Trip Journal Dec. 12
Today, we decided to splurge and go to the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant camp that is more than twice as expensive as all the others, but rehabilitates wounded animals and treats all their elephants humanely. It's run by a Thai woman nicknamed Lek who is trying to use it to revoloutionize the elephant tourism industry.
We learned Lek's story partly from the camp guide, an Australian, and partly from a National Geographic documentary we watched there. Lek grew up in a hill tribe village alongside an elephant that someone had given her shaman grandfather in return for a healing. She developed a love for the animals, and was heartbroken whenever she saw them abused. When she made enough money, she began to purchase old, sick, and wounded elephants from the tourist camps, the street, and people's backyards, and recruited volunteers to help care for them. She spoke out about the abuses these elephants had suffered, and while the international media listened, locals resented the negative publicity and attempted to discredit her.
In 2002, Lek made a documentary with National Geographic that exposed the phajaan, the traditional way of "breaking the spirit" of an elephant so it can be trained. The animals are put in cages barely big enough for their bodies, and beaten, burned, poked with rusty nails, and starved for a period of 3-10 days until they no longer fight back. The government prohibited the documentary from airing in Thailand, but locals still got wind of it, and the tourist camps just down the road pooled money to have Lek killed for it. She went into hiding, so instead they killed her favorite orphan elephant, one she had nursed since it was only three days old.
Instead of giving up, Lek grew her camp, turning it into a positive example of elephant tourism with no abuse to the animals. The tourist experience there includes feeding, walking with, and bathing with the elephants, but none of the overwork, confinement, malnourishment, abusive training with hooks, or lack of medical care that working elephants often endure.
Our guide gave detailed explanations of the personality and history of each elephant in the camp. One older female elephant acts as eyes for a friend of hers who was blinded slingshot and an arrow. The blind elephant follows her buddy so closely, she sometimes bumps into her rear end. And without fail, whenever the blind one trumpets, her friend comes running.
Each baby elephant has an auntie who acts as a second mother. When a new baby arrives, the female elephants excitedly bicker over this privelege. There is an old ladies' club, a naughty little boy, a prude (who runs or crosses her back legs when the males come by), a harlot, and a lothario. Every one has a personality and an interesting story, but with 25 of them, it's hard to summarize.
On the way to the camp, we stopped at a market to buy two tons (yes, literally) of cucumber, watermelon, banana, and pineapple, and our first interactive activity was to feed the elephants. The babies had to have their watermelon and bananas peeled, and had much less dextrous trunks, so sometimes we put the food directly into their mouths. Sometimes they got frustrated and tried to siphon chewed food out of their mothers' mouths too. The big elephants aggressively sniffed around for food, and were capable of chewing one whole watermelon while holding another on deck in their trunks. The watermelons quickly disappeared in a flurry of crunching noises.
Our next activity was the highlight - a bath. We waded into the river Ping with the elephants, splashed them with buckets, and scrubbed them with rough brushes while their mahouts often balanced on their backs. We were told to wait for elephants to sit down so they wouldn't step on us, but we found some a little reluctant. One baby head-butted us when we held out our scrub brushes toward him. He also stepped on David's foot and gave me a little kick, but seemed aware of our fragility and was extremely gentle. We gave another elephant's rear end a good wash as his mahout took a bath upstream, and watched another mahout balance atop his elephant while the elephant rolled underwater, trying to throw him. It was great fun.
We took the elephants for an afternoon walk, intermittently scratching the babies behind the ears. Then we were in for the sobering part of the day, a candid description of the abuses that many working elephants chronically endure. Some get abscesses on their backs from the bench seats. Babies can have heart attacks from the exertion of trying to walk behind their working mothers. Pregnant elephants miscarry while working. Most are underweight because feeding them is so costly, and most owners aren't willing to pay for veterinary care. In the tourist shows, the elephants are cowed into obeying by the threat of a beating, and many bear obvious scars from elephant hooks, especially on their foreheads and sensitive ears. And because they are expensive to replace, many are forced to continue working, even with broken bones and other serious injuries, until they can no longer walk, at which point they're sold or abandoned. Some exhausted elephants are fed methamphetamines so they can work yet longer. Our guide told us that the camp we visited yesterday would be shut down if there was any government oversight at all.
The Thai government still refuses to give the Elephant Nature Park non-profit status, and is afraid of ruining the cash cow of the huge tourist camps with regulation. But thanks to increasing international exposure, the tide is slowly turning, and Lek is hopeful that the king may suggest some measures to protect the species.
We ended our day at the Elephant Nature Park with another elephant bath, and some more play with the baby elephants as they were bedded down. I played tug-of-war with one's trunk and scratched under his chin before he retreated to his mother to have dinner and rest, and we returned to our Chiang Mai hotel.
We feel lucky to have found this place by happening to walk past its booking office. Today had been our favorite day in Thailand by far.