I’m an unusual vegetarian.
I’m not mad keen on animals.
When people ask me why, then, I’m a veggie, I say I’m not that keen on quite a lot of people either but that doesn’t mean…ahem.
Anyway, this explains why I’m not usually first in line at animal attractions. For example, I wouldn’t usually choose them over something cultural.
But when some lovely visiting friends invited me to join them at an Elephant Sanctuary, I was interested, because elephants seem so…majestic. And sort of wise. With a satisfyingly contradictory blend of gentleness and power.
The Elephant Nature Park had been recommended to me several times over. It’s an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre that provides a natural environment for our largest land mammal, so it’s elephant-centered rather than tourist-centered.
Elephants in Thailand
Elephants are everywhere in Thailand.
The King of Thailand has a Royal Stable of 10 white elephants (believed to be essential to the wellbeing and prosperity of the kingdom – all white elephants must legally be gifted to the king), and the Thai Navy’s flag features a white elephant.
They are found everywhere here: in painting and architecture; part of holy designs and sculpture in temples, and are ubiquitous in terms of ‘tourist tat’ (key-rings, t-shirts, scarves, wooden carvings, notebooks, bookmarks, watercolours, on so on ad infinitum).
But elephant numbers here have declined rapidly in the last 100 years, with domestic elephant numbers decreasing from 100,000 to just 5,000, and wild elephants dropping from 300,000 to 3500. It’s a shocking drop.
Domestic and wild elephants
Domesticated by humans for more than 5,000 years, in the last 100 years Asian elephants have been hit hard by both the logging industry, and conversely, the ban of logging in 1989.
Before the ban, the Thai logging industry had destroyed more than two thirds of Thailand’s forests. Elephants were a major source of labour for logging, but it treated them badly, leaving some with broken bones and backs from accidents with the heavy logs. In addition, the destruction of the forest also meant the destruction and fragmentation of the habitat of wild elephants – and their numbers in Thailand decreased as humans increased. For those wild elephants who remain, life is precarious, as in addition to their shrinking habitat, they are still sought after by poachers for their ivory.
The logging ban in 1989 meant that many of the domesticated elephants were out of work, and were then sold to the tourist trade, sometimes to owners who had no experience of elephants, or abandoned to fend for themselves in the wild, something these elephants had never experienced. Some elephants were even left as drug addicts – having previously been fed amphetamines to work faster.
Today then, domesticated elephants are mainly seen in the tourist trade in Thailand. This is a thorny issue. On the one hand, they can be treated badly – examples are begging elephants (apparently there are up to 300 such elephants in Bangkok) in the major cities, where the pollution, noise, traffic and smells are highly stressful to an elephant’s sensitive system. Anyone can be a ‘Mahout’ (elephant handlers), rather than the traditional system where skills and experience were handed down in families with many centuries of experience working with elephants.
On the other hand, at present, without elephant camps offering rides to tourists, and elephants earning their keep, many of these domesticated elephants would die out. But welfare is a critical issue – these animals have the same protection here as other domestic animals such as dogs and cattle, which is to say, very little. Seeing (via the documentary) the ‘traditional’ way in which domesticated elephants are currently trained to deal with humans was sickening.
Elephant Nature Park
Founded through the vision of one woman, Lek (Sangduen Chailert), the camp currently has 34 large tenants (not to mention 400 rescued dogs and 100 cats!). These range from a blind elephant (don’t worry, she made an elephant best friend, and they now go everywhere together!), to an elephant whose back and legs were broken by logging (she wobbles along slowly and precariously but seems to have a good life), and an elephant who trod on a landmine (she has managed give birth to a baby elephant and lives happily with him).
The camp takes in ‘eco-tourists’, so as well as the day experience that I participated in, you can also stay for up to two weeks as an elephant volunteer, helping to feed the elephants the 330lbs fruit and vegetables each one requires per day, harvesting their food, bathing them and generally helping with basic care.
Visiting the elephants
One of the things I enjoyed most about the day was being out of Chiang Mai city and up in the mountains and forest. The park is about 60km from the city, and transport is arranged by the park from your accommodation, making travel straightforward and simple. An Animal Planet documentary featuring the park is shown first, so visitors are sensitized to the stories of the elephants before they start seeing them up close.
When you walk out into the park itself, it feels spacious and open. In a natural valley, surrounded by mountains and forest, with a river to one side, the park has scenery with a capital S. The air is invigorating, and everywhere looks sparkling clean.
The elephants are left to roam in the park, each one looked after by a Mahout who works with them all the time. These seem to be close relationships, with the elephants responding to their name and other basic commands, as well as following them about the park. Of course, with the younger elephants, sometimes it was the other way round! Visitors to the park roam equally freely, this time with a guide with them – the guides and the Mahouts keep each side safe from the other.
Given the amount of food each elephant consumes, this is a major part of their day, and we were allowed to help with the feeding. This consisted of handing the elephants whole pineapples, melons, corn, sugar cane and bunches of bananas, which they would curl their trunk around and thrust into their mouths. They can apparently keep up to half a stone of food in their mouth ‘for later’ at any time, and have four sets of teeth which smash down on the food with powerful jaws. Feeding them was a good experience – I was a bit nervous as I put the first pineapple close to the elephant’s trunk, and almost got my hand caught in the trunk with the pineapple as she wrapped her trunk around it. But she was much more confident and experienced at taking food from visitors than I was giving it, and she dexterously and gently pulled it out of my grasp, staying near so I could stroke her a small part of her strangely bristly and leathery forehead. Her trunk was as long as my whole body, and thicker where it joined with her head. This was a magical moment – connecting with an elephant as she towered over me, trusting she wouldn’t use her strength against me and realising how small and fragile I felt in comparison.
The other activity that the elephants enjoy is bathing in the river. Visitors can go in the river and help bathe them by throwing buckets of water over them. Watching this, it felt a bit like a monkey trying to bathe a human by throwing cups of water at them… but all parties seemed to have a good time!
Unusually in my time in Chiang Mai, we had an absolute downpour of rain in the afternoon. While the humans sheltered under the ‘sky walks’ (walk-ways high enough for an elephant to walk underneath), the elephants went to a giant pile of mud and had a whale of a time with a mud bath. This seemed to be a source of great pleasure to them, as they rolled around, scratched themselves at giant logs and posts put there for that purpose, and blew trunkfuls of mud at themselves and each other – apparently mud acts as natural sunscreen, and keeps the elephants cool. It looked like they were just having a good time to me though!
The camp is a healing space for elephants and humans. Sitting in the seating area (where a fantastic vegetarian buffet was served for lunch), looking out while the rain tipped down, I could see 16 of the elephants, roaming around the valley in herds or pairs, each one with their Mahout close by.
The elephants I saw truly lived up to my preconceptions, and I could have sat in the park and watched them for a long time. Like many animals, they don’t deserve the experience they have received from human hands, and as a species we should be doing what we can to preserve these magnificent animals in our ecosystem.
Inspired by what one person can start
I recommend a trip to the Elephant Nature Park if you visit Chiang Mai, and if not, you might want to sponsor an elephant, or buy an elephant lunch.
The international awards won by Lek and the Elephant Nature Park are deserved, and serve as an example to us all. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed as to the many causes in the world – all the things that need ‘fixing’ – and this camp really shows what we can achieve when we commit to a passion.
And if you already have, let others know about it in the comments below. Who knows who you in your turn will inspire?