4/14/14 – 4/20/14: Elephant Nature Park, Thailand
Did you know elephants roar like lions? Squeak like mice? That you should never stand directly in front of an elephant because that’s their blind spot? That when we say elephants never forget it’s not hyperbole? I never knew these things. I never knew I wanted to know these things. But now I do, thanks to Elephant Nature Park.
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand. They provide food, medical care, and a safe space for their 30+ adopted elephants, many of which worked for a living and can no longer survive in the wild. ENP’s mission is to spread education and love for elephants so that humans will stop mistreating and exploiting them. Well, as far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished.
We spent a week volunteering to help these peaceful pachyderms and would do it again, and again, and again if given the chance. These majestic creatures have literally given their blood, sweat and tears for humankind. It felt only right to give a little back.
It’s not hard to enjoy Elephant Nature Park because it’s basically summer camp, but with elephants. Volunteers (campers) are broken up into three groups (units), and each group gets a coordinator (counselor). See the similarities? The coordinators even have “camp names,” of a sort. They take western-style names so visitors can pronounce them more easily. Katie and I were in group C and our coordinator was a sweet young man named Johnny. We all quickly concluded that group C was the best group at ENP. How did we know this? Because it was our group. Duh. We rocked! That’s how summer camp works, people.
Upon arrival we were given a tour of the grounds. Johnny showed us our simple open-air lodging, the work areas, the viewing platforms, and where we’d be eating our meals every day. He then led us around the park itself, where the elephants roam. He gave us big bunches of bananas and, before we knew it, we were surrounded by Asian elephants. As big as you imagine an elephant to be, imagine bigger. When you’re standing beside them you feel their size and strength and power, like an idle mack truck with its engine purring. At any moment you could be mowed down. It’s for this reason you stay calm and still. Let them come to you. Always respect that they’re in control of the interaction.
A few elephants lumbered over to us and pounded the ground with their trunks as a warning. Then their leathery trunks reached out and gobbled up bananas as fast as we could rip them from their stems. Huffs of air pushed and pulled from their nostrils as they smelled, touched, and examined the food, barely interested in us. We were a few out of hundreds of tourists that come to ENP each year, so we’re nothing special. Why should they pay us any mind?
One thing I learned while at ENP is that elephants aren’t like dogs. They don’t need our attention or affection. Their natural state is away from humans, bonding with one another, traveling in their own herds. But these elephants were not wild. ENP primarily takes in domesticated elephants that can no longer work due to age or injury. It’s for this reason they’re used to humans and can tolerate our presence. I, for one, was overjoyed they allowed me to feed them one banana at a time. Or three, or five. They basically took as many as I had in hand. They would’ve been just as happy if I’d set the food on the ground, but what a rare treat it was to be a human vending machine, doling out fruit with every lever pull.
Later we were led to the river where we waded into the water with buckets and “bathed” these gargantuan beasts to help cool them off. It was a surreal experience standing in a river with a group of strangers, all of us throwing water on the backs of elephants. Again, I’d be happy to work as their showerhead for as long as they’d allow it. But honestly, I knew my efforts pale in comparison to their built-in nose hoses.
But it wasn’t all fun and games at Elephant Nature Park. No, we were there to work! Each day was broken up into two shifts, each with a separate task. One day we’d be scrubbing pumpkins and chopping up watermelon for a feeding, the next day we’d be shoveling and dumping their oversized dung. It was a full-circle experience at ENP: from soil, to plant, to elephant, and back again. A self-sufficient wheel of activity, all geared toward keeping the elephants happy and healthy.
Elephants need to eat 1/10th of their body weight every day. But when most of your clientele is geriatric? Well, you’re bound to bump up against some dietary restrictions. In large buckets, we mashed up bananas with cornmeal and rice husks. It was a gooey business. I was tempted to take off my shoes and go full Lucile Ball on the process. I don’t think the elephants would’ve cared. From this sticky mass we formed large balls the size of cantaloupes. Not only are these “banana balls” good for hiding medicine inside, they’re also perfect for those bad-teeth-biddies who can only gum their food. Sadly, they don’t make elephant-sized dentures.
One persnickety pachyderm insisted on getting some in-home care. She wasn’t sleeping, you see, due to her bad hip. She needed a bed. For hours we shoveled dirt into old food bags and stacked them into a massive wedge for her to rest her mighty side upon. We hoped this would alleviate some of the pressure on her joints. She must not have liked her new bed, though, because, come morning, she’d flung and ripped every bag into bits. Sadly, they don’t make elephant-sized mattresses either.
Some of the chores we performed for the elephants weren’t even at the Elephant Nature Park. One morning our coordinator, Johnny, loaded our group (Group C rules!) into the back of an open cargo truck. No seat belts were provided because, hey, no seats! We must’ve been a sight to see out on the road: Ten pasty-skinned volunteers – Brits, Canadians, Aussies, and Americans – staggering in the back of a truck like livestock, holding onto the rails as we herked and jerked our way to an empty cornfield. The corn had already been harvested, and most of the stalks were cut down, but it was time for more trimming.
We stumbled off the flatbed and were given small scythes and machetes. There was a moment of befuddlement before a brief demonstration showed us what to do: Start chopping! Aiming about a foot from the ground, we lopped each stalk down and tossed it into piles. Then we bundled and stacked them onto the truck. You may be wondering what ENP uses these stalks for. Well, elephants may love their sweet melons and bananas, but they also need to eat their vegetables. Corn stalks are a good food source, which works out nicely for the farms since they have no use for them after harvest.
When the truck was loaded to the brim we all wondered how we’d be getting back to ENP. Our seats were taken. Johnny solved the mystery by climbing on top of the pile and waving us up. That’s right, instead of standing and stumbling we were now sitting and swaying while we gripped the rails, bouncing atop a mountain of corn stalks on our drive back. It was awesome! And it got even better when, out of nowhere, we were doused with water. That’s because the Songkran festival was still going strong. Our driver purposely slowed down whenever he saw roadside revelers aiming to “bless” people. We received many blessings on our trip home and, given the intense 100+ degree heat, we were grateful for them.
In between our shifts of work were cool showers, vegetarian meals, laughing, chatting, and elephants. Lots of elephants. ENP has a raised “skywalk” that runs from the main visitor platform out into the open park where you can view the elephants from above. You can watch them soak in the river and roll in the mud. We spent hours sitting up there enjoying their antics. We watched them throw dirt on one another, slip down slopes, scratch themselves on posts, and play into the evening hours.
Sunset was the most relaxing part of the day. After dinner you could always find us kicked back, cold bottles of soda in hand, watching the elephants drift by. The sun would dip behind the hills, spreading a creamy yellow glaze across the sky. Delicate squeaks would tickle your ears as the elephants settled in for the night. Then lightning would strike the horizon, followed by a thunderous growl. A deluge was on its way. A storm visited us almost every night at ENP and, like our refreshing drinks, they cooled us down just as we’d be turning out our lights. Thank God for the rain.
Our bamboo shelters were a step above camping. They were open-air in that the walls didn’t quite reach the ceilings. They provided privacy to dress and sleep, but speak above a whisper and you may as well be making an announcement to your entire group (Go Group C!).
We had lovely neighbors on one side, Cindy and Julia, who peppered us with pleasant chatter. Cindy was an American veterinarian student who spent her entire week assisting the park vets with the elephants. Lucky her. Julia was a British lass who cracked the best jokes and had such a beautiful English accent we seriously considered recording her doing a documentary-style voice over: “Witness the mighty elephant as it traverses the fertile grassland…”
On our other side were an unusual duo. Let’s call them Midge and Mark for anonymity sake. Midge was a middle-aged bubbly woman while Mark was an indifferent teenager. Midge was not his mother. No, she was his mother’s best friend who’d been coerced into dragging Mark along with her to Thailand. Forced volunteerism, it seemed. Mark never seemed to rise to the occasion. He always sported a pouty gloominess that didn’t blend well with the idyllic surroundings. The woven bamboo that doubled as a wall provided no way to avoid the Midge and Mark show. We bared witness to their nightly bickering, which was shockingly blunt considering their relationship. Let’s just say insulting each other’s appearance and hygiene weren’t off-limits. Sprinkle in some swear words and you’ve got a borderline Oedipal complex. These daily dramatics wouldn’t have been our first choice of entertainment, but it was offered free of charge – whether we wanted it or not.
Perhaps our most uncomfortable night at ENP was our last. After a long day’s work we arrived in our room to find the light had been left on. Its soft glow had invited every beetle in the vicinity to come in and say hi. Even though we had a mosquito net surrounding our bed, those pesky beetles still wanted to snuggle. They’d work their way underneath and crawl up next to us, waving hello with their antennae. We said it was time to go, but they weren’t getting the hint, so we told them to shove off by shoving them off our bed. No, it wasn’t the best night. It’s hard to sleep soundly when beetle mania is happening all around you.
But, no matter our quality of sleep, each morning we’d rise and stroll to the main building knowing that at any given moment an elephant could enter our line of vision. It could be aunties playing with their adopted baby, or best friends sharing a sprinkler shower, or a tough old broad shuffling around in orthopedic booties (yes, they have elephant sized booties!). Sometimes the elephants would surprise us with a close encounter, appearing before our eyes as we rounded a bend. It’s for this reason all the elephants are escorted by mahouts. Mahouts are human guides that lead their charges away from areas they aren’t supposed to go. ENP doesn’t have the funds to build barriers to keep elephants in or out of spaces, so the mahouts keep them out of trouble through care and coaxing. Some mahouts develop a close bond with their elephants. For others, it’s just a job. I know if I were a mahout I’d be giving my elephant so much love and care that it couldn’t help but fall in love with me. Best friends for life!
While staying at ENP, not only were we blessed with elephant sightings every day, but we were also given a brief Thai education. They performed a cultural show, we received blessings from monks, and our coordinators taught a class on the Thai language. I was surprised and intimidated to learn that, in Thai, one word can mean five different things depending on how you pronounce it. Say it short, say it long, raise it an octave – three separate meanings. Talk about difficult! Yet, according to them, the English language is much harder to learn. I’ll have to take their word for it. The class ended with us performing the “Elephant Song” with hand and arm motions that went with the lyrics. We were abysmal. A pathetic bunch. Kindergartners would’ve put us to shame.
In addition to the cultural teachings, they provided adventure! Twice we were driven upriver, given some inner tubes, and sent down the waterway back to Elephant Nature Park. Seeing as the days were damned hot it was incredibly refreshing to float downstream. Villagers played in the water and watched us go by from riverside platforms. We waved from our tiny tubes, bumping up against the rocks below (the river was shallow). Once I got caught in an eddy and they rescued me from my tailspin. The river resembled the color of Thai tea (which seemed appropriate), and tiny white fish leapt at us from the all sides (they seemed to want to land in our tube, which was a lesson in futility). Forty-five minutes later we arrived safely back at ENP to find grey colossi ambling down the riverbank.
Spending days amongst the elephants allows you to recognize them as individuals. You remember their coloring, their habits, and sometimes their handicaps. We saw many elephants living with old injuries: broken hips, stunted legs, and eyes blind from beatings. The sad truth is a domesticated elephant is an abused elephant. We learned this the hard way when they taught us about “the crush.” It’s an act of torture used to “crush” an elephant’s spirit, allowing it to be controlled by humans. Around 2 years old, a young elephant is taken from its mother and squeezed into in a tiny cage for many days where it is starved and beaten. The elephant learns to submit in order to alleviate the pain. We were shown a video of the crush. Some people couldn’t sit through it. I was sobbing by the end.
I tell you this because it’s important to understand that any working elephant carrying a tourist on its back, or working in a field, or painting pictures for money on the street – all of them have been through the crush. They’ve been tortured, their spirits broken for our benefit. And if the elephant doesn’t comply the torture continues. The damage inflicted on these elephant can’t be undone. They become scarred both physically and mentally. And once they can no longer work they’re discarded. That’s where Elephant Nature Park comes in. They take in unwanted and distressed elephants and offer them a life free from abuse. And it’s all thanks to one brave woman: Lek Chailert.
Lek is an animal lover who adores elephants. She dreams of a world where humans grant elephants the kindness and respect they deserve, and she practices what she preaches. When you watch Lek walk with her elephants it’s as though she were a part of their herd, not their owner. Their acceptance of her is evident in the gentle way they treat her, touching her with obvious affection. She was an inspiration to watch and learn from.
It was through Lek’s stories I realized elephants create complex relationships and feel deep emotions. They love. They fear. They grieve. And since elephants never forget, those emotions can last a lifetime. Let me share some of the stories she told us with you…
Joy and Perseverance: Tales From The ENP Archives
Best Friends: Elephants build strong bonds. Their herd is their family. They can also become best friends. Tilly and Kham Puan are just that. Tilly has one shrunken back leg that is shorter than her others due to an old logging injury. While her other feet stand firm, this one dangles off the ground like a pendulum. But she’s a happy gal because she has purpose. She limps her way across the park guiding her best friend Kham Puan. Kham Puan appreciates this because she’s blind. After years of being punished with slingshots to the eye, she can no longer see the ground she treads upon. But she can still smell the soil, feel the sun, and play in the river so long as she has Tilly to lead the way.
Grief Stricken: There were once two elephants that were best buds. One was 80 years old and the other was 50. These elderly ladies were inseparable. They traveled everywhere together at ENP, side-by-side, day and night. As the older one was nearing the end of her life she began limping and had a hard time getting around. She collapsed one day and the younger one wouldn’t leave her side. When the older one died, her friend wailed in grief but still wouldn’t leave her side. Days passed and they needed to remove the deceased elephant, so they coaxed her friend away with food. When she returned to find the body had disappeared she was inconsolable. She cried and wandered the grounds looking for her friend but, of course, never found her. She died 5 days later.
All Or Nothing: Lek used to take in injured elephants temporarily. She was once given a baby elephant who worked as a street performer. The elephant’s owner had been arrested so the animal was brought to ENP. The baby elephant lived at the sanctuary for 2 years. During that time she was adopted by a herd of aunties and she thrived. The owner eventually showed up wanting his elephant back. Lek had no legal right to keep her and the police even showed up to threaten her if she did. She had no choice but to let the baby go. But the baby wouldn’t leave and the other elephants huddled trying to protect her. She didn’t want the elephant beaten on her property, so they had to chain the auntie elephants to keep them away from the baby who screamed as the owner pulled it away. Her adoptive elephants mourned the loss of the baby for many, many days. It was then that Lek decided she couldn’t accept an elephant unless ENP was going to be its forever home.
Give Peace A Chance: Once, some of Lek’s mahouts went on strike. They wanted to carry bull hooks to protect themselves against the elephants. Lek had already struggled with breaking them of using bull hooks or slingshots to discipline the elephants. Some still secretly did it and she’d have to reprimand or fire them. Obviously working with elephants can be dangerous, but Lek couldn’t allow them to use weapons against them. Twenty mahouts threatened to leave if they couldn’t carry bull hooks, so she told them to go and take their families with them since she was also feeding and housing them. She said other mahouts don’t need weapons. This can be done without them. She’d rather have the elephants on a chain then live in fear of their mahouts. In the end, nine mahouts left but the rest stayed and agreed to her rules.
They Never Forget: Hiring mahouts is very difficult. When Lek finds experienced ones they’ve all used violence to keep the elephants in line. One day she interviewed a mahout who had once used bull hooks on elephants but was interested in trying things her way. She liked his answers to her questions so she showed him the elephant he would be working with to see if she would accept him, because it’s her decision. Lek gave him the elephant’s favorite food to feed her. The elephant thumped the ground with her trunk and closed her mouth. She didn’t like him. Lek asked him if he knew this elephant. He said no. “It’s because I’m a stranger,” he said. Lek brought some visitors over to feed the elephant and placed him in line with them. The elephant ate from everyone’s hand but his. “It’s because I’m Thai,” he said. “She only likes white people.” So Lek asked him to feed the elephant’s baby. When he tried the mother thumped her trunk and blocked his way. Finally, he admitted to knowing the elephant. He’d trained her 12 years earlier. He taught her to open her mouth by keeping a stick in it and beating her if she wouldn’t comply. “It was a long time ago,” he said, but it didn’t matter. The elephant remembered him. He offered to work with another elephant but Lek said no. She said the elephants wouldn’t respect her if she allowed it.
Separation Anxiety: Lek had a long-time mahout who loved his elephant. They were always together, the best of friends. One day he said he and his family were moving to Australia for a better life. She was disappointed but understood. She gave the elephant to another mahout who wanted her because she was so well behaved. Four days pass and the original mahout returned. He said he missed his elephant too much to leave, so he sent his family to Australia without him. But the new mahout said no, the elephant was now his. Lek said only the elephant could decide who her mahout should be. The new mahout was given one week to work with her. During that week he plied her with food and positive care. When test day arrived he loaded his arms with the elephant’s favorite foods and the original mahout only had a banana. They both called to her and, sure enough, she chose her original mahout. Her best friend.
Fighting For The Future: Lek fought hard for her reserve. She started with 4 elephants and needed more land to take more in. An American offered to donate 6,000,000 Baht (just under $200,000 USD) to buy the land. When she received the money the Thai government held it because it seemed suspicious. The only way she could access it is if she created a foundation, which would take 3 years. So she did it. Even still, once the foundation was established, the donor still had to come to Thailand to prove they were legitimate before Lek could receive the money. Finally, Lek was able to buy her land and expand. But the need for land continues to grow. She relies on donations, visitors and volunteers for the money and resources to provide for the elephants.
Protest!: The village initially protested Lek’s elephant sanctuary. No one wanted her there. Since 2003 she’s worked hard to ingratiate herself with the villagers: getting to know them, helping their causes, and providing them jobs. She brings in business and funds community projects. The protestors had been nearly all men. Through speaking with the women in the village she learned they had no issue with her, and actually neither did their husbands. It was the politicians who orchestrated the protests. They paid the people to object because they have financial interests in the elephant trade and were afraid of what she stood for.
Breaking The Chain: A lifetime of being chained and abused affects an elephant’s mental state. One elephant came to ENP after spending 40 years logging. Every day she was chained to a tree or harness. When she arrived they finally unchained her and she was terrified. The elephant wouldn’t eat. She would only shiver and curl up her trunk against her mouth. They tried to feed her, gave her different foods, but nothing worked. When they chained her for the night she suddenly reached for the food. They realized she felt naked and vulnerable without the chain. It was like a part of her, another limb. Over many days, they weaned her off the chain by letting it be attached to her but nothing else. She dragged it behind her but roamed freely. Each day they’d remove a link until one day the cuff came off. She was finally free.
I hope you enjoyed Lek’s tales. They illuminate the remarkable nature of elephants; their depth of emotion and strength of spirit. Through her teachings I began to feel guilty about my own interactions with the elephants at ENP. I now understood the only reason they allowed me to touch them was because of their past trauma. But the past can never be undone. These elephants can no longer live a wild life, but they can be cared for going forward. ENP is constantly evolving and working toward a better future for their elephants. They’re extending their land to provide more space and freedom. And since we’ve been there they’ve reduced the amount of interaction visitors have with the elephants to provide them a more authentic life. This change has meant a drop in tourism for ENP, which is unfortunate because tourism is what keeps the park going. But I greatly admire how they’re putting the elephants’ needs first. That said, visitors can still admire the elephants every day and feed them by hand from the viewing platform. Since elephants always want to eat, it can be a fruitful experience on both sides.
My hope is for people to crave this type of elephant interaction when coming to South East Asia. On our travels throughout this part of the world it was commonplace to see people riding on elephants backs, whether it was tourists seeking a thrill or tradesmen lugging their loads. Whatever the reason, this work is harmful to an elephant’s body and soul. It’s time we treated them better.
Now, with Elephant Nature Park, there’s a better way to experience their splendor. There’s magic to behold every day, every hour, every minute. From their trumpet calls at sunrise to their soft whimpers during twilight, the elephants will beguile you. So much so that you’ll become like them and you’ll never, ever forget.