Needless to say, my favorite part of our Thailand vacation, was our week long volunteering at Elephant Nature Park!
The logging industry was banned in Thailand in 1989, leaving thousands of elephants unemployed. These elephants are now used for tourism. You may have heard of elephant shows featuring the animals playing soccer or painting pictures with their trunks. They are no doubt amazing to watch, but the sad truth is that these elephants have gone through a series of torture and abuse to "break their spirit" by their trainers. This short clip is very hard to watch, but it will give you an idea of what the elephants in captivity in the country of Thailand go through.
The only elephants in Thailand who do not endure this, are the very few baby elephants who are first generation born in "safe captivity" at places like Elephant Nature Park. Every other elephant at this park has been brutally abused. Some have been blinded by their owners, legs broken and never properly healed, and one is even being weened off methamphetamine that she was given in order to force her to work long hours. These elephants will never return to the wild, but will live happily in a caring and open sanctuary. The ultimate hope is that their offspring can someday be taught to live in the wild.
Elephant Nature Park has rescued over 30 elephants, and has used the support of tourism to help the animals rather than exploit them. We were given jobs such as working in the elephant kitchen preparing food, or cutting corn for them. But we also had a lot of free time, and usually we worked right along side the elephants so we could stop to feed, bath, or take photos with them. (Click to enlarge)
Left: washing pumpkins and melons, Right: the shelves in the Elephant Kitchen
This elephant showed off for Eddie
Most of the elephants here are gentle and happy to be around visitors. But there is a herd of about 5, that no longer trust humans and their behavior is too unpredictable to be around tourists. We encountered this herd accidentally, led by the elephant appropriately named Naughty Boy, one day on a small work detail. We drove a truck to a remote part of the river to collect sand. When Naughty Boy spotted the group, he led his herd toward us. Our guide immediately got nervous and told us to stay behind the truck. When they kept on, he told us to get in the truck. When they kept on further, he drove the truck towards a nearby tree house and told us to climb up!
Our group taking refuge in a tree house
That was our excitement, but there were plenty of tender moments as well. The 2 new babies stole our hearts. This is 1 month old Dok Mai and her mother. They are kept in confinement until she is strong enough to be with the herd.
And of course, 6 month old Navaan. In this video, he playfully strolls to the river.
And I found some very special elephants that didn't mind me showing my affection.
Mae Perm and Jokia especially touched me. Jokia was blinded with a slingshot by her previous owner. When ENP rescued her, she met Mae Perm who immediately accepted her. They are never apart now. Mae Perm leads her tenderly around the park and does not leave her side for a moment.
Jokia's eye, hard to look at.
This is the park's only "white elephant." She's really only about 30% white elephant. True white elephants must be turned over to Thailand's Royal Family.
The issue of elephant abuse certainly tugged at my heart and I was happy to contribute. These magnificent creatures have changed my life and made me see things in a different way. It has made me more conscious of what I do or don't support with my time and money. And has made me more aware of not only how animals are treated, but all living things.
A friend of mine so eloquently captioned this photo for me, in the words of Sir Mix A Lot...
"I like big butts and I cannot lie."
I'm sure you will see more of my elephant photos in the future!