Elephants are everywhere in Thailand. They appear on flags, on company logos, as ornaments for sale in the markets, on books, in paintings, sculptures and even in place names. Of course there are also the real elephants who are also seen taking tourists on rides and working with locals - the Elephant is everywhere in one shape or form. Because of this here in the budhist, Land of Smiles it would seem that the Elephant is a beloved and cherished animal, but since we have started work at the Elephant Nature Park we have discovered that this is a long, long way from the truth.
For starters the Thai elephant is in danger of becoming extinct. Numbers are dwindling with an estimated 2000 elephants thought to be left in the country (at the turn of the century it was more like 10,000) and the population is still dropping at a scary rate. For the elephants that are still here they have a very rough lot in life. Most elephants working in the tourist parks are underfed, often ill treated and are forced to lug tourists around on their backs all day wearing badly fitted and uncomfortable seats which rub their skin and hurt their spines. To make matters worse, the traditional "training" most elephants receive is brutal. Young elephants are seperated from their mothers and put in a tiny wooden pen called a "crush" for up to seven days - during this time they are kicked, beaten with sticks, blocks of wood with nails and sometimes even burned with hot metal bars. We were shown a video of this ritual on our first day at the park and it was hideous, in fact this process is so bad almost half the young elephants that are put through it don't even live. Those that do survive then have about 80 years of life being worked into the ground to look forward to and are probably completely screwed up in the head. Some are fed amphetamines so they can work longer, others are seperated from their babies way too early or give birth while they are working, some of the males have their tusks sawed off and others have stepped on land mines or have been in car accidents from being sent into the traffic choked streets of Bangkok to beg.
It's sad and sobering stuff, but at least the one bright spot of hope for these lovely, intelligent creatures is a one woman dynamo, Lek Chailert, who seems to be one of the few people here that is concerned about the plight of the Asian Elephant. Lek and her staff at the Elephant Nature Park are endevouring to buy and treat sick, maltreated elephants and to give them a home where there are no hooks and sticks, no saddles, no playing musical instruments or painting or any other crap and they can simply just be elephants. The park hosts volunteers like Ed and myself as well as daytrippers who can get to see happy, healthy elephants doing their thing and this is just wonderful.
One week into our visit and Ed and I are happily living in a simple bamboo treehouse in a lush green valley with an elephant who lives right outside our door. Each morning we wake up to the amazing sound of the ellies trumpeting and calling to each other as the day breaks, it's a magical place.
Our days pass picking up poo, helping to dig a mud bath for the ellies to bathe in and the highlight of the day - feeding time. It's quite a sight having 20 odd elephants all crowding around, waving their trunks about trying to steal from the food baskets. Everyday the ellies receive about 60 kilos of fruit and vegies which we hand to them from the feeding platform. They are very funny, some are total pigs and will wolf down whole hands of bananas, spiky pinnaples and six cucumbers at a time. Others are picky and will wave a discerning trunk over whatever you offer and then reject it by dropping it back into the basket or onto the ground.
Elephants also love to bathe so twice a day they wander down to the river and we jump in with them with buckets and a scubbing brush. They roll over in the water or completely submerge themselves and just leave their trunk out like a snorkel - very cool little appendage to have. After bathing it's a good scratch on a tree and then they like to coat themselves in dust, kind of an elephant sunscreen, unsuspecting volunteers can also get covered in it if they don't stay clear. All in all the days pass in a rather lovely fashion.
On Tuesday we also got to go on a trip into the hills to the Elephant Haven, a place the park owns where the ellies are free to wander about unfettered at night which they just love. We walked them up there and then slept overnight in a tiny bamboo hut - in the night you could hear the ellies wandering about and calling to each other. In the morning the elephants either come back down from the hills to meet us or their mahouts go looking for them. Unfortunately with my usual superb timing this was the night I managed to get sick which was a real downer - but every negative has a positive and in this case being sick meant that me and another volunteer got to hitch a bareback ride on two of the elephants on the way back down rather than do the hike.
This was an amazing experience, the park doesn't usually let people ride the elephants so I was very lucky to be given an exception - you sit on their neck which is stronger than the back and then try and hang on to their heads. It's a bloody long way down and it's rather precarious which was all a bit hard to deal with while I was feeling like I was going to chuck, but despite that it was still incredible. I was also very grateful to my elephant Mae Keow that she behaved herself in the river while I was aboard.
The park is also a haven for other kinds of animals who need a helping hand. At last count there were 39 dogs, four cats (one of whom had his eyes poked out by his previous owners) and two little cows who were lucky enough to fall off the back of a truck on their way to the slaughterhouse and were rescued by Lek. Add to this a bunch of volunteers from all over the world, a hilarious Australian couple who act as the park managers and a bunch of crazy Thai guys and you have a little piece of elephant heaven.