Green Hill Valley, Kalaw, Myanmar
There I was, surrounded by bamboo forest near Kalaw in Myanmar, thigh-deep in brown river water, wearing borrowed Burmese fisherman’s trousers... scrubbing the head of a small Asian elephant who was submerged in the water beside me. It was one of life’s ‘pinch yourself’ moments!
This immersive experience is part of the visitor package at Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, a family-run elephant sanctuary that is essentially a retirement camp for elephants who have been working in the region’s logging industry. Poaching and mistreatment of these mighty creatures is rife in Myanmar, an issue that prompted the launch of the Voices for Wildlife (formerly Voices for Momos campaign (in Myanmar, momos means elephants). The campaign has brought together conservation organisations including the WWF to call for an end to the country’s illegal wildlife trade, and educate the community in ways of conservation. An ethos echoed by the Green Hill Valley team where the focus is on improving elephant welfare standards and caring for these gentle giants in a stress-free environment - there’s no riding, chains or circus tricks.
During a recent inspection trip to Myanmar, I spent a memorable afternoon at this inspirational project, learning about their animal conservation and reforestation efforts, as well as the educational program they have funded in the nearby village, before meeting the stars of the sanctuary - the elephant residents. I must admit to feeling a little intimidated as I approached them – they are a lot bigger and bulkier when you get up close!
Rather hesitantly at first - animals can be unpredictable, after all - and under the watchful eyes of the mahouts, I stepped forward with my arm outstretched, holding a piece of ripe fruit. Having accepted my peace offering, my new-found friend allowed me to step closer and stroke his trunk, on the proviso that the ele-snacks kept coming. It was then bath time, which is how I came to be standing in the river with a scrubbing brush being careful to avoid wayward tusks, moving legs and floating dung! Well-fed and scrubbed behind the (large) ears, the elephants trundled off into the forest, free to roam until breakfast time, a world away from their previous working life lugging timber.