In several earlier posts, we have mentioned that really the only way we are able to travel for so long is to be on a pretty slim budget, so we have to pick and choose how we want to spend our money. Every day presents so many oppoortunities, that we just can't do it all. However, we splurged to spend time with the elephants.
Elephants, both wild and domesticated, are a very important and interesting part of Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. Elephant imagery is found in the oldest of artifacts, proving that elephants have been a part of their culture for a very long time. However, the elephant-human interface lies in a precarious place, and the future of wild elephants is at stake in much of these parts. One hundred years ago, there were up to 300,000 elephants in Thailand. Now there are only 5,000, and only about half of those live in the wild. The other half are domesticated “working” elephants, with a variety of jobs. The Thais have a brutal historical method of “breaking” a wild elephant to train them for working. Learning the details of that will forever be imprinted upon both of us whenever we see a “trained” elephant. Many of the domesticated elephants have historically been used for logging, but with the ban of logging in Thailand in 1989, these elephants found themselves out of work, so they were put to work in tourist jobs such as elephant trekking, shows and street begging. Not a good situation for these jungle animals. Elephants are very intelligent, social and emotional animals and the physical and emotional stress of living in Bangkok or carrying people around on their backs is a tough life.
We decided we'd like to learn more and visit a place that has a positive impact on elephant tourism, so we did our research and found ourselves booking a two night stay at the Elephant Nature Park, an hour north of Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park rescues orphaned, abused and unemployed elephants and gives them a happy life at the park. They also work to stop illegal logging and habitat destruction, and help educate both tourists and locals about the plight of Asian elephants. This was definitely not fitting in our budget, but we could certainly justify giving our money to an organization such as this.
Upon arriving at Elephant Nature Park we see there are elephants just cruising around the property. After we get settled with our small group of other visitors, we meet our guide we learn a few basic things like “do not stand between two elephants” (no kidding), or “try to not stand behind the elephant”. As you can imagine, there are several reasons for this second rule. We get our logistics for the day and learn the days schedule, like when we have lunch, which is after we feed the elephants their lunch.
Every elephant has a mahout that helps care for and watch over that elephant. Mahouts are a very ancient tradition and every domesticated elephant has one. When an elephant is rescued and brought to Elephant Nature Park, the mahout either comes as well, or a new mahout is found for the elephant. The park then pays the mahout a decent wage and provides housing for him so he, like the elephant, doesn't lose his job as well. Since some of the elephants arrived at the park with injuries or poor health, the park has an elephant medical clinic where the elephants come in for treatments for various ailments. It looks like a gas station. The park also employs over 70 locals from nearby villages and most of the food comes from the local area. At any given time, they have 250 workers and volunteers at the park, all for the care of 34 elephants. Each elephant consumes 10% or more of their body weight, each day. They eat the grasses and plants within the park but need supplemental food, so locally grown elephant feed arrives by the truckload. It is quite an impressive organization.
The park is set up so that you get to spend time with elephants in both a human setting, like feeding them pineapples, watermelon, bananas and pumpkins from a feeding platform, and out in the field, where you get to watch them behave naturally. The morning started with meeting and feeding a few of the older “ladies”, incredibly gentle, friendly beings. Standing next to a 10,000 pound animal is strange, and odd things come into your head…like footwear. What am thinking, wearing open toed shoes? Does it matter? This thing could kill me with a quick swing of the trunk. Later on, we joined in on one of elephants favorite things, besides eating, of course. Bathing! The park is situated on a river, and several times a day, the elephants bathe. And when you are standing next to one of these giant beasts with a built in water hose, you get wet. They love it and we loved it even more.
The following day, we went with our guide out in the field. Our guide gives us the basic rules again. However, this morning, he gives us another rule. “When I say 'run', I mean it, and we have to run all in the same direction.” We look down at our flip flop clad feet again. Hmmm. Ring, ring. Pick up the clue phone. Just not getting it. So we walk out onto the property, spend about two hours learning more about each elephant, petting and feeding a few, and watching other elephants from a distance. With one elephant, our guide says “Give her a kiss. She loves kisses.”
Soon we started to recognize each elephant's unique personality. Some are friendly and enjoy attention and some are troublemakers. Believe us when we say an elephant, if it wants to, can make a lot of trouble. At one point in the morning, while watching a family of seven (they are very family oriented, and will group themselves into adopted families), it happens. We have to run. A four year old boy elephant, the very mischievous troublemaker of the group, strays from the herd and looks at us, walks a bit, then starts into a jog right towards us. When elephants “jog”, it's like a solid run for us. Our guide tells us to run and we trip our way through matted grass and piles of elephant poo. It is a little scary, yet oddly exciting in a warped kind of way. From our new, distanced vantage point, we turn to watch the young elephant again. He has stopped, but actually looks slightly amused at the whole scenario, as does his mahout.
Being able to learn about these fascinating animals in this setting was such a great experience, and we are so glad that we dipped a bit too far into our budget to do this. If you want to learn more about the Elephant Nature Park visit the website at www.elephantnaturepark.org. You can buy lunch for an elephant!