"The Elephant Nature Park rescues and takes in abused or abandoned elephants throughout Thailand. It receives no funding whatsoever from the Thai government and depends on the efforts from volunteers and sponsors locally and abroad."
I take a flight from Bangkok heading north to the city of Chiang Mai .Thailand is the seventh stop in my travels – I have been gone 3 months.
The country is rampant with tourists; backpackers formulate a large portion of this demographic. Thailand can be a playground of sorts and I fear that far too many will only know this side of the country. However, long before the illicitness of Thailand wrangled me in, I made a point while still in Canada to look into elephant sanctuaries in South East Asia, and settled on one an hour outside of Chiang Mai: The Elephant Nature Park.
When I was younger I watched Babar with great revelry, made the elephant pavilion the first stop in every zoo visit, and held my breath with great anticipation when the giants would march in the finale of a parade. I suppose this childhood zeal dwindled with time and was replaced instead with more self-indulgent fascinations. Perhaps as an attempted homage to a childhood gone by, my travels bubbled with eagerness as it built up to my elephant encounters.
The Elephant Nature Park rescues and takes in abused or abandoned elephants throughout Thailand. It receives no funding whatsoever from the Thai government and depends on the efforts from volunteers and sponsors locally and abroad.
Lek Chailert is the founder of the park and is a woman of dynamic abilities. She is unwavering in her dedication to the animals and has made it her sole purpose in life to aid and assist the dwindling population of Asian elephants. At present date, she has over 30 elephants, 50 dogs, 30 cats and a number of water buffalo – all of which have sought refuge at her park and in turn, found a home full of love and compassion.
One of Lek's most ardent ventures is that of freeing domesticated elephants from the oppressive confines of the tourist industry throughout the country. The process by which an elephant is domesticated or "broken" is one of gross indecency and cruelty.
Lek allowed me to watch a portion of a documentary she is putting together. The footage was jarring, as it showed hidden camera recordings of a young elephant undergoing this process.
They are taken from their mothers and put into a wooden crate they so affectionately term the "crusher". They proceed to deprive it of food and water for days, all the while hacking and prodding at it with tools designed to carnage the very skin meant to protect them. They are beaten into submission and it is believed that this traumatizing hazing is the only method of ensuring the animals will obey their mahout, or handler.
Once deemed ready for use, the elephants are sold into numerous trades: logging, elephant trekking (riding), street begging and elephant painting, to name a few. All of the elephants at the park, babies exempt, have been broken and all have been used by humans in some way or another.
Many look to you through hazed milky eyes, made blind by rocks flung on slingshots as reminders of who is in charge. All bare scars, evidence of power assertion at the hands of callous mahouts. Many struggle to walk with hips or legs that resemble a clumsy piecing together of joints and bones, mangled by trade-inflicted injuries. Each have a harrowing story – such as Max, who was rescued by Lek after years as a working elephant.
His first role was in elephant trekking and was beaten, chained and abandoned after continually trying to shake off the uncomfortable harness. After escaping he was once again enslaved, this time he remained chained outside a temple for 3 years with a donation box sitting beside him. And finally he was used as a street beggar in Bangkok to entice hoards of heavy-pocketed tourists. One evening after work while being led out of the city he was struck by an 18-wheel truck and dragged 15 feet.
For me, the most shocking part of my time spent at the park was not the gravity of what the animals had endured, it was their ability to love. They treated the visitors with boisterous affection and playfulness. They bound together as surrogate siblings, parents and friends. The mahouts at the park were void of weapons and used instead body language and verbal commands as means to ensure safety.
On the day I left the park, Max lay surrounded by his friends, elephants and humans alike. He had finally succumbed to his long-standing injuries and passed away, I hope, with the knowledge that in the end, he was loved.
I rounded out the remainder of my time in Thailand by doing a Jungle Trek .Included in this two day adventure was elephant trekking. I told my leader I would not be participating and instead stayed back at the base. I wandered around in disbelief that my worst fears had been confirmed. The mahouts mounted the elephants, weapons in hand. Small axes or sticks with nails on the end were swung to and fro in such a cavalier manner I struggled to watch.
One elephant, months old and too young to be used in the treks, sauntered around unchained. I approached her and she reacted with interest and curiosity. I spent a long while with her; she wrapped her trunk around my legs and nudged at me playfully. Once she finished feeding from her mother she would be taken and broken. As she galloped around jovially, flitting a leaf through the air in her trunk, my eyes swelled with tears at the knowledge of what awaited her. I made a silent promise to her that I would do my part to help.
Author: Alison Martin