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 and mittens to stave off the region’s unusual weather.
But what’s an elephant to do?
At the Winga Baw camp for orphaned elephants in Myanmar, the weather was unseasonably cold, according to Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation. Temperatures fell to 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit) in some parts of the country.
“We haven’t had weather this cold in 40 years,” she said by phone on Sunday while traveling through northern Thailand, after spending 18 hours in the jungle for her work rescuing abused elephants.
Workers at the camp scrambled to protect seven orphaned elephants in their care, using straw to keep them warm, she wrote in a Facebook post describing the operation.
But the camp, in the Bago Region, also had a secret weapon: giant blankets. They were donated by a craft group, Blankets for Baby Rhinos, whose knitters and crocheters are scattered around the globe.
Ms. Chailert says she runs 28 camps in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia for elephants that had been abused in the tourism and entertainment industries. For 10 years she has had a campaign to persuade tourism operators to use more humane methods to handle the animals, she said.
“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. When the temperatures dipped to freezing levels, she reached out to Blankets for Baby Rhinos via Facebook in November.
According to the group, members create blankets not just for 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.”
The blankets at the Winga Baw camp were delivered by Sue Brown and Ruthie Cassidy, of Blankets for Baby Rhinos, Ms. Chailert said: “Sue’s husband is a pilot who flew the parcel to us from the United Arab Emirates to Bangkok.” She said she went to Thailand and flew them to the Myanmar camp.
Ry Emmerson, project director for Save Elephant Foundation, said by email that it was the first time the 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 said.
According to the American Museum of Natural History, 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 organization in South Africa working to protect the animals, says habitat loss and illegal killing for ivory are among the greatest threats to Asian 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 says, 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. To keep the crocheted coverings on, they are tied around the elephants’ midsections. Before the animals have a mud bath, the blankets come off. After a swim, and in the evening, the blankets are restored to keep them warm at night, Ms. Chailert said.
But how do you even begin to knit for a baby elephant?
Jo Caris, a coordinator for Blankets for Baby Rhinos in France, offers a handy guide online, suggesting blankets of 120 centimeters by 120 centimeters (47 inches by 47 inches) for baby elephants, and 120 centimeters by 160 centimeters (47 inches by 63 inches) for toddlers of 4 months or older.
“You can use any wool/yarn of your choice,” she adds, “any size knitting needles or crochet hooks.”
When the blankets arrived at the Winga Baw camp, Ms. 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.”
Ms. Chailert said she wished that tourists would be more conscientious about elephant attractions when they traveled, 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.”