During the five months of travelling around South East Asia there was one part of my trip that I had been most looking forward, my week with the elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Elephants have always been my favourite animal and I’ve gone from writing school projects on them to basing my first novel around them so being up close to them for a week was a dream come true!
The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary ran by Lek Chailert, an amazing woman who rescues these elephants from the tourist trade. At the Elephant Nature Park they have a home, a respite from the camera flashes that make them blind, or the elephant riding that damages their backs and hips, the broken legs from hauling logs and the many other cruelties these elephants suffer for the entertainment of tourists and the logging industry. At the moment they have around twenty-five elephants roaming around this huge expanse of land and a further five in a similar sanctuary in Phuket. They are able to do whatever they want when they want, experiencing a freedom they might not have had in years, if ever. The mahouts who take care of them and form special bonds with the elephants, aren’t there to coral them or cause them pain like their previous owners, but simply there to look after them. It was exciting to know I would get to experience being so close to these amazing animals and yet know it was in a way that was helping them.
Before I could properly begin my week with the elephants I had to sign up and get my free t-shirt at the office in central Chiang Mai. Not to mention the free breakfast and re-usable water bottle, big perks to any backpacker! On the mini bus ride to the park we watched a couple of DVD’s explaining how to act around the elephants once we reached the park and why Lek had set up this sanctuary in the first place. Lek and a man called Adam Flinn set up the Elephant Nature Park in 1998, which used to run daily elephant shows. The elephants would perform tricks and even give rides but it was always Lek’s goal to end these shows and make the park purely a sanctuary. One isolated section was set aside, even then, for the more damaged elephants and this she called Elephant Heaven. Now though, the shows are long gone and the elephants live in peace - the whole park has become an elephant heaven!
Once we had an induction and dropped our stuff off in our rooms we were free to wander around for a little while. As we walked down a path behind the kitchens an elephant suddenly strolled into view, it was magnificent. She ambled up to the pillars blocking off the kitchen but nothing was going to stop this determined elephant. Despite the protests of the mahout and the kitchen staff, this cheeky girl reached her trunk between the pillars and pulled a juicy watermelon into her mouth, completely unaware of the excitement she was causing the group of fresh-off-the bus volunteers who were eagerly taking photos.
Over the next week we would feed, wash and clean up after the elephants, a mammoth task (no pun intended) considering an elephant spends the majority of their day eating and can consume between 200-600lbs of food, not to mention the amount that comes out the other end! Unfortunately my group, A Group (the best group, just saying) pulled the short straw and ended up on poo shoveling duty first off… a task we would come to know well.
Shovelling poo turned out not to be as it sounds - luckily all the fiber in their diet makes the piles pretty easy to shovel up. The main perk though was getting to walk around the park and watch the herds just be. Dok Mai was the most fun to watch. The baby of the herd, she was kicking a tire around and whipping a piece of grass back and forth with her trunk. Her mother, Mae Dok Ngern, and nanny, Thong Jaa, stayed close by. We had to make sure we didn’t get too close but it was amazing to be standing nearby, no barriers between the elephants and us.
Even more amazing was getting to stroke an elephant. I was almost shaking with excitement when we met Mae Jan Peng and Saza. Mae Jan Peng’s eyes have been damaged because of tourist’s incessant camera flashes and I could see the silver clouds over her pupils. I stepped forward and reached out my hand to her shoulder. Her skin was rough but mostly because of the coarse hair that covered her body. I was surprised that she didn’t feel more solid, I think I imagine an elephant to feel as sturdy as a rock, but she almost felt hollow beneath that skin, not empty though, but full of muscle, power, emotion, empathy. What surprised me more, though it shouldn't have, was how different Saza felt in comparison. Saza was shockingly emaciated when she arrived at the elephant park after working for years giving tourists rides despite getting no supplementary food. Now she is on a special diet and later, after we had finished loading the watermelons, bananas and rice balls for the elephant’s food, we would take a slice of watermelon, the rind removed so she can eat it (elephants teeth slowly wear down so that most old elephants die of starvation rather than age), and hold it out to her searching trunk. Her skin was more bristly, the hair on her body thicker. Saza is a favourite at the park, always recognizable by the small red flower her mahout made to place in a hole in her ear. She does look very pretty. These are the only elephants we were allowed to stroke and this was only because they are too old to be released back into the wild so at this point it is more important for them to build a positive association of humans so that they can easily be approached when receiving medical care and check ups.
When we weren’t spending time with the elephants there was plenty more to do. Elephant Nature Park is also a home for abandoned cats, dogs and it even houses a few water buffalo. After the catastrophic floods in Bangkok in 2011, there were many lost and abandoned dogs; this began the dog project at Elephant Nature Park. These cats and dogs also have free reign of the park, though they also have their own designated areas. Everyone would always look out for Memphis though, a dog with kidney problems who wore a little blue jacket until the staff had tracked him down to give him his medicine. We would be cleaning up the park when suddenly we would spot a flash of blue and there he would be, wallowing in the mud in his blue jacket, trying to avoid taking his medicine.
There was always something going on in the evenings too. Our volunteer leaders gave us a lesson in basic Thai and taught us a little about Thailand’s history and culture, including a cute little elephant song that Thai children learn! We even got to hear Lek speak. She is an incredible woman who has so much love in her heart for animals and especially elephants. More than that, she is an intelligent fighter, knowing how to navigate her countries people and government to try and get the best care for her elephants. When we watched a video where she went to see an elephant who was being kept in crush, Lek didn’t barge in and rescue the elephant in some heroic manner, what she did was much more subtle and important. She knows that if she takes that elephant away another one will be stolen from the wild, what she can do though, is care for that elephant’s wounds and teach the captors what she can about looking after them. She knows to play the long game and change things through tourists. Elephants will continue to be taken from the wild so long as there is a demand for elephant riding. It stops when we, the tourists, refuse to take part in this horrific practice. If we tell our tour operators back home to stop offering trips that include elephant riding then we can cut off the demand and give elephants a chance to remain in the wild.
Elephant Nature Park doesn’t just support animals either. It has also provided many men and women with jobs. Mahouts are well taken care of at the park and their children are helped to go to school. We got to go and visit them to see what they were learning. I had barely set foot on the playground before a gaggle of girls grabbed my hand to show me around. It wasn’t long before they got hold of my camera too and I have to admit that the ones they took are some of my favourite of my trip. Spending Christmas at the park also meant I got to enjoy the Christmas party they throw every year for the staff and their families. On Christmas Eve we watched local dances and performances by staff, the mahouts even playing Jingle Bells on homemade instruments made out of old pipes! Afterwards Lek and her team began handing the presents out, a task that went on late into the night.
On Christmas day we woke up to our final task and of course it was… shoveling poo. But it didn’t bother us; we donned out Christmas hats and got to work. As I watched the elephants drink and eat and play, their ears flapping in the heat, their trunks reaching out to each other, I decided that even while picking up poo there was no where I would have rather been.
Published by Jessica Walden