I love Thailand. I love everything about it; the sights and smells, food, flowers and the people, who are so friendly and polite. I have lost track of the numbers of times i have been there, but last February i made another trip, one that will forever be etched in my memory. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had because it changed me.
I went to volunteer at an elephant rehabilitation center in the Mae Taeng district in Chiang Mai, which is run by Sangduen Chailert or Lek, as she is known. Lek means small, and she is small. Shorter than me – 5 feet 5 inches at 17 – Lek, who is probably in her mid to late 40’s, is close to 5 feet. She has a soft face and long hair and speaks relatively good English. Her husband, Darrick Thomson, who is Canadian, was once a sea-shepherd and a fire fighter. Together they are a force to reckon with when it comes to speaking up for these voiceless creatures. Despite her appearances, Lek is incredibly strong and inspiring and has dedicated her entire life to the much-needed salvation of Thailand’s elephants. She has won several awards and there is even a book about her, “The Elephant Lady of Thailand.”
Some elephants continued to be employed in the illegal logging business and others were used in circuses, forced to beg on Bangkok’s busy tourist ridden streets, or be rides for ignorant tourists.
The story of the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) began after 1989 when the Thai government imposed a ban on logging after realizing that their vast and rich forests were being destroyed. It was also found that while there were about 100,000 elephants in the wild before, that number was now less than 3000. Meanwhile, the ban left elephants that had been brutally tortured and trained to cater to the logging industry, jobless. They were let loose or sold to entertainers. Those who were let loose either died because they could no longer forage in the wild while others wreaked havoc on crops and plantations creating tensions between the animals and farmers.
Some elephants continued to be employed in the illegal logging business and others were used in circuses, forced to beg on Bangkok’s busy tourist ridden streets, or be rides for ignorant tourists. Unfortunately laws in Thailand do not allow for the protection of domesticated elephants, so the only rights they have are equal to that of livestock. The lack of proper rights results in the abuse and exploitation of these majestic beasts, both physically and psychologically, with no consequences for its abuser.
Their plight caught the attention and compassion of Lek who set out on a mission to provide a sanctuary where they would be safe and rehabilitated. In 1996 she founded the Elephant Nature Park. She started with two elephants she bought, rescuing them from entertainers. Soon a US conservationist, Bert Von Roemer, of the Serengeti Foundation heard about her campaign and donated money, which allowed her to buy the 50 acres where the Elephant Nature Park now resides. Today, it has 150 acres and is a blissful sanctuary for 35 elephants.
As the newborn tumbled downhill to its death, the mother was unable to move because she was chained.
I first discovered the park from a brief program on CNN about Lek. My mother and I thought it would be an enriching experience to volunteer there before I returned to school in February – a good time to go when it is much cooler. We went wondering what to expect, because our earlier trip to the famous Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi near the Burmese border turned out to be a disappointment. A National Geographic program said that the Tigers were rescued by monks and kept at the temple. However, reports have emerged that the tigers are actually drugged to remain calm and tame near hundreds of visitors who come to pose for pictures. Whether or not these tigers have actually been rescued or poached is a controversial issue.
We arrived in the morning in Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, so we had a day visiting ancient Watts, a trip to a local museum, and a walk through the night market. The next day the Park bus picked us up from the hotel and took us to their office in town where we made the rest of our payment. We were given a T-shirt each that said “Volunteer”, and water bottles with a cover that had an embroidered gold elephant on it. The others on the bus were young teachers, students, travelers, and retirees from Europe, US and Australia who were either working in Asia or had come all the way just to volunteer. We drove about 60 kms outside of Chiang Mai to the northern jungles.
Upon our arrival we were divided into groups and over the week took turns to do sets of chores such as preparing food for the elephants, shoveling poop and cleaning stables, collecting firewood, and cutting grass and corn. Intermittently we had time to relax with lectures and talks on the situation of Thai elephants, learning Thai, going tubing in the river, and best of all bathing the elephants. Although the work was extremely exhausting and demanding, it was immensely rewarding. An elephant takes five times the effort and care it takes to raise a cow. For example, the average elephant eats about 300 kgs a day.
The great respect and admiration I have for these beautiful, animals grew exponentially. During bathing and feeding time we were allowed to be up close to them. This allowed us to connect at a more personal level. Most of the elephants had suffered abuse and torture so although they had been at the park for years, they were still skittish and nervous.
There were two elephants that stood out to me the most, partly because their injuries were so obvious, and partly because that even after all the misery humans had caused them, they were still willing to forgive and love again. It is true,“an elephant always forgives, but never forgets.” One of the elephants had been working for an illegal logging company when Lek found her. She had been forced to carry huge logs up mountains, all while she was pregnant. One day, while she was working, she went into labor, but was forced to keep working. She was at the top of the hill when she gave birth. The newborn tumbled downhill to its death, but she was unable to move because she was chained. You would think that her mahout would give her a break after the loss of her calf, but she was put to work almost immediately. She was so depressed that she refused to work. Her mahout slingshot stones at her eyes and gouged them with sticks. She was blinded. The other elephant had been used as a breeding vessel. She was chained while bulls were forced upon her to produce calves. The elephant had resisted and fought back during one of the breeding sessions and was severely injured by the much larger bull. Her entire lower body was crushed. When Lek found her she had an awkward gait. One leg still dangles limply above the ground. Lek eventually hassled the mahouts into selling her the decrepit elephants and they were integrated into the ENP herd.
Darrick and Lek, one a vegetarian and the other a vegan, are trying to get the Thai government to pass laws for the humane treatment of tamed elephants in Thailand. Years ago the famous PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) got hold of a video by Lek which graphically showed the process of “crushing” – breaking an elephants spirit by extreme torture so that it succumbs to human orders. PETA launched a campaign for tourists to boycott Thailand. This outraged the Tourism Industry and Lek was reviled and physically threatened. Today she is still fighting these threats because ivory poaching in Asia and smuggling of wild elephants from Burma to Thailand for entertainment is strong as ever. As an ignorant traveler who didn’t know anything of this I was complicit in their abuse when I took elephant rides or watched them perform tricks. After ENP it seems like an absolute sin to do any of this. I am still puzzled by the way the Thais revere the elephant as a god and then tolerate ruthless exploitation of the very animal that is their source of pride.
My experience at ENP has been one of the most incredible times of my life, and I was glad to have had my mother there with me. The work taught me that although elephants appear dangerous and intimidating, they also have the capacity to be loving and gentle creatures. They are sensitive animals that require constant care and compassion, and if you are lucky enough they will be more than willing to reciprocate. Lek has created a wonderful situation that allows her park to operate without having to constantly search for funds. Instead of allowing tourists to ignorantly ride on the elephants she invites volunteers to pay to help with the daily tasks required to maintain the park and its residents. The fees, which are 12,000 baht per person for an entire week, include housing and food. The housing is basic, but homely, and if you’re lucky you may even get a room with a view of the elephants enclosures.
If you’re interested in volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, orwish to satiate your curiosity about it, you can visit the website. You will find the option to volunteer for a week or two weeks or go as a day visitor. The website, is not exactly user-friendly, so you may have to out some effort into finding the right information.