When we returned back to the Elephant Nature Park after a week in the Karen village in Mae Chem, it felt like utter luxury. We had beds! With mattresses! And mosquito nets! The showers were still ice cold, but we weren’t complaining, because there was a distinct absence of palm-sized spiders inhabiting them. And the food! I cannot do justice to the food at ENP—with about 20 delicious, mostly-veggie offerings at every meal (Curry, curry, curry! Coconut, coconut, coconut!), I was nearly always teetering on ecstasy with the serene smile of food coma on my face.
I spent the days at the park “working,” but the few hours of poop-scooping, washing fruit, making banana balls, feeding the elephants, bathing the elephants, and the hilariously futile cleaning of the mud pit (read: MUD FIGHT!) felt more like fun at camp than hard labor. Apart from one rough morning of cutting very tall, very thick grass by hand with agonizingly dull machetes (motivation for dullness revealed when I very predictably smashed my shin on an over-zealous swing), the only real work was digesting the three enormous meals every day and keeping our camera batteries charged for the postcard-perfect elephants roaming everywhere.
In the middle of the week we had the chance to venture up to “Elephant Haven”—an overnight trip where we walked three of the elephants to veg out in the jungle for awhile—and later to the “New Property” to make mud bricks and build a seed house with the impressive Antoinette, a Dutch woman who started a project called “Bring the Elephant Home,” which focuses on the positive aspects of elephant tourism and in Thailand. I can now dig a hole and mix cement like a pro.
One of the most notable experiences was when Rachel and I turned up at the baby corral one afternoon just in time to catch Lek singing one of the youngest to sleep for its afternoon nap. She beckoned us inside, and as she hummed “Que sera, sera” and Rachel stroked Pha Mai's trunk, the enormous baby shoved me underneath her belly, where I sat, neck bent below her swaying girth, for half an hour. “She trusts you,” Lek told me solemnly. “She wants to be your mama.”
My time at ENP was mostly light, fun, and an amazing chance to be up close and personal with these creatures, shoving basketfuls of watermelon at their waiting trunks and watching them play on the ele gym while I sipped Chang beer with friends on the patio. But there was another, more educational aspect to the whole experience as well, a lot of which was heart-wrenching. I don’t think it’d be fair if I didn’t share some of it here…
If I took away anything from the ENP, it’s the knowledge that the Asian elephant, though revered throughout Thailand and a prominent figure in Thai culture in everything from temples to the King’s palace, currently lives a life of intense suffering, and its days are numbered. In the past 100 years, elephants in Thailand have dwindled from almost 100,000 to barely 3,000, and those that remain live under torturous conditions:
Jokia, an elderly elephant at the park, was blinded in both eyes by her mahout when she was slacking on the logging job right after the death of her newborn. Mae Do could barely walk because her hip had been broken and deformed from a breeding camp in which up to forty males are forced on a single female. It was painful to watch her hobble around, but worse to see her become terrified and incontinent around Hope and Jungle Boy, the young males at the park. These are just a couple of the Park’s stories—others include survivors of land mines and drug addicts—but nearly all Asian elephants encounter misery early on in their lives. When they are three or four years old, all working elephants in Thailand (which is almost all of the population—very few are currently wild) undergo pujam, a breaking ceremony where they are placed in a cage, stabbed with hooks, beaten with clubs, and shouted at for four days to a week. Almost half die in this process. Elephants live to around the same age as humans and have similar developmental stages. They are also incredibly intelligent, emotional, social animals—if I’m remembering right, the only other animal besides man that cries tears. Imagine a toddler tortured for a week with nails. Imagine what impact that has developmentally. Or what it does to its mother.
Please, please, please, if you visit countries where elephants are part of the tourist industry, don’t give money or bananas to mahouts begging with their elephants in the streets. Resist the draw of elephant treks, elephant paintings, elephant dancing and elephant sports. No matter how legit some of these operations may seem on the surface, those elephants have almost universally been beaten into submission for our entertainment.
Before coming to the Park, I thought elephants were really cool. I thought logging was bad for the environment. I never would’ve condoned the mistreatment of animals, but didn’t see anything wrong with riding elephants, either, and even looked into a hill trek that ended in an elephant ride. But Jennifer and Bryn recommended the ENP, and I’m so grateful I took their advice. If you do still want an amazing, close-up elephant experience in Thailand that promotes sustainability and conservation through education, I can’t recommend The Elephant Nature Park strongly enough. Check them out at www.elephantnaturepark.org. I’m definitely going back.