Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Touched by an Elephant, Part 2

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Part II: The Matriarch

The sanctuary rests in an open jungle valley in the remote Mondulkiri province of Northeast Cambodia. Like the rest of the country, Mondulkiri is undergoing rampant deforestation, a tremendous threat to the small population of elephants that still live wild in these hills. When I arrived, the jungle was suffering from an unseasonable drought, and the sanctuary had to supplement their elephants' diet to make up for the increasingly sparse food on the foraging grounds.

I had a different relationship with each of the elephants—some inspired laughter, others fear, still others seemed dissociated, or simply indifferent to my presence. I had brief moments of connection with many of them wnile participating in their routine vet checks, and had opportunity to observe and explore their responses to human touch.

My interactions with the matriarch Ning Wan took these explorations to another level entirely. Of all the elephants at the sanctuary, only Ning Wan had never been used for commercial purposes. By all appearances, she was the psychologically healthiest elephant on the grounds, making her a natural leader for the others, and a natural "conversation" partner for a curious human. In my mind she seemed to radiate a deep sense of peace and quiet authority, so that I felt honored when she approached me, when we made contact.

With time, one seeming point of contention developed between us: my digital video camera. As a fieldworker, I was voracious in wanting to capture everything that happened at the sanctuary. It was during an early encounter with Ning Wan that I first got the impression that she did not care for the camera. She came right up to me and stopped, even as the rest of the herd was moving past. I was awed, and a little frightened by her interest in me. I was also filming. Of course, it's a stretch to imagine Ning Wan somehow understood the camera and its function, although she's certainly seen hundreds of cameras in her day, and observed how humans use them. Rather, I think she noticed my attention was divided between directly engaging her, and focusing on the electronic device. In that moment, quite pragmatically, my consciousness was split between the actual relationship, and my relationship to her abstract image (and everything it might signify in the human world back home). If her elephant intuition told her there was something duplicitous in the divided psyche of the human that stood before her, I can't entirely say she was wrong.

From that moment on, I was intensely aware of Ning Wan's reaction to my camera, and began to take greater lengths to keep it off my person when she was nearby. On a subsequent visit, she and I engaged while my camera was some distance off. After our interaction, she went right towards it and, after sniffing around my bag, she knocked the camera tripod over with her trunk. Of course, I can't prove that she did this on purpose. But, after witnessing the remarkable dexterity of elephant trunks for several weeks, I'm convinced it was no accident.

"Are you here to connect with me," I imagined her asking, "or are you only here to serve your own human purposes?"

Fortunately, my relationship with Ning Wan was not confined to the camera dynamic. I was able to attempt many "conversations" with her, each time humbly trying to understand what was working and what wasn't. My rational mind would spin a story, or guess at what something might mean, but I tried to save such speculation for my field notes. Somatic, embodied communication—sometimes referred to as "attunement" in psychological literature—is more often framed as an implicit process, engaging the global, holistic thinking of the right brain hemisphere, rather than the more linear syntax of the left. Like a human mother and infant, our bodies were communicating meaningfully with each other, without engaging the language centers of our brains.

In my weeks at the sanctuary, my relationship with Ning Wan was marked by fits and starts—moments of confusion and misunderstanding, balanced with moments of genuine contact and rapport. It was a beginning, nothing more.

 Want more? Read Part 3 here!

Photos courtesy of Jason and Linsey Honaker. 

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Bradshaw, G.A. (2009). Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Knaster, M. (1996). Discovering the Body's Wisdom. New York, NY: Bantam.

Montagu, A. (1971). Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Moss, C. (1998). Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Pool, J. (n.d.). "Elephant Communication." Retrieved July 14, 2015, from http://www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-communication.html.