When an unexpectedly cold front from China descended on parts of Southeast Asia this past week, people in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia bundled up in coats to stave off the region’s unusual weather.
But what’s an elephant to do?
When unseasonal cold weather hit the Winga Baw camp for orphaned elephants in Myanmar, workers scrambled to protect the seven animals in their care, using straw to keep them warm, according to Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation, a nonprofit organisation based in Thailand that is dedicated to Asian elephants.
“We haven’t had weather this cold in 40 years,” she said by phone on Sunday while traveling through northern Thailand.
Temperatures fell to 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit) in some parts of the country. But the camp, in the Bago Region of Myanmar, had another secret weapon: giant knitted and crocheted blankets.
They were donated by Blankets for Baby Rhinos, a wildlife conservation craft group founded in November 2016 on Facebook by Sue Brown, who has been involved in rhino conservation for 25 years, and Elisa Best, a veterinary surgeon.
The group of 1,500 knitters and crocheters are scattered around the globe, Jo Caris, a coordinator for Blankets for Baby Rhinos in France, said by email on Sunday. “Our largest community of knitters and crocheters are in South Africa,” she said. “After that, it’s the U.S.A., U.K., Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Europe.”
She said 95 percent are women, “but we do have a few men and, yes, they even crochet.”
According to the group, members create blankets for more than just rhinoceroses:
“We make crochet and knitted blankets for a variety of orphaned baby wildlife animals, including but not limited to rhinos, elephants, chimpanzees, baboons, vervet monkeys. We also make crochet and knitted toys that act as a surrogate mother to our primate babies.”
When the temperatures dipped, Chailert and Blankets for Baby Rhinos connected on Facebook, and the blankets-for-baby-elephants operation began.
Chailert says she runs 28 camps in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia for elephants that were abused in the tourism and entertainment industries. For 10 years, she said, she has campaigned to persuade tourism operators to use more humane methods to handle the animals. “No more riding, no more performing,” she said.
But it has been an uphill battle. By the time the elephants arrive at the camps, she said, many are disabled, blind or otherwise sick. In all, 77 elephants are in her care.
Caris said the blankets for the Winga Baw camp were sent to Thailand in late October or early November. Chailert said she traveled there and had them delivered to the Myanmar elephant camp.
Ry Emmerson, project director for Save Elephant Foundation, said it was the first time the baby elephants had been swaddled in blankets because of the cold. “Many are orphans as a result of the illegal wildlife trade, in particular the current trend for elephant skin,” he wrote in an email.
The American Museum of Natural History says the Asian elephant is a “highly endangered species.” It once roamed “from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in western Asia, as far east as China’s Yangtze River.” But no more.
Wildlife Asia Elephants, an organisation working to protect the animals, said habitat loss and illegal killing for ivory are among the greatest threats to the elephants. “Asian elephants now occur on only about 10 percent of their historical range, and many of the remaining populations are both small and isolated,” the group says on its website.
Young elephants, the natural history museum added, are removed from the wild for entertainment purposes and become orphaned when their mothers die trying to protect them.
For the orphans at Winga Baw, the day starts with a blanket to keep them warm. They are tied firmly around the elephants’ midsections. Before the animals have a mud bath, the blankets come off. After a swim, the blankets are restored, Chailert said.
But how do you even begin to knit for a baby elephant?
Caris offers a handy guide online, suggesting blankets of 120 cm-by-120 cm (47 inches-by-47 inches) for baby elephants, and 120 cm-by-160 cm (47 inches-by-63 inches) for toddlers of 4 months or older.
“Mostly, members use 100 percent acrylic yarn,” she said by email, “as it’s easy to wash and wears well.” She added, “As for design, we give our members carte blanche and, believe me, some blankets are nothing short of a masterpiece.”
When the blankets arrived at the Winga Baw camp, Chailert said, “all seven babies, they loved it.” The foundation caused a stir when it shared photographs on Facebook of the swaddled elephants. One user wrote on Facebook: “Wonderful winter collection, ladies.”
Chailert said she wished that tourists would be more conscientious about elephant attractions when they travel, investigating the operations before climbing up for a ride.
“Don’t accept cruelty to animals,” she said. “I just hope that in 2018, people will be more careful and travel with care.”
Yonette Joseph/The New York Times