Elephants. Gentle giants. They never forget. Elephants aren't found in the wild in too many counrties, except Africa and Thailand. So, when you go and visit Thailand you make sure you see one. That's easier said than done, because there aren't a lot of wild elephants left in Thailand and you won't likely come across one. Other than that, what are the options... elephant trekking, elephant shows with elephants playing football and the lot. But honestly, that doesn't sound all too animal friendly. As I was keen on seeing an elephant, I did some research and came across the Elephant Nature Park, north of Chiang Mai. A sanctuary and rehabilitation center for abused elephants, who were rescued and now have found their new friendly home. That's where I want to go. The option of volunteering at the park itself was even better and so, I signed up for it immediately. That's where we went after two days in Chiang Mai... working with the elephants.
The Elephant Nature Park is a unique project in Northern Thailand. The park was established in 1995 with the aim to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants from all over Thailand. The park is now home to 37 rescued elephants, about 70 or so dogs, 21 water buffalos and 20 cows. There is no elephant riding at the park, nor are they involved in any show, visitors can spend the day or overnight there and are involved in feeding and bathing them, as well as just watching them wandering around the park.
Volunteering at the park means hard working as well as interacting with the animals. Elephants eat up to 250kg a day, that meant a lot of hands on for us. We were washing tons of pumkins, watermelons in the ele kitchen, unloaded tons of the above veggies from arriving delivery trucks, cut grass, sugar cane and corn, planted banana trees, repaired some fences, cleaned the ele shelters, h and had tons of fun doing it. Nothing beats just watching them do their thing, really. Oh, hearing them trumpeting in the middle of the night, is the best really. Quite sureal in the beginning.
Even though these animals are very big, well, compared to their African rellies, they are really small it is said, they are soo gentle. The feed with their trunks and when they take the food from you, it's always really gentle and soft. We learned that elephants communicate not only via their loud trumpeting sounds, but more with their "enigne"-like gurgles which cause vibrations and travel over distances to the other elephant, which "reads" the sounds through the soles of its feet (they are soft instead of hard, as you would think). Elephants sleep only a few hours a night, therefore we had to go to bed or be quiet at 10pm, didn't stop them waking us up with trumpeting in the middle of the night though. ;-)
We were also shown several documentaries showing us the reality of how elephants in Thailand were and are still treated and a lot of the individual sad stories of the parks elephants.
Some of the stories are very distressing and it seems impossible how those animals could survive. For instance, one of them stepped in a land mine and lost half her foot. Tilly, was made to mate with an overweight male elephant and broke her back. Jaan Pen got stabbed a hole in her ear by her abusers. Jokia, 100% blind in both eyes was working at a logging camp. After she gave birth and her baby was taken away from her - normally they would stay with the mum until the age of max. 4 - she refused to continue to work, resulting in her having both eyes stabbed with a stick. Jokia was rescued by park staff and found a friend for life in Mae Perm, nver leaving her side. Jokia is one of the most gentlest and friendliest of them all, next to cuddle-me Mae Perm. Dok Ngern was a street begging elephant and was sent to brutal training to learn more tricks, so the owner could earn more money with her. And so on and on. It's very depressing, when you hear the stories and then also meet the elephants, but seeing them happy again, as they obviously are, it quite soothing. After feeding time, they are let to roam free, while the mahouts sit up on the plattform, and there you can get a glimpse of their happiness as they play together in the river or do their own thing, silly stuff to entertain themselves really. They really look as they are having fun.
The best thing that I was able to be part of at the park was meeting Lek, the parks founder. Lek truly is an elephant whisperer, if you could call it that, but she has that special aura around her and they seem to sense it as well, when she first encounters them in their miserable past lifes. One day just before lunch we were still hanging out at the ele family's pen and watching the baby doing silly stuff, as Lek arrives at the park and comes over. The elephants already sensed her a while ago, as they were getting really excited and their trunks wouldn't stop moving around. The baby was thrilled. Lek stepped into the pen and sat under the baby, started petting him and sang a song. Immediately the whole female bunch closed in on the baby to share the Lek's love. We were invited to come into the pen as well, as the aunties wouldn't harm us, due to Lek's presence and us standing close to the baby as well. So, there we were standing in the middle of the elephant pen, next to the swaying happy baby elephant, surrounded by the other females, eacht touching us with their trunks and being very friendly. That was truly amazing.
There are so many things that happened at the park that are too many to tell really. Seeing two elephants running towards each other across the field, trumpeting wildly, expecting a fight but seeing them "running into each others arms" more or less, greeting and trunk hugging after being apart for a few days, is one of them. Witnessing Jokia literally following Mae Perm blindly around the park. Inseperable and really looking after each other. Standing next to each other at feeding time, with just one pumpin left and Jokias trunk searching around for it, as Mae Perm pushes the pumkin towards her trunk. Mae Perm coming over to check out what's happening, laying her head almost into one of the girls lap, but realizing that she won't fit under the shelter for real. The baby elephant acting cheeky and trying to outsmart the mahouts, but not realising that up the wooden stairs to the plattform isn't just for him.... but then being too stubborn to let it go. Cheeky Jungle Boy chasing around his mahouts. Elephants really having a blast rolling around in the river and slpashing on another. .....
More impressions here