Published: May 21st 2012May 15th 2012
Sometimes it seems that there are elephant symbols everywhere in Thailand and at times actual elephants. What surprises me is how few people actually know anything about real live elephants. I am definitely in this category having experienced them only in zoos or at tourist venues where they give rides, paint, play football and do a great variety of other parlor tricks for which they are trained, often quite harshly from what I have learned.
For a long time I have wanted to go to a place that is just about elephants, a place where I can see that everyone there really cares about them, a place where they are not there just to entertain you. Last week, I finally had an opportunity to go to the famous Elephant Nature Park run by Sangduan Chailert known as "Lek" in Mae Taeng, about an hour by car from the city of Chiang Mai. Lek and her staff of mahouts (one for each elephant) look after thirty four elephants, thirty one of them female and most of them coming from troubled backgrounds.
Many were logging elephants somewhere in Thailand even though the business was outlawed here over
My other new friend
twenty years ago. It has continued illegally in areas where property rights are loosely defined and subject to the corrupt motives of politicians, bureacrats and businessman. Others have been injured through abuse or in their work in cities where they become tourist attractions and the primary earners through their mahouts (what the people who care for the elephants are called). Sometimes they are just the victims of abuse or neglect.
There are no wild elephants in Thailand as there is very little habitat left and the elephant population has dropped in frightening fashion over the last century from over 100,000 in 1900 to only a few thousand today. Ironically, they helped to deforest much of their own habitat as the tools of the logging industry. Their population decline continues. Japan is the ideal of fecundity compared to elephants.
An irony of the tourist trade is that it often allows them to be cared for even though the training methods and work are often not good for them. For example, it is not healthy to sit on an elephants back (nothing over 200lbs). Their neck is ok; As you see the mahouts do. I now know to
keep this in mind as I see tourists riding around on elephant backs in palanquins reminiscent of Siamese royalty. Tricks like elephant painting and soccer matches are also likely to involve abusive training practices. Many elephant camps in Thailand do all of the above.
Lek's "Elephant Nature Park" through her extraordinary elephants and many who have helped, and continue to help her, have created a place where elephants are treated like kings. I'm not sure if it is the same as elephants being elephants in the wild, but I am sure they are surrounded with care. Their main duties are to eat and be admired by tourists. Each elephant has a mahout who cares for them. Volunteers pay to spend a week with them. I know it sounds ridiculous but it is hard to argue with the results. They have managed-with an initial land donation of 50km from a couple in Austin, Texas-to amass over 100 acres of land in a rather pretty spot that features a tributary of the Ping River which runs through Chiang Mai city.
A major cost is feeding these elephants. I watched the volunteers unload the thrice weekly supply
of pumpkins from a nearby location. It is my understanding the camp has bought land nearby to supply the food for these beautiful creatures. They get a steady diet of bananas and pumpkins all day long.......in one end and out the other like an assembly line or so I imagined it. Volunteers and day trippers, like myself, take great joy in hand feeding these often gentle and emotional creatures. The best part is giving them a bath. You can touch them, put your hand in their mouths and scrub them down. I imagine if you stay long enough, you likely get a chance to ride them as well.
The best would be to develop some kind of emotional bond with them, but that would take time. Elephants are very sensitive. Talking with the mahouts about the topic is fun. Although in many places, mahouts can be the ones that are pushing the elephants to do things that aren't good for them, this is often the best choice they both have to improve their lot. Sometimes have scowled at the mahouts in Bangkok that bring elephants around to be fed by tourists, and I still do not support
this. But the mahouts as much as the elephants are their cash cow, are the ones who care for them most. An analogy with pimps comes to mind, but I don't know enough to fairly label it as such.
The mahouts at the Elephant Nature Park in Chaing Mai didn't come across this way even though some of them may have followed such paths in the past. They know the elephants best and if given a chance will do what is right by them. This is the feeling I got at Lek's elephant sanctuary. it is part orphanage, part animal shelter and part elephant village with extended family and all. Dogs and cats, scattered throughout the camp, look healthier than most you see in Thailand. I met the most adorable dog, Mookie, just before lunch hour, scratching his tummy for a long time.
I was at the Lek's camp for a mere eight hours but I did get to spend about thirty minutes with Tong Jan (means Golden Moon) a seven year old who is said to be a picky eater. I watched as he dropped pumpkin after pumpkin slipped near the end of
Our guide Kwan
I didn't follow half these rules. For what it is worth I had an elephant charge me when I stood in front of him.....and I didn't even get the photo!!
his trunk at the snout. He would start to curl it up and then it would drop. This was said to be pickiness. I read it as laziness, or perhaps tidiness, because he didn't want to bother picking it up after it dropped. But I noticed if you took the time to carefully secure the pumpkins, or bananas, he almost never dropped them. Tong Jan was born at the camp and his mother is there as well. His father, like nearly all elephant fathers, is long gone.
It is reassuring to know that there is successful breeding at the camp. This helps to blunt the current demographic decline. If they can manage to extend the elephant habitat a little more with further land purchases and sharing agreements with other nearby camps-and the national park system-they might be able to rehabilitate a little bit of what has been lost. The mission to restore a more autonomous, healthy and perhaps self-sufficient home is certainly a utopian one.
As I looked at what Lek has accomplished so far, I realized utopias are created by love, caring and community just as much as by brilliance and expertise. Her
love and dedication to elephants has given her a unique caring family of people and animals that has a visionary reach. If nothing else, a day at Lek's taught me this and more importantly, that utopias are very much worth fighting for especially if you dare to follow the intelligence of your emotions. She very much embodies the best of Buddhist ethics and theology which preach loving kindness and compassion respectively. The feelings I felt after leaving Lek's sanctuary, a temple of spirituality and Buddhism in its own right, were equal to that of any Buddhist experience I have ever known.
ELEPHANT NATURE PARK LINK:
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