animal as water dribbled away, his rough skin and hairs tickled my bare legs as his wet ears flapped back against them like big wet towels. Coming off of his back once upon the shore I stood next to him, petting his trunk, and we finally made eye contact. This is when I not only “saw” an elephant, but met him. Elephants smile, not only with the sides of their mouth but with their eyes. They are gentle and smart. Large but careful. Their personalities match their size and each one takes on its own persona – which is clearly presented upon meeting them.
Since this experience I have had the opportunity to meet many elephants upon my travels in Thailand, and I will be sure to write about them all… but today I mainly wanted to tell the story of meeting Ding Dong as it is World Elephant Day – a day that was created to prompt the action and awareness needed to support the global elephant populations. Elephants are near and dear to mine, and many peoples hearts and it’s clear from stories such as this why. It saddens me that over the last decade the elephant populations have dropped more than 60% worldwide. This statistic is supported by the fact that around 100 African elephants are illegally killed everyday by poachers. Today there are only about 400,000 African elephants and 40,000 Asian elephants left on this planet. Today is an opportunity to celebrate elephants together through stories like mine, and to let the world know they need our protection. I may not have the answer on how to stop poaching, and it seems we are far from putting an end to it – but what I can offer is my fondness, and do my part to share their beauty with all of you through story telling.
If you want to learn how you can get involved in helping save the elephants, one of my favorite organizations is the DSWT. Through their program you are able to adopt orphaned elephants that have lost their families due to poaching and a range of other reasons. DSWT does a wonderful job introducing each new orphan and sharing stories of saving full grown elephants in the wild through updates on channels such as their Instagram. Mainstream companies like GoPro have also been helping raise awareness today through fun videos and collaborations with multiple organizations – so take some time today to check them out!