13.01.2014 - 19.01.2014 22 °C
We've just spent the past week volunteering at Thailand's Elephant Nature Park and have had the most amazing, inspiring time. The park is an NGO (Non Government Organisation) which was set up by a lady called Lek over 15 years ago. Not only is the elephant park home to 37 elephants, it's also given a home to over 500 dogs (many of which were rescued from Bangkok during their devastating floods a few years ago) 200 cats, 2 monkeys and a 1 month old piglet!
Lek grew up in a tiny northern Thai village, where she was surrounded by elephants from an early age. Her grandad taught her about herbal medicine, her knowledge of which she has used to help treat injured or abused elephants.
The park is a sanctuary for the elephants that Lek has rescued, each of which has their own often traumatic history. Most of the elephants have suffered a great deal during their lives, and ENP is without a doubt the best place for them to be. Each of the 37 elephants are so well cared for and loved.
5 of the 37 elephants at the park are blind; some due to cataracts, but others due to torture at the hands of their former owner or mahout. If the elephant misbehaves, a common punishment is having stones thrown in it's eyes, or worse, being jabbed in the eyes by the hook which is also often used to hit it.
The majority of elephants at ENP are domestic elephants, which used to belong to someone before Lek. These, as is the case with the hundreds of elephants you see giving rides to naive tourists, along with those at circuses and other performance shows, would have gone through an agonising, terrifying experience in order to make them a 'submissive' domestic elephant. This age-old, traditional yet barbaric Thai ritual firstly involves separating a baby from it's mother, locking the baby in a tiny boxed cage and beating and torturing it repeatedly for a number of days until it's spirit is broken. The poor baby is then carted off to a trekking camp, or to a 'be a mahout for a day' camp, or somewhere similar where it's then put to work and beaten with a hooked stick, which is what forces the elephant to obey it's mahout.
Copy and paste the below link to your web browser. It's a video that shows how many of these domesticated elephants are treated:
Why do these amazing creatures have to go through this, just to entertain us tourists? Wouldn't it be better for them all to live wildly, protected within national parks, where we could perhaps just enjoy them for the magnificent animals that they are?
At ENP, Lek's pioneering concept is that elephants are trained through positive reinforcement, whereby they're rewarded for their behaviour. Every mahout is trained in this innovative way, and none are allowed to use hooks or sticks.
My beautiful elephant carving, hand carved by this elephant's mahout. This elephant, called Tuun Maedo, is severely disabled with dislocated hips, caused by her time logging. Most elephants in this shape would simply be left to die as they're no longer seen as money-making machines by their owners. This lucky girl got rescued by ENP, along with several other eles who've suffered land mine wounds and horrible injuries from their days working at trekking camps. These lucky few are treated excellently at ENP, having their wounds treated daily and given medication for any pain they're in.
During our stay at ENP we've learnt so much about these amazing creatures; one thing being their loyalty to eachother. They're such complex creatures, and it was so interesting getting to know the workings of the elephants. Some really disliked eachother, others had their bestfriends, and others liked to live more solitary. I guess in this respect they're much like us!
We also learnt that they will eat up to 10% of their body weight in food each day, and they'll only sleep for around 4 hours everyday, spending up to 18 hours eating! I guess the other 2 hours are spent on miscellaneous activities!
Helping out with the morning feed.
Ben helping with the elephant bathing. It's too cold for the eles this time of year to lay down in the water and engage in water fights!
During our time at ENP we've also sadly learnt some really awful, eye-opening things, like how a century ago 100,000 of these Asian elephants were in existence, compared with just 40,000 today. A shocking figure of less than 2000 wild Asian elephants remain in Thailand, with a further 4000 in captivity. Although the wild Asian elephant is prey to poachers, at least they are protected under the endangered species act. Domestic elephants in Thailand are shockingly treated as livestock! Meaning owners have permission to treat their elephant as they see fit, and can trade as and when they like to whomever they like; this is how these poor creatures often end up in the wrong hands, working at trekking camps not receiving the quality of life they deserve. Knowing this, how much do you wish the situation were different?!
Lek has been fighting the government against this law tooth and nail, but to no avail. You only have to think about the economical implications to know why she is having so much trouble. It's such a sad situation, and one us tourists really need to know more about.
A typical leaflet stand, found throughout Chiang Mai town - notice how many elephant related trekking/mahout trips there are?! (Before Ben and I went and covered them up).
ENP is the first, and one of just few, sanctuaries for elephants in Thailand, and Ben and I feel so priviledged to have been able to contribute to their amazing cause. The days were long, the work was hard, but it was so worth it for the time we then got to spend with the beautiful animals. Most days, our jobs involved working in the elephant kitchen preparing their food - and it takes A LOT of food to feed 37 elephants! We'd also shovel poo - again, 37 elephants produce A LOT of poo! We also went and cut corn in the fields - this was actually lots of fun, but really hard work.
Bananas and melons in the elephant kitchen.
Cutting corn in the fields, machette in hand!
One of our favourite jobs was constructing the elephant path. Although you can't make it out in the below photo, we made an elephant out of the stones! I was creative director
Our group of volunteers!
Although the park currently has no spare space to take on more elephants (it currently spans about 300 acres), whilst we were there Lek had just completed the negotiations of a further elephant rescue. So we felt extra lucky, as we got to be a part of this! The first volunteers at ENP to do so. We all crammed in minibuses and drove the 2 hours each way to witness the rescue. There was such an air of jubilation, and I myself felt so excited for the elephant knowing she'd be spending the rest of her days at such a great place, and knowing she wouldn't be suffering any longer. She really seemed to settle in quickly, and other than being very thin, having an eye infection and scars from hooks, was in relatively good shape. Her scars, physical and mental, will never fade, but ENP will certainly feed her up and look after her.
The new ele settling in and being fed up.
In all, we both had such an amazing time. And we urge anybody going to Thailand to not encourage the ongoing torture of these majestic animals by indulging in elephant rides, or taking part in Mahout training camps, but to instead visit The Elephant Nature Park. If you don't have the time to volunteer like us, then they do day trips too. Please check out their websites for more information:
Maybe together we can change the Asian elephants fate.