The Kodanad Elephant Camp was the first stop on our Munnar tour. It is in a beautiful setting, alongside the Periyar River near a large wildlife sanctuary. We were there in the early morning, and the light on river was gorgeous. Several elephants, ranging from a fairly small baby to nearly full-grown adults were in the river with their trainers. Some were learning how to bend down or lift a leg up to let the trainer mount and dismount. A few were obligingly lying down and letting their ears be scrubbed, and a couple seemed to just be playing with each other and splashing around. We watched and took photos for half an hour or so, until bathtime was over and the trainers led them back up the hill to the main camp.
This camp’s purpose is to train elephants for the logging industry, which is still active in India. A few years ago, we visited an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, where logging has been outlawed for more than a decade. That camp included a hospital and a breeding facility, and focused on rehabilitating elephants that had survived the logging industry but could not be released into the wild to fend for themselves.
The two camps had very different feels to them. At the sanctuary in Thailand, you could feel the love and caring that the staff felt toward the animals, and you could see that the elephants had good lives and were well cared for. At the Kodanad camp, the animals were being prepared for a lifetime of toil, and this was clearly a job for the trainers, not a labor of love. They seemed grumpier and less patient, and though I did not see any signs that the elephants were being mistreated, it felt more exploitative overall. If this had been the first time I had been able to get so close to elephants, I’m sure my delight in that would have been what I remembered most strongly. The comparison with my previous experience left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
But still: baby elephants playing in the river!!