On August 22 we woke up to heavy rain. It had been raining all night and it was promising to rain all day long…. which meant we would spent the visit to the elephant sanctuary in our rain jackets.
We visited the following place: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/
It was founded by Sangduen Chailert, a little Thai woman that everyone calles Lek (which means small in thai). I recommend you to see the documentaries related to this place. Her story and efforts are truly inspiring.
As soon as we got there they gave us an orientation and then we went out to feed the elephants. They have rescued so far 32 elephants, and they have two babies (4 months and 6 months old) that were born in the park. There was one elephant pregnant, Malai Tong, when we went to visit, and they said it was a matter of days until she would give birth. We have not heard whether she has given birth yet or not… she only walked on three legs because one of her feet was blown by a land mine. Still she managed to get pregnant. Pregnancy in elephants takes almost 2 years (2 months short from 2 years). Once she gives birth they are planning to do a short operation to help her with her leg.
Most of the elephants in the park have sad stories, although with a happy ending. Most of them, except one, where born domesticated. Some years ago, domesticated elephants were used in the logging industry, but in the recent years Thailand banned logging because the floods during the monsoon were becoming more and more violent the more trees they lost in their forest. That left a lot of elephants without a job. Some were abandoned, some were sold to Burma (where logging is still legal), and others are being used in the tourist industry (in most cases in terrible conditions). Thai law protects wild elephants, but domestic elephants are considered cattle and, as such, are not protected by any law. Some villages still use elephants for their chores, but they do not have a good way to train them. So far villages use very violent methods to break the elephants into obedience (a ritual called paah jaan, where when the elephant reaches 4 years old it is subjected to torture to break the bond with its mother).
The following links take you to good articles about asian elephants and their situation in Thailand. As usual, with any of these cases, the situation is controversial: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travelblogs/773/42215/Thailand%E2%80%99s+mistreated+mascot,+Chiang+Mai,+Thailand?destId=357655
What I really liked about the sanctuary is that it also works as an elephant hospital, giving care to any elephant that needs care for free so their own owners take them there, and it also supports programs to re-educate the mahoots (the elephant riders). The elephant sanctuary knows it cannot rescue all the elephants in thailand, and the domesticated elephants need their humans.
The sanctuary is now acquiring another piece of land that is more remote where they are going to set free the elephants that are in good condition. The land is big enough that the elephants will be able to learn to be free.
All other elephants that require special care (the ones with only three legs, or broken hips, or blind, or too old) will stay in the sanctuary that is visited by tourists. The elephants are not ridden. The only thing you do as a tourist is feed them watermelon, sugar cane, pumpkins, cucumbers, etc. Most of the money that funds the sanctuary comes form the tourists visitors… there are some that even pay to stay a week and work at the sanctuary… which looked really cool but we did not plan for it.
The first elephant we met was Hope. This little elephant was born at a village and her mother died. The village called Lek to rescue him. He was pretty hard to convince at first, but he finally understood that Lek loved him. Now he kisses tourists to make sure he gets a lot of sugar cane.
Hope kisses Claudia so he gets a sugar cane
Hope kisses Darin so he gets a sugar cane
The next elephants we met were Mae Do and her best friend Mae Mai. We fed them pumpkin and cucumber. Mae Do used to work in logging industry. She had an accident and injure her leg, and then the owner sent her to a breading camp. One fo the elephants that was trying to mount her stepped on her and broke her hip. Her story is one of the saddest (http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/herd/medo.htm).
Darin feeds Mae Do. Next to Mae Do is her best friend, Mae Mai.
Claudia feeds Mae Do
After lunch it stopped raining and got hot enough that the elephants wanted to bathe at the river. There you have the chance to throw water to their backs while they enjoy the water (an elephant showered powered by humans).
Sunny again. Darin is happy. In the background, the elephants head to the river for a bath.
Darin splashes water on Hope's back
Hope keeps trying to kiss people... trying to see if he gets more sugar cane.
The two baby elephants with their mothers + nannies + young females now approach the water. Tourist are not allowed near them because elephants are very protective with their young.
The two baby elephants with their mothers + nannies + young females tkae a bath.
Female baby elephant plays with a string.
Darin and Claudia pose with "mini me" elephant
After the bath we had the opportunity to give the elephants treats once more. They eat all day, but they know the tourist schedule perfectly well, so they come back at the right time to complement their grass and leaves menu with some treats gathered by humans. We fed Lily, an elephant that was given anphethamines to make her continue working night and day. She was very anxious to grab all her treats.. so much that she grabbed the basket and emptied it in her mouth. At the end of the day we also had a chance to feed the babies and their entourage of mother + grandmother + young females + nannies.
Darin and "mini me"
Claudia feeding an impatient Lily
Overall, a lovely day… good to see elephants happy and that there are programs that will help the everyday owner to lead a better life with their domesticated elephant.
You can read more stories of the elephants at the following link: