Thailand’s mistreated mascot, Chiang Mai, Thailand

March 9, 2010 at 5:03 pm 2 comments

It is 1am in Chiang Mai and you are sitting in a beer garden about to start into your fourth Chang beer. A few metres away a live band is belting out a phonetical version of a western rock song (“smo-h on the wah-er”). Midway through your rivetting conversation about the merits of an unregulated beer (“It says its 6.4% but it could be 15%.” “Yeah, but that’s just better value!”) your new best friend stops dead, staring open-mouthed behind you. You turn around expecting to see yet another beautiful Thai girl only to be faced by a wall of tough grey flesh. Its an elephant. AN ELEPHANT! A real life elephant only a metre away from where you sit. The hairs on your neck stand on end and just as you rush over to pet the creature it occurs to you – What the hell is an elephant doing in a big city in the middle of the night?

Since logging was banned in Thailand a few years ago all of the domestic elephants and their owners that were once employed in the industry have been out of a job. Unable to afford the upkeep, many Thai people sold their elephants into Burma, others looked for a new occupation and many headed to the cities where drunk tourists would pay money to feed bananas to the magestic beasts. Living here in makeshift camps many mahouts (elephant keepers) don’t have the resources to care for their elephants in even the most basic of ways.

While Thai law currently protects wild elephants, domestic elephants are considered to be livestock much like chickens or cattle so there is little to stop an owner from abusing, maiming or even murdering his elephant (small fines exist but they are rarely enforced.) And abused, maimed and murdered they often are. Small wonder that there are only 5,000 Asian elephants left in Thailand where there was 150,000 twenty five years ago.

The practice of training a baby elephant is pretty much the same all around the country and has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. At around 4 years old the elephant is put into an ‘elephant crush’ barely large enough to hold it. Here it will spend up to a week (three days for girls, seven for boys) being beaten continuously by a dozen or so men using sticks with nails embedded in the end. To prompt a quicker response, the men will often stab the elephant’s sensitive inner ear. It will not be given any food, water or medical treatment during this time. The aim of the practice is to break the elephant down, to destroy it’s spirit and free-will and most importantly, it’s bond with it’s mother. Inevitably many elephants die during this process but it is considered by most Thai elephant families (and the all-important Shamans of their village) to be a necessary evil.

Taking all this into account, it can be difficult to decide which of the dozens of elephant camps to visit in northern Thailand. In many tourist camps elephants spend most of their waking hours chained in pens, released only to give rides to westerners and to perform in twice daily shows – painting and dancing among other things. But without these camps domestic elephants have nowhere to go and are often released into the wild by their owners where they are shot by poachers or by villagers when they wander into the wrong field and eat the crops.

After looking around for a while – anyone who knows Gary will understand just how important it was that we get ourselves to an elephant camp as soon as humanly possible – we stumbled across the Elephant Nature Park. Here visitors are invited to trade in the dancing shows and elephant rides for a slice of good conscience. Founded in 1995, the Elephant Nature Park is home to 33 rescued elephants who have no demands placed on them other than to show up for daily feedings (no big request since they eat 10% of their body weight every day) and to take the occasional bath. In return they are offered constant vetinary care, 150 acres to wander, plenty of company and the occasional trip up to Elephant Heaven – another stretch of land where they are allowed to wander free in an attempt to re-introduce them to the wild.

To say that we enjoyed our time in the park would be a massive understatement. In truth, we had the greatest time ever! The team collected us at 8.30am and we met our guide Hin – a cute young Thai guy with so much enthusiasm and love for his job that it was hard to make space for anything else in the minivan. We were hardly out of the van when another chunk of the family came to meet us. As it turns out the park is not only home to 33 elephants but is also occupied by a dozen or so cats, a herd of cows, a handful of water buffalo including one rare white buffalo, one pony and a welcoming committee of 50 dogs. There is also a huge school of fish living in the river on the premises which, in keeping with the park’s pilosophies, are fed daily by staff and volunteers bearing buckets of fish food. All the animals are strays, rescues or unfortunate creatures who were left on the doorstep one day.

After meeting the human and canine team, Hin introduced us to the long-nosed members of the park complete with their heart-breaking stories. Hope was an obvious favourite. Rescued by founder Lek when he was only a year old, Hope had been orphaned a week beforehand when his mother was shot. He was a handful from the start and, as the sanctuary’s only wild elephant, he was a little harder to train (Lek uses positive reaffirmation – offering bananas rather than the elephant crush) and he even broke two of Lek’s ribs. Although he has been with the sanctuary for a few years now, Hope is still the most rambunctuous of the tribe – requiring two full-time mahouts to keep an eye on him where the others only have one and having always to wear a bell so that the staff can always hear trouble coming. We found him as charming as a little James Dean though, although his kisses were a little more slobbery than I would like to think James Dean’s were.

The definite highlight of the day was bath time, when we were allowed to run into the freezing cold river and help scrub the elephants down using buckets and handfuls of mud. A little apprehensive at first we kept our distance. The mahouts led the way though, splashing water in the elephants’ faces in that strict-but-loving parent way that they have perfected (its lovely to see the relationship between them and their elephants, walking along side by side with the mahout babbling away and the elephant nodding his/her head in understanding). Little by little it became obvious that, in the heat of the midday sun, the elephants were loving it so we got closer and closer – always watching our toes – shovelling water as if onto a burning house and scraping off layers of crusty mud. The challenge was to dodge their trunks as they sucked up water and sprayed it onto their backs.

All our efforts seem to have been in vain though because hardly five minutes after they got out of the water the two babies of the group had found a nearby mud puddle and were stomping about in it, wrestling one another to the ground. Concerned at first for their precious children’s safety, the herd gathered around making half-hearted attempts to break up the tots with a bit of spanking and gentle nudging. It wasn’t long before the ever-growing puddle had engulfed them all though and, slipping and sliding on their backs and bellies, the entire family (excluding Grandma of course) rolled about the mud pool trumpetting and giggling as their mahouts cheered from the sidelines.

As well as bathing and making out with the elephants we helped to feed them a few times during the day. While it wasn’t as interactive as a bare-back riding session nor as novel as a painting demonstration, we left The Elephant Park having learned a lot more about Thailand’s wildlife and culture. Although our pockets were a little lighter it was great to know that, for once, our cash was going to a worthy cause. Our only real regret was that we didn’t have a week, a month or maybe even a year to spend pottering about with the elephants, shovelling poo, preparing tonnes of fresh fruit and contributing more to what is undoutably a worthy cause.

*note: we had a little trouble booking through the website which, as it turns out, is run from the UK. If you are banging about Chiang Mai its a safer bet to drop into one of the charity’s local branches.

More pictures from the elephant nature park are available in the gallery


Entry filed under: Travel. Tags: , , , , , , .

Rubber necking in Mae Hong Son, Thailand No time for boredom, Chiang Mai, Thailand

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John  |  March 10, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Wow, the kiss of the elephant sure looks messy. Lovely photo!

  • 2. nateniale  |  January 29, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Just booked a day trip to the Elephant Nature Park! Can’t wait to be there. Looks like you had a great time there.


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