Lush green jungle surrounded us as we bounced along the raw road. We were heading up into the mountains behind Chiang Mai, where a lady with a special message has created a little slice of heaven.
Elephant Nature Park has been on my travel list for the last five years. Initially I wanted to volunteer there for a month, but due to a limited time frame, we decided on a day visit.
The park was founded in 1996 by Sangduen Chailert (Lek), and for the past 17 years she has worked tirelessly to educate, re-home and care for the 35 elephants she has in her care. Many of the elephants have been disfigured, abused and are now permanently disabled. My heart wrenched as I learned of Mahouts (Elephant Trainers/handlers), stabbing their elephant in the eye when they refused to work, or force breeding so the male bull broke the female’s hip.
One story that particularly hit home was of a pregnant elephant being forced to work at a logging mill. She gave birth while pulling the logs up hill and her baby (still in vitro or it’s sack) rolling down the hill behind her, only to stop at the bottom, dead. Grieving for her baby, she refused to work, only to have her handler stab her in both eyes rendering her blind.
Watching these gentle giants lumber and trumpet their way around the park, you can’t imagine why anyone would want to hurt them. Unbelievably a century ago there were over 100,000 Asian Elephants in Thailand, a decade ago there were 25,000, now, only about 3,000 left, 2000 of which are classed as domesticated animals.
Elephants are big business in the tourist industry, which means that many are seen only as a meal ticket for their owner. Once they are not earning money they are abandoned unable to care for themselves or worse killed. Thai law does little to protect them, cruelty towards domesticated animals is punishable by a tiny fine, and not widely enforced. Lek’s mission is to provide education and medical care free for the surrounding elephant camps and hill tribes near the nature park. She cannot save every elephant, but is trying her hardest to change the way that they are treated.
It’s easy to be fascinated and enthralled by elephants. They lollop around with such grace and poise, and playfully search their handler’s bags for bananas. I loved having the chance to get up close to them, we were particularly lucky to see a beautiful 6 month old running playfully around his mother and four nannies.
Fact: Elephants are dirty.
They coat themselves in mud to protect their sensitive skin from the sun, I found this out when they left a big dark dirt stain on my shirt while I was feeding them. It also became obvious after we spent twenty minutes playing and washing them in the water, only to watch them sidle up to the nearest mud pile and roll around in it. You cannot help but giggle, they are just so happy and peaceful. There are not many places in the world where you can feed, touch and bathe an elephant.
Lek has created a beautiful little piece of paradise, aptly named “Elephant Heaven”, if you are interested in visiting or supporting her work please go to Elephant Nature Park online.