Elephant Nature Park (Apr 2016)

From the day we decided to embark on a round the world journey, we knew that one of our stops would be at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Thailand. While browsing Reddit one day last year, Christine came across a video about the ENP and their mission. She researched the organization and started following them on Facebook. After showing Kevin what she found, we agreed that if we ever went back to Thailand, we would be sure to get out into the hills of Chiang Mai and spend a week volunteering at the ENP.

The ENP is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center founded by Lek, a Thai woman who grew up watching the plight of the elephant in Thailand and decided to do something about it. The people at the ENP rescue elephants from logging operations and tourist shows. They provide a home to old, injured elephants that are no longer wanted by their owners and are often left to die. They’re also an advocate of changing the laws of Thailand that currently classify elephants as livestock, offering them little protection once they’ve been domesticated. Most importantly, they’ve built a place that 69 (and counting) elephants, 400+ dogs, lots of cats, water buffalo, monkeys, and other rescued animals call home, while providing an ethical way for tourists to see and interact with elephants. And they accept volunteers on a daily, weekly, or longer basis into a program that is challenging but rewarding, and highly educational.

On our first day of volunteering, we watched a video about the history of elephants in Thailand. It’s a pretty incredible story. Elephants are an integral part of Thailand, having helped build and protect the country for thousands of years. At one point they were considered sacred animals that only the royal family could touch. They’re an important symbol in art, temples, and landscapes. Today, the only jobs available for domesticated elephants are in the tourism industry and illegal logging. The few thousand left in the wild aren’t much better off, as they can be killed for trespassing on farmland while searching for food. They come to the farmland looking for food, because their homes have been destroyed by illegal logging. It’s a vicious circle.

We never really thought about how elephants were domesticated, but we got up to speed on this as well. The domestication process involves taking young elephants from their mothers (who are often killed) and putting them through several days of physical and emotional pain until they become submissive to humans. This process is called phajaan, or “the crush.” This essentially breaks the spirit of the elephant, using fear of pain to make them accept riders on their backs, perform tricks, and even paint. Google it at your own risk; it’s heartbreaking. Once these animals are tamed, the abuse often continues for the rest of their lives to keep them submissive. Needless to say, the start of our first day was educational, but sobering. That afternoon we were shown around the park and had our first encounter with a few older elephants, who even after going through years of abuse at the hands of humans, were still friendly and social. This isn’t the case for all elephants that the ENP homes.

The accommodations at the park were a little rough by our standards. We knew going in that there would be no air conditioning, and that it would be an exceptionally hot week, with temperatures exceeding 105 every day and zero chance of rain. But we didn’t expect the rooms to be so…accessible to nature. The roofs didn’t connect to the walls, which left openings for all sorts of creatures to get in. On our first night, we learned that turning the lights on after dark was a bad idea – within five minutes, the beetles showed up. We spent that night listening to them bounce off the walls. They would eventually land on the mosquito net, which was the only thing protecting us from them. In the morning, they were gone, replaced by gecko poo on the bathroom floor. Needless to say, our rooms weren’t a place for us to relax; they were a sweat box for sleeping. Besides, there was work to be done – elephants to bathe and feed, dogs to walk, cats to pet, and a whole lot of poop to scoop.

Speaking of work, the main reason we were at the park was to volunteer. It takes an army to support all of the animals that live there. There were five volunteer groups for the week, each group having about fifteen people. With fifteen people working together, the work went quickly. We cut down a field of corn with sickles (we weren’t finished until 3 trucks were filled to the top), worked in the elephant kitchen washing watermelons, pumpkins and cucumbers, scooped poop (which wasn’t as bad as it sounds), bathed elephants, and built a dam, which was our favorite activity because working in a river kept us cool. We worked for about five or six hours each day. Any downtime we had was spent playing with cats in the cat kingdom, walking dogs (the park is home to over 400 rescued dogs who are up for adoption), making special food for the old lady elephants who’ve lost their teeth, or getting a massage from one of the mahouts’ wives. Sometimes we’d lounge around on one of the many viewing platforms, just watching the elephants be elephants. Our three meals a day were buffets of delicious and nutritious vegetarian food.

The week was a change of pace for us, and much different from anything else we’ve done on this trip. You couldn’t have taken us more out of our element. Before this trip, Christine was afraid of getting tools out of the garage because of bugs. You’d never imagine her in a river building a dam, while elephant turds float by. Kevin is big on hygiene, but during one of our poop-scooping days, he picked up three perfectly round turds and started juggling them. It was a small level of discomfort for us, and we embraced it, because in return we got to work alongside some awesome volunteers from all walks of life, at the mercy of five hilarious volunteer coordinators.

And then there were the elephants! Being in their presence for a week was easily the highlight. Each one is unique. There’s an elephant with a broken ankle, and elephant with a bum leg, an elephant that’s blind in one eye, an elephant that stepped on a land mine and had its foot blown apart, a high energy adolescent elephant, etc. They each have their own personalities and choose their own circle of friends. Many of them are very curious about people, which often results in a small group of people quickly running away from a curious elephant wanting to say hello – a playful elephant is cute but deadly! Kevin’s favorite was Lucky, an old lady elephant who is blind in both eyes. She spends most of her days wandering around by the feeding platform with her mahout, and playing in the mud pit. Each elephant at the ENP has at least one mahout, which they seem to have a special bond with. It definitely takes a special bond for a 1000+ pound animal to follow a short Thai guy around. For most of the day, the mahout’s job is to basically babysit an elephant, making sure its day is full of food and fun. Not a bad gig!

At the end of the week, Lek spoke to us about the organization and the atrocities she sees against elephants every single day. We watched another video, even worse than the first, showing the detrimental effects that the tourism industry (and many other industries) have on elephants. We encourage everyone to stop and think about the activities they partake in that involve domesticated wild animals. Every single one of us can make a difference, and these activities will only stop once we stop supporting them. If you’re ever in Thailand, Chiang Mai should be on your list, and if it is, you must go to the Elephant Nature Park and experience these magnificent creatures for yourself.

Now, time for some pictures of elephant fun: