I have never had the opportunity to study a wild animal in its natural habitat in any depth. I once experienced a week on safari in Kenya, where interaction was limited to observing from a jeep. I also spent a week on an Arctic expedition, where I was fortunate enough to see polar bears, though naturally through long lense binoculars.
Travelling around SE Asia it is impossible not to come into contact with the world’s largest land mammal – the elephant. However, the way you choose to interact with them varies considerably.
In all ASEAN countries there are countless opportunities to ride an elephant, wash them, watch them perform tricks at the circus, buy paintings they make using their trunks and see them dressed up for festival parades and in Myanmar you can visit a logging station where elephants are made to drag huge teak wood logs from way up in the mountains all day long.
None of these options appealed to me because they all force elephants into unnatural activities, where they are made to suffer and frequently suffer horrific injuries. What I wanted was to gain a better understanding of an elephant’s character and behaviours in as natural an environment as possible.
During my research I came across Elephant Nature Park (elephantnaturepark.org) in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand. Founded in 2003 by the diminutive powerhouse that is Lek Chailert, ENP is home to some 70 elephants all of whom she has rescued from sustained abuse and the resulting physical, mental and emotional injuries. There are opportunities to volunteer at ENP for anything from a couple of days to several weeks and, from the reviews I read, the experience looked great.
But that still wasn’t exactly what I wanted because the elephants were contained, albeit in a huge park. Then I read about Lek’s other programme “Journey to Freedom”. For centuries the Karen tribe has cared for elephants in the jungle. Through unemployment, they were forced to lease their elephants to trekking camps and elephant tourist shows. Now four elephants had been returned to their natural habitat in Non Ngae Pu village, just outside Doi Inthanon National Park.
Journey to Freedom offers a small group of volunteers daily interaction with these elephants, whilst the volunteers also embed themselves in this small hill tribe community through helping teach English to the village children and helping with local agricultural projects.
I tell you – the information on the website sells itself way, way short.
The week that I and five fellow volunteers spent living at one with nature, taking cold showers in a tin hut flanked by water buffalo, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a simple bamboo hut (nicknamed Hotel California), eating meals round a blazing log fire, gazing at the night sky filled with brilliant stars, was magical.
We were awoken at 5:30 every morning by a cacophony of cockerels, swiftly followed by the meowing of four 3-week old kittens. After the suffocating heat and pollution of Chiang Mai city, the cool of the early morning air was refreshing and there’s nothing like banana pancakes and locally grown pineapple, watermelon and strawberries to start the day.
Our guide for the week was Yo – man passionate about saving elephants and forceful in his low opinion of businessmen who a) are only interested in making money out of elephants and don’t care for their wellbeing and b) don’t respect nature, destroying the forest at a rate that is damaging the whole eco-system. His assistant Jo was quieter on the subject but coming from the Karen community clearly loved nature and was also an excellent vegetarian cook. Our young intern Arnon was desperate to learn English and would therefore sit next to me and repeat everything I said as well as say random words that he looked up on Google translate – perfect for eye spy! They were an incongruous team who between them looked after us superbly.
Our first encounter with the four elephants who were to be our companions for the week, was directly after we arrived at our camp. We trekked through the jungle for a little while and then came the sound of branches breaking before the moment I will never forget; a huge grey trunk thrashing in the thick vegetation. As my eyes began to focus, I saw two big elephants and two smaller one coming towards me. My heart began to beat faster and I was pretty nervous about how I was going to ‘introduce’ myself to these massive beasts. I mean to say you can’t just go up to them and give them a pat!
I had been give a big bunch of bananas and told to slowly approach each elephant saying their name and proffering a banana. All well and good except when they simultaneously decided to converge on me and I was surrounded by trunks probing for the bananas, legs and feet the size of tree trunks centimetres from my tiny feet, bodies towering over me and doleful yes staring into mine.
Whilst I said each name and tried to put the bananas one by one in each trunk it ended up in a bit of a free for all and in a frenetic couple of minutes all my bananas had disappeared into their enormous mouths. I can only imagine what the elephant mahouts (carers) were thinking. They must have been laughing whilst at the same time being ready to deal with any potential threat to our safety.
My respect for the mahouts grew each day. They dedicate their lives to looking after their elephant (one mahout per animal) and know them like they would know their child. Each elephants has their distinct personality, which has been affected by the life they will have been exposed to.
Our four friends were: Mae Yui, a 30 year old female who, as a result of ten years working for a trekking company for long hours on a poor diet had sustained serious injuries including problems with her knees and joints. Mae Yui had produced two calves, one boy who was sold and can’t be traced and one girl who ENP had managed to find and reunite with Mae Yui.
This was 5 year old Mebai who had been subjected to the cruelest treatment to forget her mother and then trained to perform tricks in the circus before Lek paid to have her set free. Now reunited with her mother and the bond having slowly re-formed, they rarely leave each other’s side which is a beautiful thing to see.
Next there was 32 year old Boon Sri who had lost one calf and was now 8 months (of a total of between 18-22 months) pregnant. She had been used to carry tourists on her back all day long in the searing heat, and as a result of a badly fitting carriage and overweight passengers, she had developed a massive lump behind her neck which eventually made it impossible for her to continue working. No longer of use to her owner she was rescued by ENP and is now living happily as nanny to Mebai (every calf has a nanny who is their protector) and friend to Mae Yui, who in turn will be nanny to Boob Sri’s calf.
The last elephant was 6 year old bull Erawan. His life had been spent producing paintings, which involves his owner sticking a nail into the flesh behind the ears to force the trunk (with paint on the end) to go left, right, up, down to make the patterns. The result is huge cysts behind the ears and severe mental problems.
Having met the elephants we walked with them for a while, as they roamed free, eating copious amounts of vegetation. On average an elephant in the wild eats 250kg and drinks 200 litres a day, and poos and pees every hour. In captivity they have a nutrient and fibre poor diet and often only relieve themselves once a day. It was a humbling experience, seeing these gentle giants wander freely, with the occasional warning from their mahout if they (usually the little ones) misbehaved.
So each day we trekked to find the herd and spent time walking with them, then periods sitting in the undergrowth watching them interacting. Interestingly with all that freedom and space, they prefer to be close to each other because they are sociable, tactile and protective, which is why it’s so cruel to separate them. I observed that when they sense danger or hear a strange noise their ears become rigid and they make a low growing noise and trumpeting in the early morning is similar to us stretching.
When not interacting with our new friends, we were kept busy. We spent a morning machetteing (sp?) one tonne i.e.two truck loads of ‘may tau la’ (tall thick vegetation) to feed to the elephants. When they arrived at the camp that afternoon, they were so hot and tired that they made a beeline for the pond and wallowed happily in the mud for ages before chomping their way through the fruits of our labour. By now I was feeling much more confident around these gentle giants, touching them, feeding them and sitting close by them. I never imagined they would be such fun to get to know.
Another day in the forest we watched the adult females pull down enormous banana trees and then delicately feel with their trunks before ripping up the roots. Having then all but stripped the fallen tree bare they would move on, at which point Erawan would appear to enjoy the leftovers without having to do any of the hard work! He was definitely my favourite and his mahout called me ‘sister’.
The hardest task we were given was to shift about 150 heavy bags of rich soil (slung across our backs) down a narrow forest path and then to fill small pots with the soil in preparation for the planting of 200,000 Arabica coffee plants to be distributed amongst the local people to cultivate and eventually sell. A great example of helping the local community’s self-sustainability. We could equally have been helping the farm women pick strawberries which grow in abundance in the area.
Every day around 4:30pm we would drive to a local Karen or Hmong village school to help the children speak English. I had fun with the younger children playing counting and alphabet games, singing and drawing and even teaching them the hokey kokey, whilst teaching the older children to put together simple sentences. The children were super-keen and joined in everything which made it very rewarding. We also bought lots of educational materials for a kindergarten and, having helped serve lunch to the impeccably behaved children, presented our gifts to the lovely headteacher, who was overcome with gratitude. Such a simple, easy thing for us to do.
All too soon it was time to leave the camp. After five life-changing days we attended a ceremony to be blessed by the 97 year old village elder and to receive a friendship necklace, a longevity bracelet and health and happiness sweets from him. Again we were given bunches of banana to say our goodbyes to the elephants and this time I confidently pushed each one away to ensure I fed each of them….and then Erawan ate my happiness naughty boy! Found farewells all round, we climbed onto the back of the truck to make our bumpy way back to civilisation.
We spent our final 24 hours at the ENP. After the solitude of the forest it was a shock to be surrounded by hoards of people on one-day visits but interesting to talk to some of the volunteers who had been at the Park all week. Yo also introduced us to several of the herds and told us their personal stories. These included elephants maimed from stepping on landmines; blinded by Bangkok’s neon lights as they were used to beg or perform tricks on the street; a dislocated hip as a result of being hit by a lorry; smashed legs from logging; broken ankles from chains, severed nipples, and so the list goes on.
What is so uplifting is that each of these elephants is now each is leading a peaceful life cared for by an army of volunteers, their designated mahout and the indefatigable Lek who will be told about an elephant that either needs rescuing or who’s owner no longer wants them, will negotiate a price to have them released from service and then slowly integrate them into the safety of the Park. As you can imagine this is very expensive and like all charities, money is always tight. The organisation is now working cross-border in Myanmar and Cambodia and slowly but surely trekking establishments and businesses are learning how to better care for their elephants. In addition, ENP is him to hundreds of abused or abandoned dogs and cats.
Just as we were leaving ENP to return to city I met Lek. She was radiant and buzzing, having returned from 2-day trek to reintroduce two elephants into a hill tribe community. She thanked me profusely for supporting ENP by volunteering at Journey to Freedom, and both she and Yo asked me to spread the word.
So that’s what I’m doing now. If you find yourself in Chiang Mai, spend a week volunteering with ENP. I promise it will change your life. And meanwhile, don’t support enterprises which harm elephants. You owe it to yourself, and more importantly to them, to take responsibility for their welfare.
If you want to support ENP go to elephantnaturepark.org