Just a day after flying to Chiang Mai from Hanoi, I got to spend two days and one night at Elephant Nature Park because, how could I not play with elephants while I was in Thailand?!
But I couldn’t play with just any elephants. It won’t surprise anybody who knows me to hear that it was very important that the elephants were treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Fortunately, Elephant Nature Park came up in conversation with a fellow traveller in Hanoi who had just volunteered there for a week and spoke about it very highly.
Obviously, I checked it out online and decided that I would like to volunteer for a week, not only to play with elephants but to give myself something to do since I suck at being a backpacker. I envisioned feeding elephants, washing them, cutting up their food and probably shovelling a lot of poop but I knew it would still be amazing because I could be around elephants! You can imagine how disappointed I was when I went to book my week with the elephants and there was no space available. I looked into doing a single day visit, an overnight visit and even doing a different project in other parts of Thailand but those were all booked, too. I kid you not, I was so depressed that I almost bought a kilogram of chocolate to console myself.
Things have a funny way of working out, though! When my pal MT checked the availability of an overnight visit for the time when we would both be there, two spots had opened up from when I had last checked. Hallelujah! We both excitedly signed up, jumped around and hugged in celebration of playing with elephants for two days. You know you would have done it, too!
My second day in this beautiful country, we were picked up in the morning and shown a documentary about elephant conservation in Thailand. I knew that elephants in circuses, street begging and those that give rides are usually not treated well but I didn’t know the extent. Elephants are used in trekking camps carrying tourists around the jungle, in legal and illegal logging operations and still injured or killed for their tusks. In the two short days I spent at Elephant Nature Park, I learned not just the horrors these gentle creatures are subjected to everyday but how amazingly resilient they are.
Street begging elephants, although illegal, are still rampant in Thai cities such as Bangkok since the money the owners make outweigh the fines, if the fines are issued at all. Tourists can buy small bags of fruit to feed the starving elephant, with very little of that money going towards the elephant’s care. Not only are they deprived of food, they usually have inadequate water for bathing–very important to elephants–and they rarely live with other elephants (they live in small herds in the wild). Then there’s the fact that they’re being forced to walk around a land filled with tons of noise, cars, motos, trucks, buses, tuk tuks–a place that isn’t natural to them and where accidents often happen.
Circus elephants (including elephants that paint pictures) are usually taken away from their mothers at a young age and trained to do “tricks” for tourists by way of starvation, isolation and the use of bullhooks or sticks with nails on the end of it. The spotlights used in shows is so bright that it has blinded some elephants in the sanctuary. Those that are forced to take tourists for rides, whether it be Angkor Wat or the jungle are trained using similar means.
Elephants used in logging operations are used to drag heavy logs around with them attached by chains around their bodies. Most logging in Thailand is now illegal so they must work fast, lest the owners get caught and are arrested. As a result, elephants are stabbed, shot at and given amphetamines to make them work faster and longer.
Elephants that are captured or owned by villages in Thailand usually undergo painful and brutal training in what is known as a “phajaan” or “crush”. This is basically a small cage constructed of wood where they tie up and trap the elephants for a few days up to a week–however long it takes them to break the elephant’s spirit and have them submit fully to their captors. Watching a video of this “training” ritual was absolutely shocking. Terrified elephants were being dragged into these cages, having their legs tied to posts so they couldn’t move and being repeatedly stabbed with pieces of bamboo with nails on the end. The fear, frustration and absolute confusion are apparent on the elephant’s face as men yell, stab, starve and torture the elephant until they have absolutely no fight left in them and they are just a shell of the creature they used to be.
Elephant Nature Park is trying to change this. It is a sanctuary where hurt, injured or abandoned elephants can come live out their days just being elephants. They eat, they walk, they bathe, they play. They don’t have to work giving tourists rides, haul logs, perform tricks or beg for money. They can just be.
My time at Elephant Nature Park was spent feeding elephants (mostly Jokiah and her best friend), throwing water over them in the river and just watching them do what they do. It was amazing to see them interact with one another and how loyal they are to each other. It was both saddening and inspiring to hear what many of these elephants had experienced in their past lives and to see where they are now.
For example, Jokiah is a female elephant who is blind in both eyes. Her previous owner used her for an illegal logging operation where she was required to haul huge logs long distances. She became pregnant during this time and actually gave birth while being forced to haul logs up a hill, the calf rolling down the hill behind her. Because her owners were only thinking of themselves, they tried to force her to keep going so she was unable to even check that her baby was okay. Then, she refused to work. Who could blame her? In order to make her work, her owner took a sling shot and shot rocks into her eye, thus blinding one. Later, she became fed up with the treatment she received and she struck her owner with her trunk, enough to seriously injure him. As punishment, her owner stabbed her other eye.
Now Jokiah doesn’t have to work. She never had more babies but she has a seeing elephant friend who guides her around and comes to her side when she gets scared (whose name I can’t recall). I saw this first hand when we were all petting and fawning over Jokiah while her friend ate young banana trees nearby. Something spooked Jokiah (I think she was just confused as to where all of us were and she didn’t know exactly what was happening) so she growled. Her friend promptly stopped eating and rushed to Jokiah, standing in front of her defensively. She proceeded to trumpet and slap her trunk on the ground to let everyone know that there will be serious consequences if they dare mess with her best friend.
Over and over, we saw elephants never leaving each other’s sides, babies that were clearly very attached to their nannies (yes, elephants have nannies) and the joy they clearly have having baths in the river. It was an incredible experience and one that I would absolutely do over again.
See ya, Internets,