I recently read Elephant Whisperer, recommended by a dear friend. The book beautifully recalls the story of South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony accepting a herd of wild "rogue" elephants onto his game reserve, thus, preventing their demise. I enjoyed and recommend the book which highlights the connection that can be forged between elephant and human. It also made me think back to one of our family vacations in Southeast Asia.
Among my planned destinations was Thailand, and it would be our family's first time visiting. The elephant's iconic role in Thai society throughout history made an elephant encounter imperative for our itinerary...Or at least it did for mine! My husband took a bit more persuading and coaxing before I could add it to his.
In Thailand, as in other countries, elephants have taken on many roles: manual labor, war, tourism, and royal iconography. For thousands of years, elephants have been exploited, captured and trained to perform, transport, and complete heavy labor often in the logging industry. Where would I find an encounter that was ethical, rather than exploitive? Elephant Nature Park, located about an hour north of Chiang Mai, provided my answer.
Elephant Nature Park, co-founded by Sangduen "Lek" Chailert is a sanctuary and rescue center for Asian elephants. Lek was sixteen years old when she witnessed her first elephant logging camp. The abuse she saw, elephants being trained by "elephant crushing" and disciplined with a stab into the eye, often blinding them, propelled her forward on a path to change the way humans and other animals live together. With love and respect for her country's national symbol, Lek broke with the traditions of the villagers and the tourism industry, advocating instead for the rights and welfare of the elephants.
She experimented with a new way of connecting with elephants and became the matriarch of her first orphaned rescues. She speaks of her deep love for elephants, and believes "love can change, love can tame, and love can heal". Through hard work and deep conviction, her voice is now recognized internationally. Featured in several documentaries, she has also received many honorary awards including the 2001 Ford Foundation's "Hero of the Planet" and Time Magazine's "Heroes of Asia" in 2005. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton invited Lek to Washington DC where she was recognized as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation.
When we visited on June 8, 2018, there were seventy eight rescued elephants roaming free within the 250 acres in the hills of northern Thailand. Lek has rescued more than 200 elephants and has added additional parks.
Many of the elephants have suffered broken bones and much more, from accidents and abuse in their former line of duty. Lek comments that it takes time for the previously abused animals to regain trust and the feeling of safety. With some it happens quickly, but with others it can take months or even years.
Giving the elephants treats of bananas, watermelon and pineapple was fun for the animals on both sides of the structure, including my son and myself.
Lek's longest transport of a rescued elephant at her park was a four day drive and the oldest elephant she has rescued was 75 years old.
When visiting their sanctuary, you are only guaranteed, in Lek's words, to see "elephants being elephants". No performances here. In her imperfect English, Lek says, if you want to see elephants bathing, you will see it only if they want to bathe. If they don't, you will not. Fortunately for us, they like to bathe.
The babies were such fun, though they could start running and playing quite impulsively, not unlike humans, except they weigh so much more. Throwing a little dirt onto her back, lower right above.
Yet, all is not perfect. Irrespective of its social status in this country, the elephant became an endangered species in Thailand in 1986.
Feeding the elephants, maintaining adequate mahout ratios, supplying veterinary care and medicine, and keeping the park free of disease is an ongoing expense.A single elephant consumes 550 pounds of food each day and costs around $18,000 per year to support. Oftentimes, payment must be paid to the elephant's owner in order to gain release of the animal from his mistreatment.
Elephant Nature Park does not accept rescued elephants exclusively; Lek has also welcomed dogs and cats to the park, most rescued after the 2011 floods around Bangkok.
We hope that Lek's model will be the future for elephant tourism: paying a fee for admission and for volunteering to care for the elephants. This provides education to global citizens regarding the elephant and increased awareness of their abuse, while providing both volunteerism and needed funds to support the cause.
Leh gives much love to her rescued elephants, but she says they return it to her manyfold. There are many pachyderm enthusiasts, and I happily count myself among them. I am grateful for my day among this gentle herd. If in northern Thailand, take a day, or a week, or a month to spend with Elephant Nature Park. Your support and help will be appreciated.