Chiang Mai, Thailand
Guest Blog Post by Caroline Daly
They say an elephant never forgets. For some Thai elephants, this is more of a curse rather than a blessing. Thousands of tourists make their way to Chiang Mai, Thailand every year in search of one thing: elephants. These gentle giants are difficult to ignore in a city saturated with elephant statues, paintings, and advertisements for riding excursions. However, behind the glossy brochures of exuberant tourists being splashed by playful elephants, lies a far less brochure-worthy relationship between elephants and their keepers, known as mahouts.
While watching an elephant kick a soccer ball or stroll lazily in a circle while visitors take in the scenery, it's easy to forget that these animals instinctually wish to be free. Their lifestyle is a far cry from what one would imagine an elephant's life should be. Far more shocking, however, is how these beautiful animals' inherent instincts are forcibly reinvented into domesticated defeat. In short, it is beaten out of them.
In rural Thai villages, elephants are placed in a contraption aptly named, "The Crush". The Crush is essentially a wooden pin that is constructed to just barely fit the elephant and hold it in place. If you've seen the movie Matlida, picture "the chokey," but elephant sized. It is locked inside until it learns to resist fighting it's captors and obey commands. This can take weeks and involves painful beatings and damaging abuse. Even after their time in The Crush, the elephants are still subject to painful disciplinary tactics, normally involving a bullhook, which is a short pointed pole with a curved spike on the end.
Asian elephants are also endangered with only 30,000 left in the world.
Your next question is hopefully, "how can we stop this?". The short answer is that we can't, not immediately anyway. Thai laws essentially give people the right to treat elephants however they'd like. Luckily, there are two big steps any responsible tourist can take in promoting elephant welfare:
1. Avoid any tourist attraction that involves elephant rides. If the advertisement doesn't explicitly say that they don't offer riding, ask!
2. Visit the Elephant Nature Park for a wonderful day of elephant-friendly fun.
We're only human and therefore, few people come to Thailand not seeking some kind of elephant encounter (and let's be honest, a really cool Facebook profile picture). I can tell you firsthand that these majestic animals are even more wonderful when you can get up close and personal. That's where the Elephant Nature Park comes in.
Enter Sangduen Chailert, also known as Lek, which means small in Thai, but what she's doing is far from small. Even as a young girl, she hated seeing the horrors that the elephants in her villages faced every day. It was her grandfather who inspired her to dedicate her life to their safety and welfare. In 1996 she opened the Elephant Nature Park and in the last 19 years she has saved more than 44 elephants. Her generosity doesn't stop there. She has also welcomed hundreds ofdogs, cats, and buffalo.
Taking care of this lot is no easy task. Each elephant consumes more than 200 kg of food per day, not to mention any medical issues they may suffer from past abuse. Lek covers it all based on private donations and tourism. It's her life's work and a cause that she's proud to fight for.
A day with Lek's elephants includes feeding, petting, and my personal favorite, bath time. Elephants are playful, especially when there's an adorable baby running around and keeping its older counterparts young. As visitors, we got to get right onto the action by hand feeding the elephants kilos of fruit and splashing them with lots of water in the river. Thanks to Lek's love and kindness, the elephants are largely unafraidof humans so everyone gets a truly authentic experience.
My day at the elephant park was truly the highlight off three weeks on Thailand. I highly recommend it to any traveler who is lucky enough to see Thailand. The park offers programs from day trips to long term volunteering. Not only do you get to interact with some amazing animals, but you get to support a truly wonderful cause. They say an elephant never forgets and neither will I.
For more info on the Elephant Nature Park, check out their website at http://www.elephantnaturepark.org