Across China: Elephant "foster parents" raise gentle giants as their own
KUNMING, Aug. 29 (Xinhua) -- Chen Jiming has two families, one of which can be found in a breeding and rescue center in southwest China's Yunnan Province.
The 36-year-old mahout treats elephants as his own flesh and blood and has been taking care of the giants at the Asian Elephant Breeding and Rescue Center in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve for 11 years.
"One of my lightest 'kids' in the center weighs more than 800 kg," Chen said.
Since 2008, the center has rescued more than 20 wild elephants. Each has at least two caregivers called "elephant parents." So far, the center has 27 mahouts working in shifts accompanying the animals around the clock, monitoring their health and preparing them for release into the wild.
Chen sits on the ground, with his 800-kg "daughter" Yang Niu gamboling around. The experienced mahout plays with the giant, using bananas and carrots as treats without an ounce of fear.
"That's not how it started. When I first got to know the animal, they seemed too huge, making me nervous all the time," he said.
Chen had studied in Laos for six years to learn more about the animal before he began working for the center in 2008.
According to him, there is much that professional caregivers need to explore, such as the parts of an elephant that can't be touched.
"Elephants have a strong sense of self-protection and each has their own unique temper and character as well as sensitive zones," Chen said. "For example, if you touch an elephant's bottom, it might flick its tail and hit you. When you don't know the animal, they may pose a threat to your life."
"Food is always the most useful way to win their trust, with bananas and carrots being their favorites," he added.
The first elephant baby that Chen took care of is Yi Nen, who was used to transport drugs along the China-Myanmar border and was saved by the forest police in Yunnan in 2015. "She was only three years old when criminals fed her drugs to control her."
Yi Nen was sent to south China's Hainan Tropical Wildlife Park and Botanical Garden for rehabilitation in 2015 and was transported to the rescue center in Yunnan for professional care and treatment when it was put into operation three years later.
"She was more than two meters tall when I met her, weighing only about 1 tonne, over 200 kg thinner than other six-year-old elephants and very picky about her food," Chen said.
Chen took care of Yi Nen for nearly seven years, talking to her in the local language of the Dai ethnic group to help the elephant free herself from the drugs and form good habits.
"Elephants are intelligent and sentient. Being together all day long, we are connected by a special bond. Yi Nen was impatient and upset at first, but after treatment and extended companionship, the baby elephant gradually improved her behavior," Chen said.
On Dec. 22, 2017, Yi Nen gave birth to a female elephant named Yi Shuang.
"Checking my elephant babies is how I start my day. They always rush toward me, cutely swinging their heads and tails," he said. "Every time I come back from vacation, they sniff me or touch my face with their noses to welcome me."
Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan is one of the main habitats for wild Asian elephants in China.
The animals are under Class-A protection in China and are classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
"Enhanced protection for wild animals has led to a rise in the elephant population in recent years," Chen said. "In the 1990s, only about 180 wild Asian elephants were living in Yunnan."
It is estimated that the population has risen to around 300. So far, six elephants have been born at the breeding and rescue center.
"A playground as large as about four football fields has been built in the center where the rutting mammals can mate freely," Chen said.
When the time comes for the elephants to give birth, mahouts prepare soft quilts and grasses in advance. "After all, the giants give birth at a certain height from the ground and we have to make sure the calves will not be hurt as they fall. Sometimes we put the babies on stools, helping them feed from their mother."
The caregivers are even responsible for stimulating secretion of milk to ensure the calves have enough to eat.
"It's all worth it when I see their chubby faces grow up happily, safely and healthily," he said.