Today was the kind of day that will stick in the memory for years to come.
It was also the kind of day that makes you want to take a large stick to portions of what is laughingly known as humanity.
Chiang Mai is famous for elephants. You only have to walk out into the street to see that. Statues, paintings, even the occasional trimmed hedge in the image of elephant abounds.
I knew before I got here that I wanted to see them, but I was disappointed that all the trips that I looked at seemed to be more of the circus variety.
“Ride the elephant. Watch the show. See the elephants perform”.
So it was that I eventually found out about the Elephant Nature Park – http://www.elephantnaturepark.org. A rehabilitation and retreat for rescued elephants.
The elephant was massively used in the logging industry here in Thailand, and after that practice was banned in 1989 the elephants employed in the industry were either turned loose, sold to neighbouring Burma or turned into beggars performing tricks for tourists in the bigger cities.
Those that were turned loose did not have the skills required to survive in the wild. They invariably starved, became injured, were killed for ivory or killed by farmers protecting their crops and livelihood.
At the start of the 20th century it was estimated that there were over 100,000 elephants in Thailand.
Today that number is estimated at 3,000.
The ‘domesticated’ elephants are known to be treated shockingly by their owners. For those put to work, they are caged at a young age and repeatedly beaten until the spirit is broken and they become compliant. We watched a video showing this practice. The young elephant was forced into a cage barely bigger than its body. It was tied by all limbs and the throat. It was given instructions to lift its leg on command. It was taught to follow this command by brute force.
Sticks with sharpened nails would be forced into the elephants skin, those same sticks would be used to beat the elephant mercilessly.
It is shocking and barbaric.
The begging elephants are used to sell small bags of feed to tourists with which they can feed the elephant. The tourist probably doesn’t realise that the elephant was trained to pass the bag and receive the money using the exact same practices described above.
The begging elephants can be said to have it worse than the working elephants. They at least are fed properly in order to allow them to keep working. The begging elephant eats what it sells, and considering that they need to eat up to 10% their bodyweight each day, this is rarely met.
Instead they are forced to forage through garbage, or drink water from sewers in order to supplement their intake of food.
This is where the Elephant Natural Park comes in.
Founded by Sangduen Chailert in the 90’s the park aims to rescue as many elephants as they can and give them a good home, love, care and the company of other elephants for the rest of their lives.
Indeed Lek, as Sangduen is universally known originally called her sanctuary “Elephant Heaven” as this was what she aimed to provide for the elephants.
Today the park stretches nearly 400 acres and houses 33 elephants. The newest arrival, Navann – coming unexpectedly 17 days ago. This arrival was not rescued, but was born at the park. The mother having shown no previous signs of pregnancy!
I would encourage you to read the biographies of the rescued elephants here – http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/herd/index.htm
Elephants maimed from land mines. Backs and legs broken from logging accidents. Wounds, and breaks from mistreatment and at least two that were blinded by their owners using slingshots for the heinous crime of not working hard enough.
When you see these magnificent creatures in the flesh. When you hear them, when you touch them and when you see the lasting damage caused by their mistreatment I defy you not to feel anger and rage at those that caused it.
Why are those responsible not punished?
It is simply because the law does not allow them to be.
Elephants that have been domesticated are considered livestock by law. Any cruelty towards them is considered as the mistreatment of livestock, and the punishment is a token fine. The same in fact as a buggy driver would face for whipping a donkey too much.
These fines are very rarely levied as a blind eye is turned.
In order to survive, to pay for rescues and to expand the park requires money. It makes this by soliciting for donations, by sponsorship for the elephants and by allowing a small number of visitors to come and visit the park, either volunteering for a day or even staying for a week.
I visited for the day and ‘helped’ out by hand feeding the elephants their breakfast, and later on by washing them in the nearby river.
In between we learnt about the park, its challenges and met some of the inhabitants.
Meeting the elephants was a fantastic experience and as I say it is one that will stay with me for a very long time.
Standing knee deep in a river, throwing buckets of water at these huge beasts to cool them off and wipe them down is special. Getting soaked at she then shows you that she can do a far better job that you can with one blow of her trunk is also special.
Watching that elephant then walk out of the river and start covering themselves in mud (a natural sunblock) gave me a newfound sympathy with my own mother as she would watch me as a child take a freshly washed and ironed t-shirt and head straight out onto a muddy football pitch, handing back a much stained rag.
To see the contrast between the happy individuals I saw today and to see the photographs and hear the stories of their past is heart rendering.
Read the stories on http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/herd/index.htm, pass the stories on. Have a look at http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/howyoucanhelp.htm and if you feel like making a donation or purchasing something from their online shop.
I’m going to upload some high quality images to go along with this. They’ll be far higher quality than needed for a desktop, iPad wallpaper or even printing at a large size.
Perhaps if you like them or download them, you may feel inclined to donate a quid to the park?
Images are below. Click through to Flickr to download the full sized image.