Monday, June 6, 2016

Elephant Nature Park - 01/22/16

One of the highlights of our visit to SE Asia was a day spent at the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for neglected, abused and injured elephants.  The park was founded by Sangdeaun Lek Chailert and consists of 250 acres where the rescued elephants will spend the rest of their days in a pampered retirement.  Each elephant has their own human companion who spends the day with them and sees to their every need.

Lek is an amazing woman who was born into the Hill Tribes village of Baan Lao.  Her grandfather was a healer of both people and animals and young Lek often accompanied him on his calls.  As she grew into adulthood, Lek became an advocate for animals, especially the Asian elephant, which is the national symbol of Thailand.  Her dream was to create a place where elephants would be treated with patience, love and kindness rather than force and punishment.  She has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams and today other elephant parks are beginning to model themselves after Elephant Nature Park.

For many tourists visiting Asia, riding an elephant is on their bucket lists of things to do, but what they don't realize is that doing so supports an industry that is harmful to elephants physically, mentally and emotionally.  As large as they are, elephants do not have strong backs and anything weighing over 150 kilos (300 pounds) puts immense stress on their spines.  Giving rides involves a saddle (howdah) that weighs approximately 100 pounds and up to four humans.  Assuming those humans weigh an average of 150 pounds each, the elephants could very well end up carrying 700 or more pounds on their backs.  This results in spinal injuries as well as dislocated hips and even death for the elephant as reported in this recent news story out of Cambodia.  Samba's Death

Many of the elephants worked in the logging industry until logging was banned by the Thai government in 1989.  The unfortunate side affect was that many mahouts (handlers) and their elephants found themselves out of work overnight resulting in the mahouts turning to other sources of income such as elephant rides, performances and begging in the streets.  These elephants are often malnourished, exhausted and suffering from mental and emotional distress.  Most working elephants were taken from their mothers at a very young age and put through a brutal training process known as the crush which is designed to break their spirits and make them submissive to humans.

Fortunately, in large part due to Lek's work, attitudes in Thailand are beginning to change.  Elephant camp operators are starting to realize that western tourists are happy to spend their money walking beside an elephant, rather than riding it, as well as observing elephants being elephants and participating in feeding and bathing.  This is a wonderful development for the elephants who get to lead a more natural life, the mahouts who are still able to earn a living and the tourists who have a much more enriching experience.

At the time of our visit, there were over 60 elephants living at the 250 acre park.  It was very easy to make reservations through the park website, Elephant Nature Park where there are several packages from which to choose.  Once that was done, we eagerly awaited the big day.  We were picked up at our hotel in Chiang Mai at 8:15a.m. by one of the park's vans and settled back to enjoy the drive.

The park is located in this beautiful valley

The park includes flat grasslands, forest and a river.  There are many observation platforms from which to observe the park residents.

Once at the park, we had a brief orientation from our guide and then it was feeding time.  We had no idea just how strong an elephant trunk was until they were grabbing watermelon out of our hands!

One of the first elephants we met while on our walking tour was this beautiful girl who had been at the park for only a couple of months.

Her foot was crushed in a logging accident and never healed properly.  Our guide explained that if she is deemed healthy enough, surgery will be done to straighten her leg.

Next we met a small family group that includes four year old Navaan.  He is sometimes a mischievous boy who is into everything!

Such a beautiful face...

And, big feet too! 

Time for a bath in the river.  The elephants really enjoy playing in the water, especially Navaan.

Followed up by another of their favorite things - a dust bath!

The only thing better than splashing in the river is playing with old tires and rope.  The first three photos are of Navaan who gets in a couple of well placed kick moves.  The naughty boy doesn't like to share his tire and chased me when I was standing too close to his toy!

Adult elephants like to play too!

Elephants eat several hundred pounds of food per day...

...and what goes in, must come out.  My goodness!

Using my foot as a size reference

Nothin' like a good belly scratch!

This old girl had only been at the park a few weeks.  Note how thin she is, but it won't be long until she gains weight and is a healthy elephant.

Bonding time:

The banana room - it's a full time job keeping the elephants stocked up!

Besides elephants, the sanctuary is home to rescue dogs, cats and water buffalo. 

My favorite part of the day was helping to give this old girl a bath.  She is 80 years old and much deserving of her retirement.   Mahouts often use a stick with a hook or nail on the end of it to keep their elephants in line and many times the elephants are left with holes in their ears.  Her current handler puts a flower in her ear every morning as a reminder that there is beauty in each new day.

We would have loved to stay longer, but sadly the day came to an end.  As we rode back to our hotel, my thoughts turned to Lek and the amazing job she has done with not only the sanctuary and elephant rescue but in educating those who operate elephant camps and work with elephants.   Every now and then an extraordinary human being comes along and Lek is certainly one of them.  To quote William Shakespeare, "though she be but little, she is fierce" and she lets nothing stand in her way when it comes to helping her beloved elephants.

Thank you, Lek!