So... ever since I can remember I have had a pretty serious love of elephants... I even wrote a book of poems when I was about 10 with the intention of selling it to raise money for elephant conservation charities... My marketing skills were somewhat lacking back then though ;) Anyway.. you get the idea... I love elephants, so when the opportunity arose to go and visit the Elephant Nature Park
in Chiang Mai, where they look after unwanted and orphaned elephants and give them as much freedom as they can... well, let's just say I was keen :)
The lady that runs the park is called Lek, which is Thai for 'small' - and she is! She is the daughter of a hill tribe shaman, and has adopted all the elephants in her park. She started with one small baby that villagers found after the mother was killed and has gone on to adopt another 35, with the number still rising! Lek is a woman on a mission to educate people about elephants in Thailand. In the last century their numbers have declined by 95%. In 1989 Thailand made logging illegal, so many working elephants were suddenly unemployed. Some are now being used for street begging, a practice that is technically illegal in Thailand, but not enforced at all and often leads to the elephants being terrified on city streets or hit by cars. More about that later...
Anyway, we arrived at the park and I got my first look at the elephants and got pretty darned emotional immediately... they are so beautiful!! Almost straight away we got to go and feed them, which was brilliant... having these incredibly gentle giants take a banana out of my hand with their massive trunks, which then curl up and reach their happy little mouths... (I say little, they're actually very big, but big happy mouths doesn't paint the right picture!) We also got our first elephant kisses, which I found incredibly ticklish, wet and hoover-like!!
When their lunch time was over, we had ours - a really great buffet style dinner... mmmm!! Then we all got into our swimmers and gathered by the river to get up close and personal and bathe our big friends :) Tom took a bucket and I took a scrubbing brush and we got in the river... each elephant has his or her own kwan (mahout in India) or elephant trainer, and they stay with the elephant and make sure that the visitors are safe. It was amazing, I was standing in a river, scrubbing an Asian elephant while she flapped her trunk around... My only complaint is that it was over all too quickly, and I felt there were a few too many tourists crowding round each one... but they didn't seem to mind... Unfortunately we didn't get any photos because we were too busy doing it!!! As all the elephants were getting out of the water there was a chance to give them a little rub on the nose, get an elephant kiss and I even had a hat placed on my head by one happy girl!
After that we all got up into a tower near the river and watched as a mother, aunty and baby came over for bath time... Whenever there is a baby elephant one other female from the herd becomes 'aunty' and helps the mother to protect it - they become inseparable. At the sanctuary the 38 rescued elephants have formed three herds that all live together quite happily. They are all very people-friendly, but when a baby comes into the equation it's a different story... then only the kwan are able to get anywhere near the little family unit, as the mother and aunty become fiercely protective. So we stayed up in our tower and watched from a distance, which was fine by me :) There were two mother-aunty-baby groups, with one 8 month old baby and one 6 month old and they were really playful and mischievous...! One found a hose pipe on the ground, picked it up and wrapped his mum up in it - little scamp!!
After that we had a session where we could ask questions about the elephants and also watch a documentary on elephant training practices in Thailand. Earn, our guide, told us about some of the injuries the elephants have overcome - one female trod on a land mine in Burma, Max, the tallest elephant in Thailand, was hit by an 18 wheeler truck when his kwan was making him beg on the streets... those are just two very sad examples... The problem is that while wild elephants are protected in Thailand, working elephants have the same rights as cattle and livestock, despite being an endangered species, and as I said before, the laws that do protect them are rarely enforced. Elephants take in the world around them using the vibrations from their feet, so being on a busy city street in Chiang Mai or Bangkok must be terrifying. Their kwan offer tourists, who don't know any better, the chance to buy fruit from them and feed the elephant... this is a practice that the nature park is trying to stop.
The documentary that we watched near the end of the day showed us the traditional methods used to train elephants in hill tribe villages, a practice that Lek is fighting to stop, despite being from such a village herself. I don't think there was a dry eye in the house when we watched this part of the film - it's not so much training as it is breaking the spirit of an elephant - causing so much anguish and stress that they are just shells of their former selves. I have seen elephants that have been trained like this pacing back and forth and you can see the marks on their heads where their kwan have hit them with a hook to let them know who's boss. Lek's elephants have no marks on them, they are trained with positive reinforcement, the same way you might train a dog with little treats. Remember, all kwan are not the same - some are good and use these gentle training methods, others are not. I am pleased to say that all the elephants at the park looked happy and seemed to have a good relationship with their kwan, doing things like kissing tourists and putting hats on their heads because it was fun, and not because they were scared of what would happen if they didn't.
After the documentary we went back down to the river to get another chance to bathe with our big friends, and then it was home time... What a day and what an experience. I knew there were problems with elephants and I am really glad to have learned more on the day, as well as getting to help look after what are definitely the happiest looking elephants I've seen on my travels :)
For anyone travelling to South East Asia and wanting to get close to elephants, this is definitely the best way, and here are the tips that they gave us - please pass them on!!
- Don't support street begging - it may feel like you're helping a hungry elephant, but if the kwan keep making money they will keep abusing their elephants. If they can't afford to keep them, they'll sell them, hopefully to someone like Lek :)
- Don't buy art work done by elephants or support the shows - it sounds impressive, clever and harmless, but the training methods used to get an elephant to paint a picture are downright torturous - if they make no money, they'll stop doing it
- Do go on elephant rides - elephants giving rides could have been given gentle training by one of the many kwan that really do love their elephants
And that pretty much concludes our time in Chiang Mai... :)More of my elephant photos
Tom's elephant photosTom's blog