Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

Saturday, August 22, 2009

On Saturday morning, I met the elephants in Elephant Park. Saturday afternoon, I was in love.  These big, beautiful, gentle giants surrounded me, walked with me, kissed me and touched my heart in a way that I could never have imagined before coming to Elephant Nature Park.

To go back a few days though. I flew into Bangkok on Saturday and went directly to Chiang Mai where I was picked up by hotel staff and driven to the Rimping Village Hotel, another charming boutique hotel, the kind that I’m becoming more and more fond of each time I discover a new place.  I always receive such a warm and personal welcome. The night I arrived – it was about 7:30pm.  I was so excited about seeing the elephants on Monday that I just kept chattering on about them – to anyone who would listen.  They were so happy for me – that they bumped me up to one of their suites -oh yeah!  They gave me a bucket full of DVD’s, a basket of fresh fruit and warm wishes for a good sleep.  I couldn’t have asked for anything else.

Rimping Village 1


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Huge bedroom!

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The next morning, after a wonderful breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, I headed off on one of their bicycles to explore the city of Chiang Mai.

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There are canals running through the entire city with bridges spanning them every 6 blocks or so.

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They have perfected “the market” for the shopping pleasure of the thousands of tourists who come to this city.  One our last night here, we saw the Night Market – quite the sight!

Monday morning at 8am a van pulled into our driveway filled with 5 of my new volunteer friends.  We would be meeting the rest of the crew later. There would be 21 of us out there for the week – a big group!  After filling out paperwork and making final payments at their downtown office, we were each given a t-shirt and a water bottle, then moved on to a bus that would take us to the park.

So, I’m volunteering again – in any way that is needed – here in the park where the sole purpose for being is to take care of 32 elephants and assure that every day for them is a peaceful one.  You see, each of these elephants has been lucky enough to have been rescued from their previous lives by an inspiring woman by the name of Sangduen “Lek” Chailert.

Lek has been passionately championing the rights of the Asian Elephant for decades and this park is the result of her tireless efforts.  For you to understand how special this place is and even more so…the elephants who reside here…you have to know a little more about the relationship between the elephant and the Thai people.

**After having posted this information and connected with friends who had read the post, I’ve decided to remove the portion about how the Thai people capture and tame an elephant. The process is so horrific and reading it had such a profound impact on those reading my blog, I decided to remove the information and the pictures.**

But a little of the history of the elephant in Thailand is important to understand why places like Elephant Nature Park exist and are so important and you’ll learn more through the stories of the individual elephants.

Elephants have been captured from the wild and tamed for use by humans since the beginning of time. Their ability to work under instruction makes them particularly useful for carrying heavy objects. They have been used particularly for timber-carrying in jungle areas (logging). Other than their work use, they have been used in war, in ceremonies, and for carriage. They have been used for their ability to travel over difficult terrain by hunters, for whom they served as mobile hunting platforms.

Today, with logging outlawed, the domesticated elephant is being used to beg on the streets for its owner and entertain tourists by carrying them about or doing tricks for them like painting.  Tourists will pay top dollar for a picture painted by an elephant.  And so a new industry expands – but at the elephants expense.

Sadly, for a country that is meant to love these animals so much, laws protecting them are horribly lacking. Domesticated elephants are considered livestock, like a buffalo, chicken and so forth. Anyone abusing an elephant is only punished with a very small fine – smaller than what they make each night on the streets. An activist here in Thailand filmed an owner who was drunk, set his elephant on fire and burnt it to death.  She took the film and went to the authorities – who did nothing. this is just one example of the abuse that takes place regularly.

As I look over what I wrote earlier, I find that even I can’t read my own words again – it’s too painful and frankly brings me to tears. So, I will not put you through this. Suffice to say, there is still so much torture occurring between man and elephant that rescue parks like this are here.

I don’t know how to tell the story of Elephant Nature Park without telling you about the elephants and they each have their own story.  Hope was rescued when he was only a baby.   His mother had been killed and he would not have survived for long without her.  The villagers called Lek and asked that he be taken away and given medicine to “fix him” and then returned to them later. Lek is hoping that she’ll be able to buy him so he can remain at the park. He’s 6 years old now and if he has to go back the first thing they’ll do is put him through the phajaan (the process that I won’t tell you about).

This is Hope and he wears a bell continuously around his neck because he can’t stop getting into trouble!

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As I mentioned earlier, every night, these elephants are required to beg tourists for money. What you and these tourists don’t know is that they feel the vibrations of traffic through their sensitive feet and have a very difficult time dealing with all the city traffic that creates these heavy vibrations continuously.  They are unable to stand still and move continuously back and forth in stress and fear.  Because of this movement, they are frequently hit by buses and/or cars.  One of the rescued elephants, Somboom, here at the sanctuary was hit and he can barely walk.  His hips were broken and he hobbles around very slowly – but thank god he’s here. It’s a bit painful to watch him try to keep up with the other elephants – but interestingly – they seem to realize he can’t move quickly and they adjust their pace to his.

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So when you are in Thailand and see these ‘sympathy elephants’ begging for food and performing tricks like painting (and there is a special training process for this that you don’t want to know about); remember that they more than likely went through the horrible spirit breaking ritual called phajaan.

I cannot stress to you enough to not feed the elephants in Bangkok or anywhere else in Thailand. Elephants do not belong in a city. Do not support the people who are making these beautiful animals’ lives miserable. Politely decline the bag of food and no matter how sad the elephant looks be brave and just look away. 

Only if tourists stop feeding them and riding them will the mahouts take them out of Bangkok, and hopefully release them into the care of some amazing people who are trying to save the Asian elephant – like Lek.

This is Malai Tong. She stepped on a land mine and lost most of her foot. Though in obvious agony, her owner forced her to continue walking the streets of Bangkok every night begging tourists for money and food.

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She has a hard time putting too much weight on that foot.  They have to medicate it constantly to avoid infection.  That’s the purple stuff you see.  She’s also pregnant and due any day now.

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Jokia is blind.  Both her eyes are gone.   She worked for a logger.  She became pregnant.  One day, as she struggled to pull a log up the mountain, she went into labor and her baby was born – on the hill.  It came out of her as she was chained to the log and her baby slid down the hill behind her and died.  She couldn’t do anything about it.

In obvious distress, she stopped working – just laid down and began to mourn her baby.  Her owner began to throw stones at her eyes with a slingshot to get her moving again but she refused.  He took out one of her eyes with the slingshot.  She threw her trunk against him – knocked him down – and he promptly took out her other eye with a stick.  Every one of these stories is just heartbreaking. We’re so happy these elephants are here for the rest of their lives, but we couldn’t help but think of the thousands of other elephants still out there suffering. The level of anguish we all feel about these animals is palatable throughout the entire volunteer group as is the aggression and hatred towards those who torture them.

Lek established Elephant Nature Park as a sanctuary in 1995.  It’s about an hour’s drive outside of Chiang Mai.  The rescued elephants here are encouraged to lead as natural a life as possible – and that means eating, sleeping and playing all day long.

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That very first day we met Jokia, the elephant who we’d seen in the video that had been blinded by her owner.  There she was – following another elephant around throughout the park – peaceful and calm – eating the whole time.  We touched her and patted her and spoke to her in soft voices that wouldn’t upset her or make her nervous.  And all the while thinking of her owner and how much pain we would have happily put him through – all of us.

Jokia is on the right

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Jokia on the right again

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This is Lek with one of the babies

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The park requires about $250,000 per year to operate and lots and lots of people.  As volunteers, we are encouraged to spend as much time with the elephants and the staff as we can to learn all that we can about them.  And we work hard.  But at the end of the day, it’s so rewarding to look around the valley and know that your work made a difference.  They couldn’t do it without the help of all the volunteers and they make sure that you know how important you are to them.

First-day overview of the park and the elephants in the common room

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With Lek telling us the stories of her elephants

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Lek has received international accolades including being named as one of Time Magazine’s Asia Heroes of the Year 2005 for her work with the elephants.  Her work has also been featured in national and international media and includes several documentaries by National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and the BBC.  On our way out to the park, we watched one of these documentaries and met the elephants for the very first time through their stories told on film.

The property on which sits Elephant Nature Park is a small piece of heaven – a valley surrounded by a lush, green rain forest with a rushing river running right through the property.  Oh yea – and there are 32 elephants roaming through the grass.

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We were taken through the main building out to the back porch where the morning feeding was just starting to take place. This catwalk allows you to hang out and observe the elephants.

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You could also go down on the ground and be right with them.

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In addition to various other types of food…each elephant receives a full basket of fruit twice a day – fed to them by us.  Funny – at the time – it never occurred to us to wonder how all that fruit got cut up and distributed so neatly into dozens of baskets.  We’d get the answer to that question the next morning on our first work assignment

Main building

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The day visitors/tourists tended to stay up on the catwalk – while we were on the ground as much as possible – and even more so after  the day tourists left.

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One of the volunteer living quarters

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But that first day was all about meeting the elephants and we were all over them!  We fed them – walked with them down to the river – splashed water on them and even took brushes to their backsides!  We snapped dozens of pictures and took video of their every move.

This is the youngest little boy – 1 1/2 months old.  Born in July.

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That first day was all about getting to know the elephants, the other volunteers, and our volunteer coordinators.  Most of this happened over dinner – lots of introductions – a couple of beers – shared traveling stories.

This is the room where our days began and ended – where we ate breakfast and dinner – and shared stories from the day.

No shoes allowed!

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Our very funny volunteer coordinators – Nan and Brad – as in Brad Pitt he told us!

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We learned songs — and some Thai words

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It was all a little like camp.

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My roommate is Donna.  She’s from Providence, Rhode Island. She’s a ballet dancer – Ringley Brothers Circus Performer – and a firefighter! We had a great room that looked out onto the pasture and the baby area. That’s our window there —

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This window looks out onto the baby area. Birds eye view along with all the little noises that babies make – day and night 🙂

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The babies – their pen was right next to our room so both Donna and I spent a lot of time over there just hanging out with them.

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Our room – I’m on the left

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And yes – that’s my mess.

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It’s good to get stuff out of the suitcase every once in a whie.

The bathrooms were close, clean and large – though we only had cold water.  But it was so hot and we worked up such a sweat during the day – that cold showers were welcomed!

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So, that’s day one. A lot to take in but so exciting. Donna and spent a good chunk of the night just talking – getting to know each other – and wondering what we’d be doing tomorrow. We’re so eager…little did we know – bwah ha ha ha ha….

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