“I am glad to have the chance to encourage the preservation of my local culture and play a part in keeping this precious creature alive. There are real and extremely serious problems ahead for the Asian Elephant, and I hope that I can impress upon you the importance of projects like mine.”
– Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, Founder of Elephant Nature Park
Ever since I was a young girl, I wanted to travel the world. I had visions of trekking through the Amazon forest aside wild monkeys and sipping bubbly champagne by the Thames River in Europe. This was before the Amazon had been of any grave environmental concern and before I knew how horrible champagne actually tasted. When I reached the age at which I could actually travel, I faced a very different reality. Maybe it was due to my constant observations or acute awareness of my impact on the world – but regardless, I came away with an entirely new way of thinking after I had the opportunity to travel.
I began my journey in Australia, the massive continent that evokes a strange feeling of familiarity, yet boasts a vibrant sense of mystery and exoticness. For the first month I was rather loose with my money, spending frivolously on alcohol and partying. I met some awesome people, but I knew deep down that I must detach myself and continue on with my travels. I slowly worked my way up the east coast, visiting tourist sites, small towns and beaches. By the time I made it near the top, I still felt like I was missing an experience that possibly Australia could not offer. I spontaneously bought a plane ticket to Bangkok, Thailand, and began researching volunteer positions at animal sanctuaries in the area. In my efforts to spend some time at a sanctuary, I came across a hidden gem: Elephant Nature Park.
The park, established in the 1990s, is set in an idyllic location only 60 kilometres north from Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sanctuary is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of distressed elephants across Thailand and neighbouring countries. It is home to dozens of elephants, of all ages and with a varying degree of backgrounds and stories (some of which are absolutely heartbreaking). It serves as one of the few true elephant sanctuaries in all of Thailand, as many trekking or mahout (elephant trainer) camps are disguised as cruelty-free tourist activities, though abuse and mistreatment run rampant among these communities.
Elephant Nature Park, more affectionately known as ENP, is a wonderful sanctuary that has blossomed as one of Trip Advisor’s top tourist attractions in all of Chiang Mai. The park shuttles eco-conscious volunteers for daily, weekly and biweekly volunteer positions, where they work in several alternating stations throughout their time at the park. The concept of ENP is to provide a safe and peaceful environment for these abused elephants to live out their lives as naturally as possible. They are free to make their own social groups and are not forced to breed or work. Volunteers are given comfortable accommodations, as well as the most amazing vegetarian food I have ever tasted.
Depending on the length of stay, there are many different jobs that volunteers are expected to complete. They range from cutting grass, scooping up dung, planting trees and much more. My favourite job was moulding bricks from a mud and seed mixture, which was used for various construction projects at the park. They were literally becoming the foundation for new buildings to come. It was an amazing thought. You are working directly alongside elephants ambling around and munching on some grass. The experience was unforgettable.
The park also brings in other animals in need, such as a small herd of water buffalo who were destined to be sent to a slaughterhouse before ENP intervened. The devastating floods in Bangkok in 2011 also proved fatal to thousands of animals, some of whom were rescued by ENP staff and volunteers. The park is now refuge to hundreds of stray dogs and cats, who roam alongside the elephants. It is a place of happiness and healing, one in which I am extremely lucky to have participated.
There is no fence surrounding the perimeter of the park.Therefore, a mahout (an elephant trainer) is assigned to each elephant to make sure they keep out of trouble and stay within the park’s boundaries. Mahouts are traditionally the key abusers in the life of an elephant, yielding brutality and asserting control in the form of a bull hook. The pride of these large creatures is broken when they are very young, as they are forced into a wooden “crush” and poked until they surrender their will. Their entire lives are spent living in constant fear – which is exactly why I was dumbfounded that real mahouts worked at the park. The founder of ENP, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, claimed these mahouts had previously worked with elephants, but she was trying in her own way to rehabilitate them to treat the elephants differently. She wanted to teach them that you could safely “control” elephants without the violent use of a bull hook. Upon learning this, I gained a whole new level of respect and admiration for her.
Chailer, was easily one of the most compassionate people I have met in my entire life. Her love for these elephants is painstakingly clear in the way she talks about and treats them. The first night of our orientation, Chailert introduced herself to the volunteers. She described the struggles she has gone through, thanking us profusely for our contribution and donation to the park. During her speech, there were many times I was so overwhelmed by her compassion that I was moved to tears. She was doing what no one would in Thailand: taking a stand for the endangered animal and attempting to change the hypocrisy that continues to plague the most culturally significant symbol of Thailand.
The elephant is a symbol of strength and is widely known as Thailand’s “beast of burden.” They were traditionally used in Thai logging industries and for religious purposes. Nowadays they are subjected to the plight of tourism, begging for money and working in trekking camps. They are an important symbol valued for what they represent, rather than for what they are. They are living, breathing, emotional beings, with great capacities for memory and love. There is the common phrase that “tourists leave their brains at home,” caught up in the romance and excitement of visiting a foreign place. It is our naivety that is causing the death of hundreds of elephants and ensuring the torture of thousands more.
By not making ourselves aware of what we consume, we are unknowingly contributing to mass extinction and cruelty. Even just walking through the weekend market in Bangkok, I saw several stands selling journals illegally decorated with elephant tails and elephant skin purses and wallets. The connection is not made for the customer, often a foreign tourist wanting a “cool” souvenir to bring home. By simply refusing to buy these products, we can obliterate the entire black market economy. People need to be educated about what they are consuming, whether it is an elephant skin wallet or a seemingly cruelty-free elephant ride.
Luckily, tourism in the area is beginning to grasp this concept – noting how lucrative and popular such eco-friendly activities can be – though there is still a long way to go. Many tourists are oblivious to the cruelty they support, whether they participate in bull-hook elephant riding or giving small bills to an illegal elephant begger in the streets of Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Tourists have a lot of buying power in Thailand’s economy, with the literal ability to stop this unnecessary cruelty. By choosing a sanctuary over an elephant camp, it is reducing the demand to overwork tired and abused elephants, in turn not supporting mahouts and the abuse of these gentle giants.
Chailert and Elephant Nature Park have won numerous awards and has been featured in a variety of films and magazines, notably in National Geographic’s film, “Vanishing Giants”. Chailert is one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of Asia” and has been internationally recognized for her work toward providing a safe haven for abused and distressed elephants across Asia. She aims to teach others that elephants are majestic creatures that deserve respect and the dignity to live their lives as nature intended. I urge you to think consciously about every decision you make, especially while traveling. It is easy to get caught up in the romantic notions of riding an elephant through the Asian jungle — and no matter how “peaceful” the company may claim to be, the elephant’s spirt was broken in order for them to learn to be ridden. Educate yourself and learn how beautiful and complex these animals are and that they deserve the same rights and respect as humans.
If you are planning to visit the Chiang Mai area of Thailand, strongly consider stopping in at the Elephant Nature Park office and see what the park has to offer. There are many ways you can get involved, and the park always appreciates any help or donations. Medication and medical care can be extremely costly and elephants eat up to 250 kg of food per day – so you can imagine how expensive the basic operating costs can be. The rescued Bangkok flood dogs are also in need of supplies and medicine. Visit http://saveelephant.org for more information on volunteering and donations.
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