“Stay behind the red line”, said our guide, Oley, as soon as we walked up a few steps and into a large, open, covered patio complex. Elephants roam freely in the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) and often come up to the patio area mid-morning searching for some food, which is when visitors have an opportunity for a close encounter with these seemingly gentle giants. Don’t be fooled, though, “If you’re in the way of their food, they won’t hesitate to knock you out of the way to get to it and there trunk is strong”, explained Oley. For this reason, the patio is elevated and surrounded by steel rails, and the red
line is about a meter inside that railing. Oley showed us to our assigned table so that we could put our bags down, and then encouraged us to go back over to the rail, grab some watermelon and try feeding the elephants. So we did. Their trunks are rather remarkable. They smell the watermelon and then curl their trunk around it with a tight grip to crush the watermelon quarter and drink the juice before dropping the entire piece of fruit into their mouth.
We had jumped right into our educational morning by listening to a video about the park and it’s endangered Asian elephants on our hour-long ride from Chiang Mai. At the turn of the 20th century, there were approximately 100,000 Asian elephants in existence. That population has now decreased to 30,000, with only about 1,500 of them left in the wild mainly due to the loss of their habitat through logging and slash-and-burn farming. ENP is located on 300 acres of land that was donated by Bert &
Christine Van Roemer & the Serengeti Foundation in 2003. However, the woman who runs the park, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, started working with elephants long before that time. Elephants were captured and used in the logging business in Thailand for years. When logging was banned in 1989, approximately 3,000 elephants were abandoned, many of whom had serious injuries from long hours of hauling logs up mountains or
scars from the abuse inflicted by their captors if they resisted work. Lek started working with just four elephants in 1995, originally saving them one by one with her own money and resources. She has now made it her life’s work, determined to save as many elephants as she can, so all of the proceeds paid by visitors go directly to the oversight and management of ENP, which is now home to 44 elephants who have been rescued from logging, traps, snares, other parks, the circus, and street begging. Lek is a lover of all animals though, so the park also has over 400 dogs rescued from a flood in Bangkok, 88 water buffalo and a herd of cows rescued from the slaughterhouse, as well as dozens of cats.
After feeding the elephants, Oley laid out a few simple rules for us before he took us on a walk of the grounds:
- Never stand behind an elephant. They will be able to sense a presence and will kick if they don’t know what that presence is.
- Never stand between two elephants or get between an elephant and her baby. We could easily become an “elephant sandwich”.
- When feeding the elephants, never put our hand in the elephant’s mouth, for obvious reasons, but also our hands are covered in things like lotion, mosquito repellent or sunscreen that could make the elephant sick.
- Watch out for the elephant land mines.
- And when Oley (or any of the guides) says run, he means RUN!
Although the park was filled with mainly rescued elephants that had been abused or tamed in some manner, there were a few who were born there and are considered wild. Oley explained that the elephants have keen instincts and if they aren’t comfortable with a visitor in their home, they would let us know, so we needed to respect them. As we walked, Oley started to introduce us to the elephants and tell us their personal stories.
We first met a baby elephant named Khundet, which means “Warrior”, who is approximately 3 years old. It is difficult to know the exact age of the elephants unless they were born there, so the park assesses things like the dimples in the elephant’s head, wrinkles in the skin, and height and weight to approximate. Khundet had stepped in a snare in the jungle and was found by a park ranger in significant pain. The park ranger alerted ENP, who enacted a rescue mission, and Khundet joined the park about four months ago. Khundet’s front left foot is still healing and may never fully recover, which causes her to walk with a limp, but the park is providing treatment.
A little later, we met Lucky, who is 30 years old and blind from working in the circus under circus spotlights for far too long. Elephants have fairly sensitive eyes and cannot endure that type of bright light. Even in the park, they asked that we turn off the flash for our cameras so that we didn’t startle the elephants or harm their eyesight. We couldn’t get very close to Lucky because she is constantly swinging her trunk to sense who and what is around her. It took a long time for
her to live a relatively peaceful life in the park, as opposed to constant fear in the darkness. Lucky was benevolently adopted by one of the other elephants, who sensed that she was blind, and took her under her wing. The two are now inseparable. These creatures are fiercely loyal and protective once they form a bond. Normally, elephants live together in families, with females forming a lifelong bond and male elephants staying with their mother for five years before going off on their own. The 44 elephants in the park have formed five small herds despite not being related, so it’s always a bit of a wait-and-see game to determine if a new elephant will be accepted by one of the herds.
The reason that we were able to walk around at all in this zoo without cages is thanks to the work of the mahouts. Traditionally, a mahout, or “elephant whisperer” as I like to call them, is known as the keeper of the elephant. The mahouts at this park, who are mostly from Burmese or Karen tribes because those groups of people grew up around elephants and have great respect for them, are responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of the elephants. They reside at the park, are each
assigned to one elephant, and spend the majority of their day watching over that elephant no matter where it goes. They work with the natural instincts of the elephants and carry bags of food to help reinforce good behavior. Their relationships with the elephants, which we witnessed while there, were remarkable. They develop a long-term bond and deep trust with the elephant, something that can only be achieved over a long period of time. At ENP, when one of the mahouts had to leave due to family issues, his elephant moped around for weeks. They tried to introduce another mahout to the elephant but it took several different introductions of various mahouts until they finally found a man with a similar disposition to that of the elephant who the elephant accepted. And it is only now, after about six months time, that the elephant has started to seem content again, as witnessed through all of its ear flapping, which is a sign that it is happy.
Another thing that makes elephants happy is bathing and it is a daily ritual for the elephants, who always live within close proximity of a water source. They have inch thick, yet still sensitive skin and they like to cool off in the water. Watching them do this is joyful. They stand together, spray one another, rub against each other, push one another, use their trunks to tug at one another, and at times end up rolling around in the water. The babies are especially playful and try to climb on top of each other. They can stay under water for up to five minutes. Once they’re done bathing, cleanliness doesn’t last long because they immediately start spraying themselves with dirt, their natural form of sunscreen.
At one point, we had the opportunity to bathe one of the more elderly elephants, who couldn’t easily roll around with a herd due to injury. Bualoy, which means “floating lotus”, is about 65 years old and she had been used in the logging industry for most of her life. Once logging was banned, she was put into a forced breeding program, which basically meant that she was tied up and gang raped. More than 29 attempts were made for breeding with her until
during one of the last attempts, her hips and back legs were dislocated due to the weight of the bull. Most elephants, especially male elephants, weigh in the neighborhood of three to four tons. Their penises are 1.5 to 2 meters in length and their mating ritual only lasts about 2 minutes, in part because it takes a lot of energy for a male to pump enough blood into a 2 meter long penis to be effective, and also in part due to the fact that a female can’t support the weight of the male for very long. So, when poor Bualoy was tied up with no escape and repeated attempts were made to breed, she was physically and emotionally damaged. Her back no longer has the characteristic curve in it, her hip was broken, and one of her knees is permanently dislocated so she walks with a limp. Unfortunately, elephants also have a very good memory, so who knows with what sensibilities Bualoy lives on a daily basis. We gave her some extra special attention, scooping up water and throwing it on her back. Our guide told us that bathing like this was like a gentle massage for the elephants, so we went to work. Bualoy stood there munching on watermelon and contently flapping her ears while we washed her down.
Now, I know many of you are wondering, did I ride an elephant? The answer is NO, absolutely not. And the reason specifically relates to the weight factor that I just referenced with Bualoy. Although elephants can pull a significant amount of weight, they can’t carry it on their backs. Riding elephants for countless hours, year after year, eventually causes spinal damage. I know, I know, it sounds so cool to say I’ve ridden an elephant. I mean, really, bathing them, taking walks with them, or watching them play in their natural habitat… that’s not nearly as fun, right? For me, it definitely was. They are incredible animals.
Here’s where I’m going to kindly ask you to use some common… oops, I mean elephant sense for a moment. Elephants are wild animals. Wild animals often have unpredictable, wild instincts. In order to be able to ride an elephant, like what is done at so many elephant parks, a mahout tames and trains the elephant so that the elephant will allow humans to ride it. The way that this is done, historically in Thailand, is often when an elephant is very young, the elephant is taken away from it’s mother, long before it should be separated, tied up, and then trained with the use of the “Tha Kor” or bull hook. While you’re pondering this scenario, also give some thought to whether a wild animal could truly be happy being captured and tamed in the first place. I know some of you have already ridden elephants and the park you visited treated the elephants very well… at least while
you were there to witness them. Elephants are emotional animals, though, and if you really sit and watch, I mean really see them, interacting naturally, it is so much more interesting and cool to witness than if you watch them while they have to carry a human on their back on command. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty if you’ve already ridden an elephant. I’m just asking you to think about it in the future. The biggest gift that you could give and statement that you could make going forward, is to visit an elephant park that allows you to ride the elephants. Then decline to ride them and ensure the park knows why so that they start to get the message. Several of the elephants at ENP were rescued from other parks and will live out their “retirement” there, similar to a hospice.
MEET FAA SAI
Faa Sai, or “clear sky” was taken away from her Mom when she was a baby and forced to do street begging. This essentially means that her captor walks her down the street all day or all night and teaches her to do tricks so that people will think she’s cute and give her captor some money. Elephants are able to sense vibrations in the ground, which is key for them because their eyesight typically isn’t super strong. However, when placed on a busy street with vibrations all around from people, cars, and other street noises, it can be overwhelming. To top it off, when Faa Sai wasn’t walking the street begging, she was tied up in darkness, which is how her captor broke her spirit. She went from one extreme to another for years until she was rescued. She sometimes still has a nervous rocking motion when she’s scared, but has otherwise settled in well in the sanctuary and likes to cause a ruckus every now and then.
Our group slept at the park that night so that we would be able to wake up early the next morning and have some quiet time with the elephants before the day crowd arrived. On day two, we had a different guide, who was nicknamed Sunshine, and had been working at the park for two years. As we went on a walk in the morning with Sunshine, we stopped
by the river to watch the elephants playing in the water. While we were there, the neighboring elephant camp’s mahouts were riding three of their elephants down to the river. Once they got them in the river, I’m not sure what exactly they wanted the elephants to do, but one elephant in particular was not happy and let them know with a loud trumpet sound and them some low rumbling. The group of elephants with ENP reacted immediately with alarm, poised as if
ready to stampede. The mahout from the other park had a bull hook and started using it to get the elephant to lie down in the water. Simultaneously, the mahouts working with the elephants at ENP jumped up and ran over to each of their elephants to calm them. Sunshine explained that even though the groups of elephants aren’t related or in the same herd, elephants talk to one another and feel emotion in some of the same ways as humans. Elephants cognitive processing exceeds any
of that of the primate species and they often exhibit a wide variety of behaviors. I don’t want to get too political here, but in my mind, this incident is similar to some of the recent police brutality cases that enraged North America in the past couple of months. The very people who are their to protect, similar to the mahouts who are there to monitor an elephant’s well-being, inflicted unconscionable violence. And you probably weren’t related to those victims but you could empathize with their pain and be outraged with their misguided assailants. Once the incident was over and the ENP mahouts finished talking with their elephants, the elephants walked out of the water and started throwing dirt, pulling branches off trees and throwing them down on the ground, and kicking their back feet. Frustration – that’s what it looks like with elephants.
As we continued our walk, we visited the 6 acres of land that is home to the only four male elephants in the ENP sanctuary. They are housed in a separate area because males between the ages of 10 to 20 years old go through an annual phenomenon known as “musth”. No one can predict when it might occur and during this period, a male elephant’s testosterone levels are 100 times greater than normal and they become extremely aggressive. ENP is already searching for land where they might be able to release some of the babies that were born there back into the wild, but unfortunately, the habitat that is needed is scarce. So, the other reason the male elephants need to be separated is because ENP is running out of land even on their 300 acres and they can’t afford to have pregnant elephants. An elephant also eats up to about a tenth of its body weight, so more elephants mean they need more food, which means they need more money.
This leads me to the next conversation that I had with Sunshine… while our overnight stay was lovely and day two afforded us more alone time with the elephants and time away from the crowds, I suspect that it was in part due to Sunshine’s experience of managing the schedule and staggering our activities around the masses. When I asked Sunshine why ENP allowed so many people to visit during the day, he explained that they need all the help that they can get through tour fees and publicity to help spread their humane philosophy. I asked him why they didn’t just try to raise the prices a little, and as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I could tell how culturally insensitive this question was. Sunshine knew it too… stupid American. Of course this park is affordable for me; I can comfortably live in Thailand on $30 a day thanks to the exchange rate, but for the heaps of other tourists who might be coming from other Southeast Asian or developing countries, this park is on the high end of the cost spectrum in comparison to the other parks. Sunshine looked at me with restrained contempt and said, “We want to give everyone an opportunity to visit and learn about the elephants”. You’d think I would have relented out of sheer embarrassment, but acting like a fool often gets me to the answers, so I pressed further, as I often do, and questioned if having this many people around the elephants is healthy for them. Sunshine explained that most of them can’t get around all that easily and they love the attention. Think again of the hospice where your elderly grandmother resides after a terrible stroke. She can’t easily get out of bed and it’s depressing to just be staring at the walls all the time. Visitors make it more interesting. The elephants that don’t love the attention are in outer lying areas of the sanctuary; the areas that we visited in very small groups on our morning walk.
Here’s what I really appreciate about the park… Ket, the manager, holds both herself and everyone who works there to a high standard. They aren’t just trying to rescue and care for injured elephants, they are trying to change the hearts and minds of the Thai people, and all of those visitors from around the world who had no idea that it’s cruel to ride an elephant. They are trying to encourage benevolence, respect, and a safe future for the endangered Asian elephant. When we asked Sunshine why he came to work there, he said, “I love elephants”. Sunshine’s grandparents, who are from the Karen tribe, lived in elephant country and taught him respect for them early in life. He eventually moved to a bigger city, went to college, got an office finance job, made good money, and hated it. So, one day he quit (sound familiar?). He became a monk for six months, sat quietly, and searched his heart for his true passion. Shortly after that time, he worked at an
international school as a teaching assistant and brought students to ENP, which is how he found his calling. He had to apply to ENP four times before they eventually accepted him as a guide in the park. Their application and interview process is rigorous. It involves an essay, an interview, volunteer work on the grounds, and eventually, they only select guides who truly embody their philosophy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sunshine for going in search of his vocation, following his dream, and having the persistence and determination to see it through. It shows in his work.
By the end of our second day, it was like our 6-person tour group had formed a herd of our own. As is always the case, half of what makes or breaks these types of tours is the group itself and once again, my good fortune prevailed. There was Alex & Jess, a couple from the UK, who were traveling through Southeast Asia on their way to Australia for a year of work; Erik & Caroline, a soon to be US doctor of emergency medicine and a French Doctors without Borders HR professional; and Raudha, a digital media professional from Singapore who had just popped over to Thailand for the weekend. Without all of their participation, good questions, observations, and interaction, I wouldn’t have had nearly as many facts, pictures, or video for this post.
On the bus ride back to Chiang Mai, I couldn’t help but think that these elephants and their life stories sounded more like the chronicles of post-revolutionary slaves in the US who had received their emancipation papers but still ran into opposition at every turn. There was an elephant who stepped on a land mine and lost half of her foot, so she’ll need lifelong treatment and walk with a limp. There was another who was pregnant for 22 months, the span of an elephant’s gestation
period, while she was performing logging. When she gave birth on a hillside, her baby rolled down the hill and died. She refused to work after the incident and when she did, her captor shot her in the eye with a slingshot. When she lashed out at the abuse, he stabbed her in the other eye. She’s blind now. So many other elephants have hip problems from logging. With each elephant’s tragic account, struggle to overcome it, and unique personality, we were touched and inspired. All of the mahouts and guides treated them as individuals as well. They knew every elephant by name, they could tell each elephant’s story as if they were talking about a dear friend, and they knew each elephant’s personality quirks, which is why we knew exactly who we could approach, when and how.
While I may have initially hoped for a less touristic experience, the guides were extremely knowledgeable and did an excellent job of educating us. ENP’s program is admirable and the work they’re doing is extraordinary. I would recommend the overnight stay or possibly even one of the elephant treks, like Journey to Freedom, for a smaller group experience. And whatever you do, please think about what kind of tourist you want to be… the cool elephant rider or the humane, knowledgeable eco tourist. Cool is SO overrated.
Revelling in gratitude for the opportunity to visit this hospice sanctuary and bear witness.