Thailand is a must-visit location on the list of any backpacker. Travelers know they’ll get amazing views and a chance to explore a culture like no other on the planet. They also know they’ll get a chance to experience wildlife up close and personal — talk about checking one off your bucket list!
Unfortunately, not all of the animals in Thailand live the happy and carefree lives that you might expect. When one man came to Thailand for the first time, he made a connection with a very special animal. His response might have confused some people, but it left the animals desperate to see him again.
For decades the teak tree trade was huge in Thailand with devastating effects. The trade destroyed the forests, and it turned the beautiful wildlife who lived there into slaves.
While you might expect that heavy machinery was used to fell trees, that wasn’t the case. Elephants were forced to haul heavy logs on their backs. Twigs and branches scraped their bodies and eyes as they were forced into this labor.
By the late 1980s, the forests of Thailand were so far gone it was impossible to ignore. Finally, the government decided that it needed to do something. In 1989, Thailand enacted a ban on commercial timber logging.
This was a grand piece of legislation that passed as the country desperately needed to stop this logging epidemic. One thing the bill didn’t cover, however, were all of the now-unemployed and traumatized elephants.
Tragically, though the practice was put to a stop, it left scars emotional and otherwise. Many elephants were left blinded from their hard labor. They lacked instinctual training and survival techniques. So how were they expected to return to the wild under these conditions?
Luckily, Dr. Samart, a veterinarian, and his wife, Khun Fon, wanted to do something for these helpless creatures. They started Elephants World, which helped provide food and shelter to local elderly and injured elephants. Their motto was: “Where we work for the elephants and the elephants not for us.”
They began fundraising to help them continue their mission. Within no time, Elephants World began to spread online and interests from tourists began to peak. They became financially able to host more than 30 elephants and about 130 employees.
This was when Paul Barton walked into the picture. Paul was enamored by the piano after hearing an impromptu from the late composer Franz Schubert as a child. He was determined to learn to play.
Paul Barton / Facebook
At the age of 12, Paul taught himself to play the piano on other people’s instruments. He and his father played music in a small seaside town in northern England which led to Paul making music his life’s work. But the piano wasn’t his only passion.
Paul loved to travel. In 1996, Paul planned a visit to Thailand where he taught piano for three months. There, Paul met Khwan, his future wife. He didn’t just fall in love with her, he fell in love with Thailand and the couple, along with new daughter Emelie, decided to make the nation their home.
In 2011, while exploring the countryside of Kanchanaburi, Thailand, on the banks of the River Kwai, Paul discovered something that would ignite a new passion in his life. In fact, it was a passion he could easily pair with his love for music.
While doing research about the area and its wildlife he learned about Elephants World and how the sanctuary hosted old, injured, and handicapped elephants. Paul, an animal lover, was eager to go visit the sanctuary to see how he could get involved.
Paul didn’t go to the sanctuary alone, though; he brought an old friend with him: his piano. He had previously worked with blind children using music therapy and saw the impact it had made on them. He suspected it might just have the same impact on the elephants…
Surprisingly, elephants and humans share similar neurons in their brains. Both humans and elephants remember trauma, so if the piano could help his human clients cope with trauma, he thought the elephants traumatized from their time in the timber industry could benefit from his playing as well. But it wasn’t easy.
Paul pushed his piano all the way up the mountain to get it to where the elephants were. When he reached the top, he set up his piano and began playing Beethoven. There were a few elephants around, but one quickly noticed Paul’s presence.
A blind elephant named Plara was closest to the piano and was enjoying a grass breakfast when the music made him stop dead in his tracks. He picked his head up, grass still in his mouth, and walked toward the piano.
Paul recalled, “You are communicating with them in a different language. That language is neither ours nor theirs. There is something infinitesimally wonderful in a piece of Beethoven that connects me to that elephant, and that feeling is otherworldly.”
It’s hard to tell who enjoyed the music more, Paul or the elephants. He decided to make his visits a regular thing. He stated, “Some elephants get very close to the piano of their own accord, they might drape their trunk over the piano even.” His bond with the elephants became so strong that it led to a major change in his life.
You see, Paul visited so often that eventually he and his family moved to the sanctuary permanently so that he could always play music for the elephants. Sometimes even wild monkeys stop by his concerts for a listen. It sounds like music really does soothe the savage beast.
Paul feels, “The elephant has worked for humans for too long. What is the little thing I can do as a human to say sorry, for my species for what we have done to them?” Paul’s beautiful sentiment was also recently realized by a group of rural villagers in India.
In 2015, a fairly large herd of about 60 elephants were spotted walking through a dusty portion of northeastern India. They’d been traveling for miles before something truly terrible happened.
The elephants were passing through a stretch of the Chatra district, about 100 miles from the Jharkhand state capital of Ranchi. The villagers there were no strangers to migrating elephants. But one stood out to them…
This elephant exhibited mysterious and erratic behavior. As hours passed, villagers circled around her in a muddy field. What was she doing? And why had she separated from the rest of her herd?
Newslions Media / YouTube
The elephant caused quite the stir; she was frantic, and local villagers at first couldn’t quite figure out why. They watched as the elephant, now separate from her herd, pushed her trunk into the dirt.
They soon realized that she was digging. Using her back legs to brace herself, the elephant buried her trunk in a decent-sized ditch. She worked furiously, pulling whatever bits of mud she could from the hole.
Occasionally, she took steps back, clearly exhausted. She did this over and over, digging for 11 hours straight! From sundown to sunrise, she dug so intently that most of her herd left her behind. What was going on?
Newslions Media / YouTube
The villagers had to proceed with caution—the elephant could be dangerous, and they still had no idea what was wrong. As they approached, however, they immediately understood: her calf had fallen into the muddy ditch and he was stuck!
Unfortunately, as the mother elephant dug, she made the situation worse. Because of her size and power, she was actually pushingmud into the hole, covering—and potentially smothering—her baby.
Newslion Media / YouTube
The villagers knew what trouble awaited if they just left the animals alone—the baby elephant would either suffocate from the mud or starve to death. But concerned as they were, what could they really do?
After all, rescuing the baby elephant wasn’t as simple as grabbing him by his legs or trunk and pulling him out of the hole. Most likely, the mother wasn’t going to let them anywhere near her baby, either. The villagers needed to be creative—and careful.
One of the villagers, Jitendra Tiwari, caught the whole ordeal on camera, and he recounted the villagers’ rescue efforts later.First, the villagers drove a few banana trucks up to the ditch and frightened away the mother…
With the mother elephant at a safe distance away, Jitendra said, “We used [that] time to remove the heap of sand deposited near the well that was making it difficult for her to rescue the baby.” But would it work?
The villagers then drove the banana truck away from the hole so the mother elephant could return for her calf. Now, she had level ground to work from and she wouldn’t kick any more mud into the well… or so they hoped.
After her 11-hour struggle, the mother elephant was finally able to wrap her trunk around her mud-slicked baby. With a few good heaves, she pulled her young calf to safety. It looked like the villagers and the mother’s efforts paid off!
Now that her calf was back on solid ground, the mother elephant could rest easy. Villagers even reported something incredibly sweet: the two pachyderms walked away with their trunks entwined! That was like an elephant’s way of giving a kiss.
With the whole ordeal now behind them, the mother and her calf walked away from the village side by side and ready to catch up with the rest of their herd. Surely, these two would never forget the villagers who pitched in to help!
When it comes to helping, It goes without saying that naval officers are the people you want around when there’s trouble on the water—and this was no truer than when sailors off the coast of Sri Lanka spotted a strange shape in the water recently.
It was July of 2017, and a Sri Lankan naval vessel had been performing a series of practice maneuvers in the ocean. The officers didn’t expect that their drills would turn into a real-life emergency, but that’s exactly what happened.
As the sailors entered deeper waters, they noticed a strange shape that seemed to be struggling beneath the surface. Curious, they diverted from their course to see if they could help. They had no idea what they were getting into…
Once they got close to the object, they were utterly shocked: the strange shape struggling in the water was an elephant! The poor animal had somehow found himself more than nine miles into the open sea—and he was swimming for his life.
The crew immediately sprang into action, and they tried to plan the best way to save the struggling elephant. They quickly alerted the Department of Wildlife, too. After all, they weren’t animal experts, and they would need all the help they could get…
With no time to lose, the sailors moved as close as they safely could to the struggling elephant so they could secure him with ropes. It was a tricky task; no one wanted to distress the animal or put him in more danger than he already was.
This brave officer led the way. He dove into the water and risked his life to tie rope around the frantic creature. Though the elephant was clearly in trouble, that didn’t mean he still couldn’t harm the officer.
Time was of the essence, but the officers also needed to work as carefully as possible. Though the elephant was able to breathe, he was thrashing about in the water—and the ocean was rough. Once secured, the officers attached the ropes to the boat.
With the elephant dragging behind, the ship slowly returned toward shallow waters. No one knew how the poor creature ended up so far out at sea, though some speculated that he likely got caught up in a strong current.
While the officers’ actions were critical to rescuing the elephant, they wouldn’t be able to consider the mission a success until they safely handed the animal over to the experts at the Department of Wildlife…
With the rescue portion of the mission complete, the Department of Wildlife took over. “Having safely guided the elephant to the Yan Oya area in Pulmodai, the animal was handed over to the wildlife officials for onward action.”
Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon to find elephants wandering into the surf for a dip in the cool, refreshing water. Unfortunately for this particular pachyderm, the situation became dire as soon as he got too far out to return to shore.
It might sound crazy, but elephants have been known to swim out even further than the nine miles this elephant journeyed! But, clearly, this one bit off more than he could chew.
Elephants have even been known to use their trunks as snorkels when they are swimming in deeper water. It’s almost as if they’re in a Looney Tunes cartoon! Can you imagine this strange sight while on a boat in the ocean?
Interestingly, biologists believe that elephants are very closely related to another animal who loves the water: the manatee! Some researchers believe that elephants first came to Sri Lanka by swimming there. Perhaps this goofy guy just wanted to take a vacation?
Still, this was a case where an elephant definitely needed a hand. “[Elephants] can’t keep swimming for long because they burn a lot of energy,” explained a representative from the Department of Wildlife. “And the salt water isn’t good for their skin, so in this case, the situation probably warranted human intervention.”
Of course, it was possible that this elephant was simply trying to cross Kokkilai Lagoon, a popular spot for elephants, when the current from the open ocean carried him out into more treacherous waters.
Asian elephants are known to travel small distances through the water. In fact, tourists often flock to watch elephants cross the waters that connect India and Myanmar. It’s a spectacular sight.
Whatever caused this elephant to get dragged out to the ocean was neither here nor there; what mattered most was that the naval officers and the Department of Wildlife were able to return the elephant to his family on dry land!
When all was said and done, the sailors would never forget their adventure with the lovable elephant, whom they since nicknamed Jumbo. Hopefully, Jumbo learned a valuable lesson and he will stay away from strong currents from now on!