Well, yesterday was all about the elephants. We spent the day at Elephant Nature Park. We were aware of this elephant park because two of our nephews had spent time volunteering there.
I’m going to plaigiarise the Elephant Nature Park site a bit to give some background information about the park. It was established in the 1990s by Sangduen Chailert (Lek) to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants.
Numbers have declined for a number of reasons, not least hunting but the biggest threat they face right now is through human population growth that encroaches their grazing land. They literally have nowhere left to go.
Coupled with the lack of work for the domestic elephant due to the 1989 logging ban the future looks very bleak for the species indeed.
Fortunately for them one lady is concerned with their plight and devotes much of her time to helping them. Sangduen Chailert (Lek) has initiated a programme to look after sick animals. Covering the entire Northern region she travels to instruct the mahouts (elephant trainers) on basic health care and diet. Injections and pills are administered when necessary –more often than not- as well as wound cleaning.
Although the mahouts have been with their elephants for a number of years they still need fundamental advice on how to care for their animals. From overwork to worms there are many subjects beyond the scope of most mahouts and Lek visits teach them how to keep their animals healthy, happy and in prime condition. She calls on over one dozen elephants per week and sometimes more than that in one single day. Her travels take her over some very rough terrain accessible only by four wheel-drive vehicles.
Elephants can still be found begging on the streets in some parts of Thailand, and many are used for tourist rides.
They are forced to walk on hot tarmac roads by gangs of elephant owners and beg for fruit and food. The owner of often buys the elephant purely to obtain begging money from sympathetic passers by. As he has scant experience with animal training, the hapless creature is cruelly treated and beaten as the rider becomes impatient. In the city the animal cannot possibly get the 200-300 kg of food and 100-200 litres of water necessary for it’s daily nourishment so it plods the hot polluted streets, thirsty hungry and confused. These animals quickly suffer from stress through polluted air, poor diet, dehydration, loneliness and their sensitive ears are soon damaged. Much of the fruit purchased from local sellers has been treated with chemicals and causes serious stomach problems and eventually death. Other forms of, less apparent abuse come in the form of pet baby elephants featured at hotels and entertainment complexes. Although the animals may seem happy enough they are invariably fed the wrong diet, suffer from loneliness and boredom and will soon die. Many unwitting tourists, delighted at the sight of a “cute” baby elephant, are completely unaware that the lifespan of the creature is likely to be only a few years.
As well as educating mahouts about the care of the animal, Lek rescues elephants that have been mistreated and brings them to her sanctuary. Traditionally elephants have been domesticated by programs of punishment and breaking their spirit. Lek’s elephants receive only positive reinforcements, and live as natural a life as possible for elephants that were domesticated. She hopes to eventually return the baby elephants that have been born in the sanctuary to the jungles.
Elephant Nature Park contains a major medical centre for elephants. I was amazed at the depth of knowledge of the health care needs of the animals, both generically and for each individual elephant. This even extended to the food that each elephant was fed. Some have digestive system issues, so are fed their vegetables peeled. Elephants eat an incredible amount of food each day, between 150 and 300kg. At Elephant Nature Park some of this is in the form of fruit and vegetables and other grasses, and some of it is foraged around the park by the elephants. Each animal has it’s own basket of food to be fed from that takes it’s dietary issues into account.
At the park we were able to feed, pat and bathe the elephants. It was amazing to up so close to them. Their huge feet are incredibly soft and they walk silently. Their hide is soft yet feels thick and strong, and is incredibly sensitive while being tough. And the trunks – those trunks! The dexterity in the way that they pick up their food and drink and splash themselves is astounding. Stella started off being quite overwhelmed and hesitant to feed or touch the elephants, but after a relatively short time she was intrigued and especially happy to wash them. The girls had a ball splashing the elephants in the river – as well as one another.
There are 39 elephants in the park, with an additional 3 or 4 rescued each year as funds become available. A similar number die each year, due to old age or illness. All the work of the park is funded entirely from donations and fees paid by volunteers and visitors such as ourselves. The park exemplified altruism at it’s finest, with tourists paying to work there as volunteers for weeks at a time, the provision of care of sick elephants from elsewhere, outreach education and medical assistance for other elephants, and the support of the local community through the purchase of food for the elephants.
The elephants form “family” groupings within the park, moving around in small herds of 2 – 4 elephants, even though most of these elephants are not related. There have been a number of baby elephants born in the park too, and other older elephants often adopt the role of “nanny” for the babies.
I really hadn’t thought much about the plight of elephants before, and if our nephews hadn’t told us otherwise before we came to Thailand we possibly would have ridden them like many others. Instead, we have had the opportunity to contribute towards the care of the elephant by visiting the park and interacting with them in a respectful and more appropriate way. I strongly encourage you to read the information available on the Elephant Nature Park website to find out more.
For the second half of our stay at the guesthouse, we are staying in a different suite of rooms. It was great fun to explore them once we got back after a hot but wonderful day at the Elephant Park. We are essentially staying in a treehouse, with the master bedroom on an elevated platform surrounded by a mosquito net. We also have our own hammock and day beds, as well as a lounge area o!utdoors downstairs outside the girls’ bedroom, and the upstairs bathroom is marvelous. So nice to soak in a cool bath complete with flowers floating on top!
Our Melbourne friends are also staying here now, so their two girls and our two girls are really enjoying one another’s company. Today (Thursday) is going to be a lazy day.