If you're feeling a bit hardened by modern life and sense a need to reconnect with the natural world – and even, perhaps, your own heart – try feeding an elephant that's been blinded by an abusive owner.
On my second day in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I made a memorable visit to the Elephant Nature Park. The park, located in a serene valley about an hour north of Chiang Mai, was founded by elephant conservationist Lek Chailert.
Chailert has made it her life’s work to provide a sanctuary for elephants from the abusive training practices common throughout Thailand. Her park has 37 elephants and requires $250,000 a year to run. Much of this money is raised through providing visiting opportunities for tourists.
Visitors can help feed and bathe the elephants – but they’re not expected to work or perform. Don't expect to ride an elephant either. Carrying people and baskets can deform their spine over time, so if your great desire is to ride one, try elsewhere.
The elephants are free within the park to roam, play in the mud pit or commune with their new family. If possible, they're eventually reintroduced to the wild.
Visitors are also shown heart-wrenching documentary films that present the cruel pajan training practice, where elephants are tortured and beaten into submission to break their spirit. This makes it easier for owners to make money from them. It also makes it more likely that an elephant will violently rebel.
Elephant riding for tourists is big business in Thailand, but the means to make elephants compliant "employees" is often quite cruel. Lek aims to educate the public and build awareness to abolish such techniques and put pressure on the government to enact laws that better protect the elephants. There are no laws currently protecting domesticated elephants; even the killing of one is only a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a small fine. Laws for habitat protection are needed as well.
The elephant population in the wilds of Thailand was around 100,000 a century ago, but because of habitat loss and exploitation for money-making purposes, they now number about 2,500. Despite their mistreatment, the elephant in Thailand is viewed as a symbol of good luck and even a religious icon.
Some of the more poignant stories involved elephants that had suffered physical abuse – such as Jokia, blinded after she lost her child and refused to work. Her owner shot her in the eye with a slingshot. Lek subsequently bought her, and she's thrived at the Elephant Park. I fed Jokia bananas and melons and had to help guide her trunk to the food, while the other elephants could easily locate it in my hand. When she finally located it in my hand, she wrapped her trunk around it like a snake around its prey.
There were other elephants that had been notably abused. One had been so mistreated he looked like a hunchback. His spine was noticeably disfigured. Another, a recent arrival to the park, was just a few days old when his mother was killed. He was named Hope, and after a difficult adjustment period was now thriving.
Old practices die hard, but Lek works tirelessly to educate the public and change the training methods of the mahouts to more humane, effective positive reinforcement techniques. Trekking rides for tourists can be found throughout Thailand, and they play a significant role in the country's economy. Elephants are somewhat revered in Thai culture, so there's certainly room for her methods to take hold.
Inspired by Lek’s passion for this cause, volunteers come from around the world to help care for the elephants. If you’re interested, get more information at elephantnaturepark.org.
It was fun to feed fruit to the elephants and splash water on them during bathing time, but even more satisfying to know I was contributing to an organization that’s doing important, necessary work on behalf of these extraordinarily intelligent and amazing creatures.
It also warms my heart to know that there are people like Lek Chailert in the world. As Lek stated, "I will do this for the rest of my life. I couldn't imagine doing anything else."