Before I came to the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand, I had never seen an elephant.
Oh sure, I’ve seen plenty in zoos and a couple at festivals, walking around in pens with delighted families on their backs. I’d even seen some earlier on my Southeast Asia trip, giving people rides around Ankgor Wat in Cambodia. But I had never really seen an elephant…being an elephant. Acting the way it would in the wild, surrounded by its family, playing in mud pits and bathing holes, protecting its loved ones. I realized that the animals I had seen before, wandering solitary in their pens, standing in an enclosure of dirt surrounded by a moat, were shells of the creatures they could be. I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated the opportunities zoos allow us to get up close to amazing animals we wouldn’t get a chance to see otherwise, but at the Elephant Nature Park, it was a profound realization to see in person what a truly happy and engaged elephant looks like.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you read my post on the process of elephant domestication in Thailand, 'How to Break an Elephant,' so to better understand the context in which the Elephant Nature Park was founded.
I first heard of ENP through reading several stories from Hedgehogs Without Borders over two years ago. The stories were about this couple’s own incredible experience at the park and I immediately vowed to myself that if I made it out to Thailand, not only would I not ride elephants there, I would spend time at this park. Sure enough, the opportunity to travel around Southeast Asia came up this year and a week volunteering at ENP was one of the first things I booked for myself and my companion, Asia.
You can learn all about Elephant Nature Park at its website, but to give you a quick background, the park was founded in 1995 by a Thai woman named Lek Chailert and is home to over 30 rescued elephants. Lek is one of those incredible people that has a rare, intimate connection with animals and the elephants at the park so obviously adore and respect her. She will often lead several around the park and perform extraordinary acts of trust, like sitting between their legs, while the elephants stroke her with their trunks. One instance that drove home how much these animals love her was when one day at the park, one of the younger elephants (in the picture below with Lek) inexplicably tried to climb up the side of the main platform, where the volunteers and staff were eating lunch. I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen an elephant climb anything, but you can imagine it was a jaw-dropping sight. Nearby mahouts had to ease the elephant down. We only realized what had happened when we found out Lek was on that platform. Unbidden, the young elephant would have done anything to reach her.
Almost all the elephants at ENP have come from a life of hard work and abuse. The few exceptions are babies who have been born at the park and will never know the sting of a bull hook or the horrors of the phajaan crushing ritual. The elephants, most of whom are female, have free roam of the park during the day under the casual supervision of their mahouts and can choose their own family groups out of the herd. The most heart-warming thing to see is two best friends who have paired up to assist each other for the rest of their lives at the park.
One of these pairs is Jokia and Mae Perm. Jokia worked in the logging industry and was made to continue working when she became pregnant. Near the end of her term, she suffered a miscarriage while pulling a log up a hill in the jungle and her newborn rolled down the slope. She wasn’t allowed to stop or even see if her baby was alive and her owner forced her to leave it behind. Grief-stricken and traumatized, Jokia refused to work after this, and as punishment, her owner blinded her in both eyes. ENP rescued in 1999, where she met Mae Perm. Today, Mae Perm serves as Jokia’s eyes, leading her around the park with her trunk and the two are completely inseparable.
While obviously, these animals have known horrifically cruel people in their lives, Lek goes to great lengths to make sure they are surrounded by kindness and care in her sanctuary. Mahouts are only employed if they agree to never bring any hooks or sticks into the park or use any form of negative reinforcement to control the elephants. Lek has had to forcibly drive out mahouts in the past who could not follow her rules. Contrary to popular Thai belief, she believes that it is not necessary to ‘break’ the elephants in order to manage them and proves the truth of this by having a well-maintained park full of (mostly) compliant elephants, by simply replacing the bull hook with bananas and other rewards through positive reinforcement. This does result in a couple slightly chubby elephants, but overall, it’s astonishing to observe the mutual inter-species respect and care that permeates the sanctuary.
Despite the success within Lek’s park, she gets no support from the government and is surrounded by animosity from local authorities and communities. Going against Thai cultural traditions and advocating for the rescue and conservation of the Asian elephant has made her extremely unpopular and she has had threats on her life and numerous sabotage attempts on the sanctuary.
Luckily, international attention is entirely positive and Lek has developed a brilliant system to fund the park by allowing visitors a chance to interact with the elephants and get their hands dirty by contributing to the behind-the-scenes work, without ever exploiting the elephants themselves in anyway. It may be one of the only places in the world where people will happily pay hundreds of dollars a week to shovel elephant poop. Of course, the kind of travelers the park attracts tends to be a certain breed, one who is willing to sacrifice unrealistic expectations of the supposed supremacy humans have over animals and understands that just because we CAN ride them, or make them paint for us or stand on their heads, doesn’t mean we should. Ultimately, there are varying degrees of exploit and abuse and a park where the only questionable activity is daily bareback riding (as some other parks offer) is going to be pretty low on the scale. But the magic of Elephant Nature Park is that if you’re willing to be still and let the chance come to you, you will have the opportunity to experience these animals like nowhere else.
I had signed up with Asia for a week of volunteer work at ENP. We arrived at their office in Chiang Mai and were driven to the park with a small batch of other volunteers and one of the several hilariously cheeky and kind-hearted Thai volunteer coordinators that we would come to adore over the next week. The cost of staying at the park for one week is about $400 USD and includes lodging and a huge vegetarian buffet for every meal. There were a large number of volunteers the week we went, so we ended up in a row of rooms further removed in the park from the rest of the lodgings. We could hardly complain as this was the view from our doorway:
The schedule for volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park always depends on what the park is in need of and how many volunteers are there any given week, but for our stay it was pretty relaxed. One thing Asia and I had been worried about was working out in the sun as we had discovered during our trip that the searing heat and humidity of the region would leave us incapacitated. But we had nothing to fear, as the daily schedule was split into several parts that made sure we were working during the cool mornings and late afternoons, with plenty of free time to wander around, watch and feed elephants, eat delicious lunches, and rest. In fact, I would generally say they babied us a bit and I personally would have been just as satisfied working harder and longer. But there were a small number of volunteers (mostly younger English girls) who seemed a bit traumatized by the idea of manual labour, an intermittent wifi signal, and toilets that were not connected to their rooms. So just like any other travel activity, it’s always important to find one that suits one’s needs and expectations appropriately.
Our weekly schedule looked a bit like this:
Feeding and Bathing- Feed fruits from the platforms and taking elephants down to the river for their daily baths
Ele Walk- Walk around the park and meet all the different elephants, everyone’s favourite ‘chore’
Banana Unloading- Giant fruit trucks come in, banana-tossing and storing human chain ensues
Garden Poles- Mix cement by hand and construct metal stands to make poles that stand around the tress of the park
Bamboo Leaves- Cut down bamboo shoots from the nearby forests and strip them of the leaves for ele snacks
Tamarin Seeds- Peel the sticky resin from the seeds to add to ele food for healthy digestion
Ele Poo- Scoop poo from the enclosures where the elephants sleep at night…not as bad as it sounds
Fire Break- We had an emergency forest fire break out….more on this below.
Cut Corn- Ride to nearby corn fields to cut down stalks for ele food, see: fun with machetes
Ele Food- Wash and chop up various fruits to
Farewell dinner- Complete with a traditional dance presentation by children from the local community
Ele Food/Various chores
Drive back to Chiang Mai office
There was lots of variety and each task was accompanied by a spirited volunteer coordinator who would keep everyone entertained. Perhaps our most exhilarating task came up when we heard that a slash and burn fire had gotten out of the control in the forest near the park. We were called up to a hillside to start digging a fire line, in sight of the oncoming flames. It was hard, sweaty, smoky work with hoes, shovels, and pitchforks, but honestly, I wish we could have helped more. They couldn’t let us get too close to fire for insurance reasons, so our fire line was more secondary while the local employees dug a primary one right next to the flames. The experience was nerve-wracking, with the elephant sanctuary right behind us and all of us trying to push out of our minds the thought of what would happen if the flames reached the park. Luckily, the fire was contained before it got too close. It was still sad though, to see part of the forest that Lek has worked hard to protect from local loggers burn up.
One of the other more intense moments in the park was the day we were making cement garden poles to construct around trees and other areas we didn’t want the elephants to get into. As we were mixing sand and cement in a large bucket with hoes, Lek walked over to our work spot with one of the elephant families. We were ushered behind a fence made up of the same concrete poles we were building, each stationed just far enough apart from the others to allow a human to slip through, but not an elephant. This way, the family could pass by and we could be near them without being in their way. However, instead of hurrying through, they curiously examined all the tools we had left behind outside of the fence. Even though their mahouts were nearby, they did not interfere , and we watched nervously as some of the elephants gingerly picked their way around our open buckets of cement mix, their giant feet stepping within inches of the bucket sides.
Then, an elephant, one of the park’s several blind members, started feeling one of the wheelbarrows we had been lugging cement mix in. She accidentally tipped it over and startled. All of sudden, her friends were at her side and defensively trumpeting and flapping their ears, a mere few feet in front of us. The sound was powerful and deafening and suddenly, I felt that inevitable feeling of extreme vulnerability in the shadow of a much stronger and formidable animal.
But thankfully, Lek and the mahouts were able to calm everyone down and lead the elephants away, no harm down. As they left though, a younger elephant lingered by one of the cement mix buckets. She waited until her mahout called her to come, then defiantly stuck her foot in the bucket, hovering mere centimeters above the mix itself. She stood there, balancing on three feet, eyeing her mahout, who was desperately trying to lure her away with bananas. We all laughed at this incredible display of cheekiness, and finally, she was convinced by enough bananas to leave the cement mix untouched.
In between the assigned chores, there was also plenty of time to do other activities too, like tubing down the local river or of course, ‘mixing a mud bath for the elephants.’ I was cleaning out mud from my ears for weeks after this.
But one of the best side activities was spending time at the park’s dog sanctuary. While much of the focus ENP receives is for its elephants, it is also home to almost 400 rescued dogs. Lek’s kind and loving soul is matched by her Canadian husband, Adam, who has poured much of his own money into keeping the dog sanctuary active and staffed with vets and supplies. Many of the resident dogs come from the massive floods that hit Thailand in 2011. ENP staff, including Lek and Adam went down to the heavily affected areas with some supplies for both people and animals. They just meant to drop things off, but ended staying for 16 weeks, pulling 2,000 dogs out of the water. Some dogs were people’s pets that were reunited with their owners, while many others were street dogs. These were relocated to other shelters, with the least wanted (older, mangy, aggressive) brought back to the park. Over time they were rehabilitated, joined by other street dogs, and today are so lucky to have expansive facilities and loving staff to take care of them. During our initial tour of the park, one of the volunteers said to us, “I would like to apologize in advance for the noise at night…they will be barking and we don’t have a way to stop that. But when it annoys you, just think that if they weren’t here, they would be dead.”
You can volunteer specifically at the dog sanctuary or even adopt one you can’t help falling in love with. For a beautiful story about adopting one of these dogs, you should read The Stuffy That Fell on the Floor.
Without a doubt, my most memorable experience of the park was with an elephant called Mae Jan Peng. This elephant was born around 1943 and was owned by a Karen hill tribe family for over three generations. She worked in both legal and illegal logging and as a trekking elephant. She was originally leased to the Elephant Nature Park in 2003, but her owner took her away after a couple months to continue to make money with her. She was very thin, old, and in no condition to work, but there was nothing the park could do except to try and keep track of her. She was injured several times while working during this period, but thankfully, in 2010, another member of the Karen family contacted the park and asked to officially retire her there. Her most distinctive feature is a small hole in her ear that her mahout at the park puts a new marigold in every morning. 'Jan Peng' means 'full moon', while 'Mae' is a title given to many of the elephants in the park, as it means 'mother' in Thai. And this old girl has earned that title, with six children, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren!
Her sleeping enclosure was literally right in front of our room and so every morning we could say hello to her as we left, and every afternoon, she would be wandering nearby. One day, we ran into the park’s vet and amoung other things, he mentioned that the pods falling on the ground from one of the adjacent trees actually made great elephant snacks. So a little while later, Asia and I were coming back to our room to rest and found Mae Jan Peng loitering right next to it. Her mahout was sitting in a tree and watching her, but not hovering. We made a motion to ask him if it was okay to pet her and he nodded. So we started scooping up these pods to feed her, while stroking her trunk and her head. It sounds like a simple enough moment, but for me, it was beautifully organic and profound. Here I was, forehead to forehead with one of the earth’s largest and smartest animals. No fences, no chains, no tourists, no guides, no one forcing this elephant to be there. Just content to be.
There are many struggles that both wild and domesticated Asian elephants face in the world today, from endangerment to abuse. It seems impossible to right these wrongs when there is an entire culture of tradition that supports them. But Lek’s work with the Elephant Nature Park shows that it is possible to not only save individual elephants from a lifetime of hard work and give them new families but also pave a road towards conservation and reintroduction into wild habitats. And this is all done by giving tourists a chance to interact naturally with these incredible creatures and see them for who they really are. Volunteering here was one of the most profound experiences of my life and that is why I have been moved enough much to write in great length about it and share the plight of Asian elephants and this valuable beacon of hope. I hope that if you are ever in Thailand, you will visit the Elephant Nature Park, and even if you can’t, help spread the word to support this incredible organization.