Let me first preface this entry by saying that my words cannot do justice to this place or the amazing woman who founded it. Also be forewarned – this is a long entry…

Tiger Kingdom

After a week spent in Chiang Mai – the second largest city in Thailand based in the north – David headed off to Vietnam and I decided to stick around for a while at the beautiful house of a family friend’s just outside of the city. They even took me to the Tiger Kingdom – a park outside of Chiang Mai that is home to all ages of tigers, many of whom you can take photos with, even laying down on their belly(!). On Monday I started a week of volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for maltreated, injured, and orphaned elephants from Thailand and Burma that is found just an hour outside of Chiang Mai. The park is home to 35 lucky elephants that have been rescued from awful situations and now have the opportunity to roam the large valley that is surrounded by mountains and bordered by a river. In addition to these large inhabitants, the park is also home to 70 dogs, over 20 cats, a sun bear, a small horse, and 2 pigs that have come to this animal haven for one reason or another.

Lek with one of the calves

The park was founded by an incredible Thai woman named Lek (small in Thai). She is certainly small, but her spirit and her aura of strength, persistence, and a deep caring of all animals is apparent through her voice and the way she commands her surroundings. Lek – who has been named Asian Hero of the Year by Time Magazine, and who’s story has been featured on such channels as BBC, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, etc. – works at the park each day with her long black hair braided, wearing a flannel shirt and galoshes, and immediately captures your undivided attention as she seamlessly integrates herself into each elephant family – herself made a member over the years. She whispers to them, or sits under their legs feeding them treats, or sings the young calves lullabies at night until they eventually fall asleep. Her love for these animals in unconditional and quite a powerful sight.

A little Thai elephant history (which was new to me) – Elephants are a big religious and cultural symbol for the Thai people. However, a century ago there were 100,000 wild elephants in Thailand, and today there is an estimated 2,500. Like in Burma, elephants in Thailand were domesticated to work in the logging industry. But in the 1980’s when logging was banned in Thailand, a whole lot of elephants found themselves out of work with not much forest to go back to. They were integrated into the tourist industry and now no longer have more rights than any other domesticated animal, like a cow or chicken. They give tourists rides on their back (something that I am guilty of – even if I was naïve at the time), dancing, painting, walking on tightrope, and selling items on the streets of busy cities to make money for their mahouts (their Thai or Burmese owner and caregiver). Many of these animals are supplied from Burma, where logging is still legal, and where the animals can easily cross the border to make more money for their owners in the huge Thai tourist economy.

What happens when an elephant walks on a landmine

What most people never see is how these animals are trained into performing these entertaining acts. Elephants are taken from their mothers at the age of 3 and forced into a wooden enclosure no bigger than themselves, feet tied to the posts, and kept their 24 hours a day for around a week in order to “break” the animal’s spirit. Hence the name for this training – called “the crush”. Villagers and the mahouts tie chains around the young elephant’s legs in order to train them into certain acts – stabbing them with sticks that have nails protruding from the ends, or with long hooks into their heads, bodies, or the sensitive area around their ears. Many people are told to believe that because the elephant’s skin is so thick that none of these actions are painful. Absolutely untrue.

Old ladies

The young elephant is driven to madness through the brutality and stress of this process, often not recognizing her mother after she goes through her training. Even if she does, she and her mother are immediately separated into different camps or villages. Female elephants have it the worst, as males are usually too difficult to keep under control. They are worked through the entire 22 months of their pregnancy, often miscarrying or participating in infanticide – killing their babies when they are born which is thought as being a result of the mothers not wanting the same fate for their offspring. Females are also often force-bred, their legs tied to posts and knives piercing her belly and the sides of her head in an effort to prevent her from struggling while the male elephant mounts her. One of the elephants in Lek’s park walks with a severe limp as her hip was broken during one of these breedings.

All of this just for the money that comes from entertaining tourists.

Lek began rescuing elephants in the 1990’s, starting with 3 in 1995 and now with 35. She was disowned by her family (who still own and work at an elephant riding camp for tourists near Lek’s park), and received constant death threats from those who worked in elephant camps all over Thailand. The Thai government gave her no support and fined her any time they could. She told stories of when a UK company donated milk for a young elephant (the milk is available but expensive in Thailand), but no Thai airlines would fly the donation to Thailand. And when British Airlines flew the milk for free, the Thai government and airport officials made Lek jump through so many hoops and pay so many fees that in the end she and her elephant never got the milk even though she ended up paying 3 times in fees for a donation for what she could have bought on her own in Thailand. Another story she told was when she traveled to rescue an elephant from a man who she had already made a contract with but who demanded another 20,000B (around US$600) when she arrived. Not having the money and upset that there was already a contract in place, she contacted the police who would only help her for a bribe that dwarfed that of what the elephant’s owner was asking for. Not knowing what to do, she contacted the Thai mafia with a plea for them to help her. Knowing about Lek and her mission, they did, the mafia telling her, “We only take money from criminals, not good people.” The next week, Lek received her elephant without any complaint.

Twilight at the Elephant Nature Park

Lek’s Elephant Nature Park now gets day-trippers and volunteers from all over the world. The price to volunteer here is not cheap, but once you understand how much it takes to take care of 35 elephants, it is a small price to pay. The park costs US$250,000 a year to run, and a lot of that is for elephant food. To rescue an elephant, Lek must buy them – a baby elephant costs US$20,000-30,000, and older elephants can range from US$3,000-10,000. Not cheap.

I get a kiss on the first day

And the work at the park is fun! Where else can you be around elephants 24 hours a day, waking up to their trumpeting and seeing them play in the mud like children? Even shoveling elephant poo is much more pleasant than my previous job of picking up dog poo…smell wise… Here is an abbreviated schedule of my week at the park:

Day 1- Arrive to the Elephant Nature Park. Tour, elephant feeding time, and photo ops with the elephants. Welcome ceremony performed by a monk from the village. Game of “street” Jenga with a group of friends. Documentary on elephant use and abuse. (I will post it here as soon as I can download it onto a computer)

Day 2- Cut corn stalks for elephant food at nearby fields and have a fun ride on the truck on the way back. An elephant walk around the property in the afternoon, learning about each elephant. Film about Antoinette, one of Lek’s first volunteers, and how she went on to create her own organization.

Day 3- Watering plants around the property, chopping and peeling banana trees for an elephant snack, and peeling tamarinds to mush into balls to feed to the elephants. Hand feeding the elephants at lunch time. Making mud bricks to use for future construction (more like playing in the mud). Tubing down the river to help get some of the mud off.

Day 4- Shovel elephant poo out of the enclosures. Trip to a nearby elementary school where I made cookies and played with girls in the kindergarten. More peeling tamarinds.

At a village school near the elephant park.

Day 5- Cleaning watermelon, cucumber, and pumpkins for the elephants. Peeling and mushing bananas to make fiber-rich banana balls for the elephants. More peeling tamarinds. Watching a Burmese mahout wedding with a huge celebration after.

Kids swimming on our hike to elephant haven.

Day 6- Volunteering to shovel elephant poo again (what was I thinking?!). Watching a volunteer video made of our group during the week we were there (I will hopefully put this up for everyone too, once I get it from a friend). 2 hour hike with a small group to elephant haven – a small plot of land in the jungle that some elephant families from the park get to visit for a night and roam free. Very rustic, but quiet and fun around the campfire listening to Pom – Lek’s right hand woman – tell stories about her and Lek’s experiences since they started rescuing elephants.

Day 7- Searching for the elephants in the morning at elephant haven (turned out to be an hour hike in straight up jungle). Hike back to the truck to get a ride back to the park. Group photo. Lunch, packing, and saying goodbye to everyone. 2pm bus ride back to Chiang Mai.

Hiking to elephant haven. The monks started the practice of tying blessed cloths to the trees to prevent them from being cut down. Now volunteers also get to pick a tree with their own monk cloth.

I can’t stress enough how awesome of an experience this was for me and all of the volunteers who I talked to about it (about 45 one-week and two-week volunteers in total). I am already planning to go back and hopefully work at the park for a longer period of time or perhaps get them connected to educational or tourist groups back in the U.S.

The park has received numerous awards from institutions such as the Smithsonian. Lek was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time Magazine in 2005 and the park has been featured in many international publications including National Geographic magazine as well as feature documentaries from Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet, BBC, CNN, and others. Videos of the founder and the elephants can be found here, as well as on YouTube. This is such a great organization and I urge people to learn more about these elephants, and pass along the word to others. The site also shares ways to help the organization in its mission – especially by donating, adopting an elephant, or volunteering.

More pictures from my week of volunteering can be found here.