After months of planning and preparation, finally our time at the Elephant Nature Park (www.elephantnaturepark.org), about 60K outside of Chiang Mai, was about to begin. The day was sunny, warm, gorgeous and we were excited to begin this adventure.
Our guide, Noi, picked us up at our hotel and we drove north to the park. Past throbbing street corners. young girls on mopeds, tuk-tuks chugging through traffic, road-side stands selling sodas, fruits and kites, our small van made its way toward the elephants. Lek (which means small in Thai) Chailert founded this reserve (ENP) in 1995 with the lofty goal to rescue domesticated elephants in need, those misplaced when the logging industry in Thailand changed and laws were put in place to protect rapidly deforested areas. What was good fo the land and the ecosystem in Thailand, forced many elephants out of work and into illegal systems or begging for food in the streets. Far too many suffered abuse as the hands of ignorant or cruel people. Lek started with one elephant, soon had four, and now ENP is an oasis to 32 rescued elephants, each with its own story of survival, heartbreak and hope.
The sanctuary is nestled in a lush green plain ringed by small mountains, tall swaying trees and verdant vegetation. Through Lek’s hard work and determination, these lucky elephants have found a peaceful place to live out there days, far away from their once tragic existence. Here they can wander the acreage with their mahout, who trains and interacts with these gentle giants though positive reinforcement, never using a “hook”, brutality or intimidation. The mahouts know that the ancient ritual of breaking an elephant using barbaric and torturous techniques is abusive and wrong and that one can get these huge creatures to live comfortably and peacefully via voice control, mutual respect and lots of love to try to heal the animal’s past wounds.
The elephants who join ENP can graze, select their own new family members or tribe, soak up the Thai sun, bath in the nearby river and spend time – if they choose – with the park visitors who arrive spend a day or weeks. Unlike other parks, these elephants do not have to do tricks, perform stunts, give rides or any other act that is unnatural to their nature. Lek has tried to make the elephants’ lives as close to natural as they can be, realizing, of course, that they are still in an enclosed and “unnatural” world. Yet sadly there is little space left for these animals in the wild as Thailand, like so many other places in our world, has lost so much of its jungles and natural habitats to overpopulation, the need for more farm land and the strip mining for lumber. Elephants are creatures who demand large spaces to roam and tons of vegetation and water to simply exist on a daily basis. ENP provides this and offers a hopeful place where these special elephants can attempt to heal from their dark pasts.
Lilly was rescued from the logging industry, like so many others. She worked constantly hauling huge pieces of timber over rough terrain, chains wrapped around her body. She was even drugged with speed by her mahout so she could work even harder and longer. After giving birth to a calf (which a female can carry for up to two years in her womb), Lilly shut down emotionally and refused to work. She was beaten for her obstinacy. Jokia was blinded by men who thought they could break her and control her by using a slingshot to punish her eyes. According to Noi, our guide, this is common practice and many use this technique to harm or manipulate elephant behavior. Still another female we met was forced to be a “breeder”, placed for prolonged periods in close quarters with a male in muss or heat and he subsequently attacked her in his testosterone craze.
Each animal here has a story, some very hard to hear. Some walk with crooked gaits on limbs broken and badly healed; some came to ENP so depressed and despondent that it was uncertain whether they could recover at all. Each one at ENP has a chance to now live a life free of cruelty, neglect, overwork or unjust treatment. They are magnificent, intelligent creatures, each with its own personality and characteristics. Some are long-legged, lean, short, round, spotted, wrinkled, playful, silly, dramatic. We saw friendship exhibited by many of the females who mainly prefer to spend their time in pairs, a budding love affair between one older female and a newly arrived male, to frail and weak to act on his affection…yet… and the rambunctious antics of a young male calf, Hope, who tried to steal some tasty white bread from his mahout. The elephants move slowly and gracefully across the fields at ENP, slip their long and agile trunks toward hands offering lady-finger bananas or bits of squash, smile when they are happy.
For those who work here, witnessing the relationships that form between the elephants is rich reward and seeing another animal join the park is cause for celebration and proof that Lek’s vision is intact and flourishing. Lek is attempting to show via example that elephants can be trained through love and positive reinforcement and that while there may be diminishing natural areas for them and little legitimate “work”, parks such as hers, where the elephants can live as elephants, is a viable form of eco-tourism. People will pay to have this experience, to simply be in the presence of these animals and observe them.
Of course there is still that needs to be done. Laws need to be stricter to protect the elephants from illegal logging (mainly in nearby Burma) or street begging, where some elephants are forced to live in Bangkok or other crowded, noisy and polluted cities, eking out a living by wandering the chaotic streets begging for bananas or money for their mahout. While this is outlawed in Thailand, it exists and the police to little to enforce the laws that protect the elephants. And of course there needs to be more land protected and conserved for wildlife, in Thailand and most other countries. Slowly we humans are taking all the world’s space and resources, leaving little for other species.
Lek is fighting, one elephant at a time, to make things happen, both politically and through the ongoing education of people like me who visit the park and the local Thai people she meets and talks to about elephant behavior and proper care. The more people who know about the plight of the Asian elephant, the more people who can help with time or money, and the more people who can lobby for political change, the more hope there is for these elephants, who once roamed and filled the land of Thailand but now it’s estimated that only about 2,000 remain. Lek has become their voice, their staunch advocate, and through her continued work of outreach and education, perhaps the future of Thailand’s elephants will be brighter and more of these wonderful, caring and intelligent animals will find places of refuge or nature environments in which to exist. The ENP is a magical place that changes lives, for elephant and visitor.