Last week I spent 7 magical days volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park. I am still daydreaming about it! Located about an hour outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, this park is a peaceful sanctuary for Asian elephants who have been rescued from abusive working conditions.
Founded by a remarkable and inspirational woman, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, Lek rescues elephants who are old, lame and who have been traumatized and overworked by brutal working conditions and training methods. These elephants have been used in the illegal logging business, trained to beg, perform tricks and trekking rides for tourists. Training practices include the use of sharp and painful hooks, and a method called “the crush” which essentially invloves squeezing the elephant into a cage, torturing the animal into submission with hooks, sleep and food deprevation.
Lek means small in Thai – although small in physical stature, her heart and spirit has no bounds. As a volunteer, I had the pleasure of working in the park, meeting the elephants, learning about their heartbreaking stories and listening to Lek speak about her commitment and love for elephants. It is really very special and touching taking in her stories. I sat quietly in awe and reflection for a long while after listening to her.
Elephants in the park are free to be themselves, play, bathe, enjoy life and make new friends with eachother. As a volunteer I was able to observe elephant behaviour, witness bonds between the elephants and help out with tasks such as prepping food which involved washing and chopping fruit, peeling and mashing bananas, cleaning up the mudpit and scooping poop (which really isn’t as bad as it sounds!).
Here is a little tour through the park and my experience….
Mornings and evenings in the park were very serene and peaceful (except when a group of over 100 dogs would start howling in unison at 5:30am…did I mention Lek rescues dogs too?). I got to wake up and unwind to this sunrise and sunset every day.
Every day we had the opportunity to meet the elephants by walking through the park, feeding and bathing them. Listening to them trumpet, beat their trunks and growl creating a low rumbling sound, was indescribable. They also have a new baby in the park, a calf by the name of Navaan who just turned 4 months old! My favourite part about my experience was learning about their pasts, each elephant has their own special story, and watching Navaan joyfully play in the mudpit and bathe in the river. It was a truly remarkable watching him be himself safely in the park.
Bottom photo from top left to top right: Meet Mae Perm and Mae Jokia. Mae Perm means to increase. She was the first elephant Lek rescued. She was born around 1945, worked in illegal logging and has digestive problems due to a previously unhealthy diet. Mae Jokia means Eye from Heaven, was born around 1960 and rescued from illegal logging and extreme abuse. Forced to work while pregnant, she suffered a miscarriage while pulling a log up a hill. Depressed over the death of her calf, she refused to work and was purposely blinded by her owner as a punishment. Mae Perm is Jokia’s best friend and her protector.
From bottom left to right: Lucky is the newest rescue. She is fully blind in her left eye and partially in her right eye. Lucky performed in the circus and was blinded by the bright spotlights. Mae Jan Peng is the oldest elephant in the park and happens to have the oldest mahout. Her name means Full Moon. Every day her mahout puts a new flower in the hole in her ear. She has 4-6 grandchildren!
The volunteers were split into 4 groups. Each day every group had a new am and pm task. Although some were hard work in the heat, they were a lot of fun. I got to chop corn stalks in a corn field with a machete…let me tell you, it was pretty awesome! Afterwards, we loaded the stalks on the back of the truck up to the tippy top, and climbed up on top for the ride come. I am sure it wasn’t the safest, but it was pretty thrilling. We got a lot of stares from the locals as we sped by.
I miss the park, the elephants, listening to the elephants and most of all, watching baby Navaan play and enjoy life.
I would also like to urge anyone to reconsider booking tours which involve elephant riding, trekking and elephant shows. Although these may seem appealing experiences to some, elephants working in these tourist trades endure suffering and mistreatment at the expense of our entertainment.
For more information about the park, visit heir website at http://www.saveelephant.org or take a trip to the park. They offer day and overnight trips, as well as volunteer opportunities.