What an amazing experience we had yesterday. Fourteen classmates from TMC visited the Elephant Nature Park an hour north of Chiang Mai in the jungle. Founded in 1996, the project’s aim is to provide sanctuary for distressed Asian elephants in a natural valley, bordered by a river, and surrounded by forested mountains.
Here is a link to the Park website.: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org
Lek Chailert conceived and opened this park, and her efforts have been recognised worldwide by television and print media including National Geographic and the Smithsonian Society. She has also been featured in documentaries from numerous film production companies including Animal Planet, the BBC, and CNN. In 2005 Lek Chailert was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time magazine and was received in the White House by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010.
The Elephants in this park have been rescued from their lives in the circus, street begging, and in the Thai logging industry (where it is now illegal to use elephants). Many of these animals have a tortured past, being treated with great cruelty. Some are blind, some have broken ankles, hips, and backs. Here at the Nature Park they are learning what it means to roam free again, regaining natural behaviours they would exhibit in the wild. Dedicated staff and volunteers have won over each elephant with love rather than the “breaking” method of Mahout training usually used on elephants in captivity.
The public can stay in the park for weeks at a time and pay to volunteer to care for the elephants. This program helps raise funds to run the elephant sanctuary, as well as provide the people power required to ensure the elephants get enough food and care. Each elephant can eat as much as 300 lbs of food a day! Volunteers plant trees and corn that grow to help provide elephant food, prepare their food and feed them, do various cleaning projects including dung removal, and bathe them in the river.
A family from New York (Joey, Timberly, Edel and Oslen) that we had done acroyoga and silk ribbon acrobatics with in the park, happened to be on their last day of their one week volunteering. We hadn’t seen them for a while and had a great moment of reunion when we saw each other walking through the park. Joey’s youngest daughter was SO excited to see us she was vibrating and invited us to sleep over in her bunk bed that night.
Our group of 14 was there for the day trip program. We helped with snack time where we held out chunks of pumpkin and watermelon for the elephants to wrap their trunks around to put in their mouth. Each elephant had a different personality. Some were divas refusing to eat the pumpkin until all the watermelon was gone. Others who had suffered more, experiencing food scarcity, gobbled up the pumpkin as much as the watermelon. They have three baby elephants in the park, 6 months, 8 months and one year old. The one baby elephant loves to chase tourists and has been known to take cell phones from distracted tourists and never give them back!
They are curious animals and love to come up close and check you out, especially if you have food. Most of their dietary needs are supplied by corn, banana trees, leaves, and other natural plants that grow within the park. The special treats of watermelon, pumpkin, and bananas are a way for the public to have a positive and safe interaction with these amazing animals. The sky walk is another way to be close but safe around the elephants if you are nervous at all being so close to them.
We also went into the river to throw buckets of water over the elephants to cool them down and wash off the mud they throw over themselves as a natural sun screen. I am not sure who was doused with more buckets of water in our group, the elephants or our classmates. Water fight!
A recent immigrant to the park walked in on her own from a less ethical elephant trekking company nearby. Because she spent part of her day carrying tourists through the jungle she had noticeably darker skin than the other elephants in this park. She was not able to cover herself in mud as she naturally would have.
All but one of the elephants here were domesticated and it is Lek’s dream to be able to one day release elephants into the wild and not have to keep them within a park’s boundaries. But before that happens more natural habitat in Thailand needs to be regenerated and protected. Until then this sanctuary is just that for many Thai Asian elephants (and a good number of dogs and cats too!).
There were moments when many of us where near tears at the suffering most of the elephants had endured, and at the joy of being so close to these beautiful animals knowing how well they are loved and cared for in this sanctuary.