Sat 15 Jan 2011 30 °C
Rounding the corner, I looked out the window of the minivan, down to the valley below. Giant trees covered the slopes of the mountain, but at the base the greenery was short and a river followed the curve of the landscape. I scanned my surroundings, anticipation coursing through my veins, until at last I saw them. There, below me, walked the largest mammals to roam present-day earth: elephants.
Elephants have a long history in Thailand, filled with royal white elephants fit only for a king, sacred elephant images at Buddhist temples inspired by the Hindu god Ganesh, and working elephants who helped create and shape the logging industry in Asia. Today the majority of Thailand's domesticated elephants are labouring in another industry: tourism. In any city in Thailand (and parts of Laos) when perusing options for day tours of attractions, one can hardy avoid "elephant ride" on the itinerary. It doesn't take a special license to own elephants, and it seems the handling of elephants can be done with as little as a pick (to hook onto the elephant's ear), a strong chain, and a brutal training session to break the elephant's spirit. I didn't know all of this until I arrived at Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai.
In December my parents announced that they were going to meet us in Thailand in January. Excited, Toby and I made a list of "must-dos and must-sees", and elephant rides were on the list. So, leading up to our reunion in Chiang Mai, Toby and I opted out of the elephant rides included in our day tours so that we would experience it with my parents for the first time. We watched as groups of tourists climbed the platform to sit on the bench atop an elephant's back. We saw how rough some of the handlers were when the elephant showed a little bit of personality. We saw the worn skin from ropes that encircled their backs and the chains that held them in place whenever they were not giving a ride. My mind went back to my experiences riding camels and horses, and the fact that after I dismounted the animal I inevitably felt waves of shock, guilt, empathy and anger. I always try to avoid being a part of animal suffering. There had to be another option.
Using our Lonely Planet guide as a start, we researched facilities that offered a different elephant experience. In Lampang, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center offers mahout training and tourist shows with the emphasis on education and care. In Chiang Mai, Patara Elephant Farm allows you to adopt an elephant for the day and feed, bathe and ride the elephant for a hefty fee. Other locations in Chiang Mai offered affordable daily tours with the emphasis on caring for elephants, some vocally against elephant rides and shows. With my parents' enthusiasm and support, we picked the award-winning Elephant Nature Park, and I am confident it was the right choice for us.
On the hour and a half drive to the park we watched a short video about elephants in Thailand. We learned that some people bring elephants into the cities to beg for food for them. Tourists buy food for the sad animals, but it isn't enough and the profits are pocketed. These creatures live under highway ramps and often go crazy from the vibrations they pick up through the city pavement. The video gave us a brief introduction to the founder of Elephant Nature Park and her work with other animals and environmental causes. It concluded with information about the declining numbers of wild elephants, still roaming parts of Thailand's jungle.
When we arrived at the park we saw the massive creatures anticipating their first meal of the day. The most obvious observation we all made was that they were free. They roamed the acres of land, mahout always close by, naturally forming herds, free to find shade, scratch on a tree, play or retreat. We helped carry the baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables to the feeding platform. Each basket had an elephant's name on it, and each elephant ate at the same spot each day. The long-term volunteers are responsible for the huge task of preparing the food and filling the baskets. As we fed, we learned the history of a few of the elephants.
Hope is the hardest to control, so the center keeps him away from tourists, and he has his own feeding and bathing schedule. Jungle Boy was rescued from the jungle after his owners could no longer afford to care for him. He was wild at heart, but was won over by gentle, persistent training. Jokia was blinded when her owners attempted to curb her unruly behaviour by stabbing her in the eyes. She was "adopted" by another elephant at the centre who never leaves her side. Malai Tong lost part of her back leg when she stepped on a land mine by the Cambodian border. She manages to walk on the remaining leg, but sways it back and forth when standing still, aware of it always. Another animal has a branded R on its backside. Many elephants were rescued from logging camps, tourist riding and trekking camps, shows and circuses. Some were drugged with stimulants in order to work all hours of the day. They were abused and tortured. A small elephant "dances" non-stop, because she was tortured if she didn't at the circus. The saddest sight was of the elephant with disfigured hips and back legs, who was bred too young and her bones were crushed when the male elephant mounted her. She walks slowly, with great effort, but her trainer tells us that her swinging ears show that, "She is happy here".
My family found a private spot to spend some time with Grandma, the oldest and gentlest elephant at the centre. We fed her hand to trunk, and my dad even placed some food gingerly in her mouth. Amazing photo-ops aside, we marveled at the calm presence of the mahout, the efficiency of the centre, and the life that still shines in each of the 34 elephants' eyes.
We were treated to an amazing buffet lunch (mostly vegetarian -score!) before changing our clothes to bathe the elephants. We walked into the river, the water up to our calves, and threw buckets of water on the elephants. They quietly enjoyed the cool water, or joined in by splashing themselves with their trunks. As we became more comfortable with the animals, we touched their rough skin and accepted a kiss from the elephant born on Valentine's Day, but mostly watched the elephants from a viewing platform. After enjoying round two of feeding and bathing, we were sad that the day had gone by so quickly. The elephants were calmly walked into their pens to be chained up for the night. This, we were told, is the only option to keep the staff and elephants safe. Lek, the founder, sat under the newest baby elephant and sang her a lullaby. Our minivans drove away, but life continues at the Elephant Nature Park, where the dignity of Thailand's elephants is honored and restored.