When my husband Dave and I decided to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park Elephant (ENP)- a sanctuary for elephants in Northern Thailand, we wanted to support the work of helping abused and misused elephants who are rescued from elephant riding camps, street begging, circuses and the logging trade.
Volunteering for 7 days with room and board would give us the experience of a working holiday and the proximity to being near elephants in as close to their natural state as a domesticated or broken elephant could be.
We had heard of Changduen “Lek” Chailert the founder and the driving force behind ENP through friends and social media. I was thrilled to find out that she would be giving a presentation on our second night there. When she walked in I was surprised at how tiny she was. This small, powerful woman, wore a graphic t-shirt that read “Ivory is Murder”.
The message on the t-shirt didn’t mince words and neither did she.
“What you’re going to hear and see tonight is going to make you sad.” she said. “It will make you cry. But to be the voice of the elephant you must understand their lives and their troubles.”
For the next hour and half she did a presentation that I’m sure she has done a million times. People say passion is the greatest driver of change, the creator of outstanding achievements over time. And the woman whom I believe is building a quiet revolution in Thailand’s elephant tourism industry, delivered a talk that came straight from the epi-centre of heartbreak with an equal amount of determination to do something about it.
She tells us the history of elephants in Thailand – how their labour, their servitude built the country. She unflinchingly shows us the ‘phajaan’ the process of ‘breaking elephants, a horrifying multi-day starvation, and abuse of baby elephants intended to break their will to prepare them for a life of servitude. I sat in the back and listened to their screams, their cries, the footage of elephants buckling in pain as they’re released, and hit and beaten again and again.
She shows us images of elephants working in logging camps, carrying impossibly heavy lumber, dragging them up steep inclines, their faces etched in pain, fatique and defeat. She shows us the trials of street elephants, babies taken from their mothers who live under bridges, and are fed amphetamines and junk, as they’re trotted out in front of ignorant adoring tourists.
It occurred to me that if tourists could stomach the presentation we were shown, there is little doubt that anyone would be eager to participate in a tourist economy based on this kind of systemic and horrific abuse.
Residents of ENP
On the walls of the lunch area there are pictures and stories of the elephant residents at ENP. There are now 72 elephants living here.
Here are the stories of two of its residents:
Medo was born in 1980 and rescued in July 2006.She is a survivor of the illegal logging industry where her right ankle was broken but never allowed to heal. She was placed in a forced breeding program where the large bull injured and attacked her. Despite never receiving medical treatment for a broken knee joint and a dislocated hip, Medo manages to get around quite well at the park. Her best friend is Mae Lanna.
Mae Lanna was born around 1980 and was rescued from street begging in February 2007. She has also worked in logging. She is 60% blind most likely from a slingshot when working in logging. When she was working as a street beggar, a monk became concerned about her and she was rescued and brought to ENP.
More than just elephants – The House the Lek Built
On 250 acres of land donated from a wealthy American family, ENP has grown to include 72 elephants, 500 rescue dogs, Cat Kingdom cat rescue, 50 water buffalo including Violet a baby water buffalo who was rescued and raised by people and considers herself human, birds, monkeys, wild boar, a single pig and I suspect many others I didn’t see.
We had no idea all these animals were being rescued here when we first arrived. It feels like something much bigger and is a grand gesture of generosity towards all living things. It is the way Lek believes the world needs to work – the true way of moving forward on this planet together.
The vegan menu that is served three times a day during our stay, underpins this philosophy. Animals don’t need to get hurt to serve our needs. And the food is delicious by the way. I actually gained weight during our stay.
A quiet revolution can also be an economic driver
ENP is a bustling hive of activity. From the moment we arrived it felt like we were on a sanctuary swat team. There are minivans delivering people, trucks delivering food and goods, and a busy kitchen preparing food, beds to be cleaned, laundry, animals to be tended to, mahouts tending to elephants. Without having the daily receipts in front of me, I sense that this experiment in kindness is proving to be a successful business model.
Spreading the love
In addition to running ENP, Lek works with local trekking camps to change their business from riding elephants to being with elephants. In return they have access to her vets and she promotes them through ENP. To date 15 have moved towards non-riding eco models.
We weren’t done when we left ENP so we went back to the Save the Elephant Foundation office in Chiangmai (where we met many friendly dogs, including one naughty little pug who lovingly dined on my skirt) and asked Ms. Patty what next. She pointed us to the direction of Elephant Haven, quickly helped us make the plans and off we went.
We spent 4 days at Elephant Haven in Kanchanaburi about 1.5 hours outside of Bangkok. With only 12 elephants I imagine it is closer to what ENP was just a few short years ago.
We woke up to elephants outside our cabin window and spent the days making elephant food, cutting sugar cane, and wandering in the woods with elephants sometimes only a few even inches away from us.
While it’s still many steps behind ENP it is encouraging to see and you can only hope that the word will grow like wildfire amongst tourists to support elephants in a more respectful and humane way.
The future of Asian elephants
Watching the elephants slowly amble their way through the landscape at ENP, stopping to scratch, moving with their families to fields in green pastures, I feel anxious for their future.
Asian elephants are an endangered species and part of the miasma of wildlife rapidly vanishing from our planet.
At the start of the 20th century there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand alone and today there are between 3,000 to 4,000 wild Asian elephants with a global population of fewer than 30,000. After the logging trade was closed in 1989 Thailand has a population of 2,700 domesticated elephants.
Conservationists also worry for the long-term outcome of these magnificent animals. The jungle, their natural home, is being taken away for land use. Population demands, deforestation and demand for ivory are their greatest threat.
As I walked with them in the jungle and watched them from afar, I marveled at how much these giant herbivores eat huge quantities of fruits and vegetables every day.
I witnessed first- hand their need to wander distances. I feel anxiety that these amazing creatures, these giants are meant for another world, another time.
But as I watch the hustle and bustle of trucks bringing in food, supplies, and the minivans bringing in hundreds of people every day, I feel a tiny ray of hope for the domesticated elephant anyway. This looks like economic development to me. Perhaps Thailand can become the leader in ethical tourism for one of its most revered and cherished symbols.
There’s a woman out there called Lek Chailert and she has built a sanctuary, a house of rescue, a revolutionary business model, a new way of helping elephants survive.
She has the magnificent heart of someone who does the tough work of rescue. Not just a part of it. All of it. I feel lifted by this thought and hope that I can be a small part of this revolution she is creating.