As we walked to the elephant breeding center, we had a chance to casually chat with Deep, our young guide. In his late teens or early twenties, Deep had grown up in a nearby village; the park was his world. He had learned about wildlife and guiding from his big brother, who was currently leading a rafting tour down the nearby Karnali River. In Deep’s voice there was an unmistakable fondness and reverie for the one who taught him all that he knew.
He appeared to have trained Deep well. During our short walk, our young guide was constantly pointing out things in the sky and down by the river, calling out names of things I didn’t know and couldn’t see: Dive bombing kingfishers; silhouettes of black ibis overhead; trees shuddering with rhesus monkeys; the names of strange plants. There was life to see all around.
We arrived at the breeding center just as the elephants were coming back from their walk. I had seen an elephant up close and in person before, as a child at a zoo, recalling the sad specimen wandering aimlessly behind a concrete moat. The elephants here were different. They sauntered back to camp from their daily excursions into the park for food, carrying on their backs their drivers along with large bundles of grasses for dinner. I had almost forgotten about their strength when one of them tossed a fifteen-foot long log around like a matchstick.
Deep told us that we could go up and touch one. Elephant skin is just like one would expect, rough, leathery, except it is also full of black wiry hair. We patted his tusk and trunk, looked into his eyes. He almost seemed bemused. Silly little people, he probably thought.
On our way back to the lodge, we stopped by a traditional Tharu home. On the outside walls there were relief artworks of birds and horses, and on the roof with growing gourds and vines was a peacock, just hanging out. Inside a giant vat of rice occupied the middle of the room while rings of plates made from waxy leaves hung on one wall, the ultimate in disposable dinnerware. In the far corner, there was a simple stove for cooking with a tube that went outside. Deep showed us the connection to the newly installed bio gas generator out back where animal waste was used to generate cooking fuel and fertilizer, an initiative started to help villagers conserve firewood and protect the forests. I asked Deep if it accepts human waste too.
“It takes everything!” he said and grinned. We shared a good childish laugh.