Warning: this post may induce squealing and proclamations of “Aw!! Elephants!!”
For my Asian Elephant experience, I chose not to ride the elephants, but to go visit them in a preserve that’s dedicated to providing a safe haven for elephants that have suffered from exceptionally hard lives: Elephant Nature Park.
Elephants play an interesting role in Thai culture. They are the national symbol of Thailand, and have long been used in religious ceremonies and art, for transportation and logging, and most recently for tourism. Logging was made illegal in Thailand in the late 80s, meaning that those mahouts (handlers, companions and owners) with elephants once involved in logging were placed in the desperate situation of needing to care for these massive animals, which eat 300 kilos of fruit and veggies per day, without a job. There were extremely limited options: illegal logging on the Burmese border; breeding camps; trekking camps for tourists to ride the elephants; and begging in city streets with your elephant.
So the elephants definitely get the short end of the stick here. Working elephants are considered domestic animals and have no protections despite being a part of a seriously endangered species; it is the sole responsibility of the mahout to care for the animal. Many cities have made begging illegal, but in others, elephants are exposed to car pollution and occasionally hit by cars, the stress and noise of a big city, and malnutrition. Logging and trekking can lead to serious injury, and mothers barely get time off when they give birth; offspring must follow their mothers through the days work without breaks to be fed. Occasionally there will be a lucky break, and the ENP will be able to buy the suffering elephant.
I was with a group of 9 visiting the park on a sunny, beautiful morning. We first got to breakfast with the elephants. That is, elephants wandered over to the visitor building, and we got to feed them watermelon, pumpkin and bananas. The elephant I fed was named Lucky.
She was purchased from a circus earlier this year, and is blind in both eyes from the bright spotlights used there. Because she can’t see, you have to guide her trunk to the food, placing the fruit into the space just behind the trunk opening. Lucky then curls her trunk around the fruit and inserts it in her mouth, crushing it with a juicy smack. You will be coated in elephant trunk drippings.
We walked all over the park, meeting some of the 30 elephants living there. They are given fairly free range, but are accompanied by mahouts (walking beside, and none use a bull hook or even a stick) to help avoid any issues. We came upon Mintra and her 9-day old calf, Yindee, hanging out with auntie in a shady shed. While we fed mom some juicy fruit, baby had breakfast too.
This is Mintra’s first calf. She’s suffered from hip problems likely from being hit by a car, and is nervous about nursing due to an old chest injury. When the little one startled, we caught a glimpse of protective maternal instinct: immediately, auntie and mom shielded baby between them. The scare didn’t last long, and soon the little fuzzy guy was out to play again.
Elephants are social creatures, and the park has many family groups and friend pairs that have formed. We met Dani and Lucky at breakfast; the family group of Malai Tong (a land mine victim), Dok Ngern and her 5 mo calf Dok Mai, and Sri Nuan swimming in the river;
Jokia’s story is one of the most heart-wrenching in the park: she is blind in both eyes from mahout mistreatment. She was a logging elephant, and miscarried while working at nearly full term of pregnancy, and Jokia never had the chance to check to see if the baby survived. She became depressed, and when she wouldn’t get up to work, her mahout shot a slingshot into her eye to force her. At another time, she became angry at the mahout and swung her trunk to hit him. He in turn blinded her other eye with a bull hook- a blind elephant is more docile, and swings can be avoided. Jokia was eventually sold to the ENP.
I got to spend several minutes just talking to her and rubbing her trunk and jaw to scratch itches as she leaned into my hand in pleasure. When I went to move away, she followed and pressed her trunk to my hand again. It was the best part of the day, being in intimate contact with this wonderful lady and getting to provide some small comfort.
Bath time was a lot of fun- splashing water all over the elephants (and each other!) while they trumpeted in the river. Lucky was our customer again, and while she doesn’t like to be touched (remnant of treatment in the circus), she does enjoy a good bath!
Immediately afterwards, the elephants cover themselves with dirt again as a natural sunscreen and bug repellant- so much for the clean feeling!
We just spent the afternoon watching life on the preserve: family groups eating together, including 10 mo male Navaan;
I found I didn’t really need to climb on their backs to have an experience with these creatures that I will never forget.