04.07.2008 - 04.07.2008 28 °C
Have you ever been kissed by a baby elephant? We have, at the fantastic Elephant Nature Park, which is an hour and a half's drive north of Chiang Mai, in the picturesque valley of Mae Taeng. This sanctuary was set up in 1995 by a Thai woman – Sangduen Chailert, or “Lek” (meaning small in Thai) as she is more commonly known. Lek set up the park to care for domesticated asian elephants, which have been rescued from a life of abuse and cruelty from their previous owners. Presently, the park houses 33 elephants; the youngest being 2 months old, to the eldest who is in her 80's. We booked our 1 day tour at the Elephant Nature Park tourist office in Chiang Mai (Gem Travel), though you can book it online at: www.elephantnaturefoundation.org. You can also visit overnight, or become a volunteer for a week or two.
The day started by travelling to the market to help load fruit onto the truck for the elephants' lunch. It costs 500 bhat (8 pounds) per basket of fruit; each elephant eats a basket of fruit per day. Once at the park, the day was a mix of education and interaction with the elephants - getting to feed them and helping to bathe them twice.
Peckish elephants coming to eat lunch
The elephant we fed ate bananas and watermelons. Others were fed various other fruits (though the young ones didn't seem to like cucumber that much)
We spent all this time scrubbing them clean...
...and then they got out of the water, and covered themselves in mud! (this is to protect themselves from the sun, so it's only like us lathering ourselves in piz buin after a shower).
This young elephant wasn't at all sure about kissing Andyb. Lisab said he was thinking "ugh, but he's a BOY, I only want to kiss girls".
We heard some harrowing tales of how the elephants had suffered. Jokia is a 50 year old elephant who was blinded in both eyes by her mahout. This happened after Jokia was sold to illegal loggers (after the logging ban of 1989 in Thailand meant that her Karen tribe owners couldn’t afford to keep her). Jokia was forced to continue working even when pregnant and actually gave birth to her baby whilst pulling a log uphill. Unfortunately the baby tumbled down the hill and by the time they went back to see it, the baby had died. Distraught with grief, Jokia would not work. Her mahout physically abused her, trying to beat her into submission. Eventually, he blinded her in both eyes, after she stubbornly refused to give in. She was rescued by Lek in 1999. Her story has a sort of happy ending, in that when she arrived at the park, Mae Perm (a female elephant in her 40's) “adopted” Jokia, and they are now inseparable. Apparently, when Jokia wants to move to a new spot, she puts her trunk on Mae Perm, and Mae Perm then guides Jokia around.
This is one of the two month old babies with her mum, going for a bath. She is on loan to the park (from an elephant trekking camp) to give her a better chance of survival - babies in elephant trekking camps have a low survival rate. Although her mum appears perfectly capable of raising her on her own, she has acquired 5 aunties. It is normal for the other female elephants to want to care for the babies. The park has had to separate mum and baby from most of the other elephants, to protect from all the other elephants crowding her (apparently, they all want the nanny job!)
Despite the logging ban, illegal logging still goes on, so the elephants' natural habitat continues to be lost; it is estimated that Thailand now has only 500 wild elephants left. Wild elephants are at least now protected with endangered animal status, but unfortunately domesticated elephants only have the same protection as live stock. This means, in effect, they have little rights, so when abuse is identified, law states that only minimal fines can be issued to their owners. As a consequence, there are around 2,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand leading a bleak existence in the tourist industry. Even if you don’t witness abuse of these elephants, whilst on your elephant trek or ride, Thai’s still practice the ancient tradition of phajaan or torture training. This is a ritual they subject domesticated elephants to at an early age, in order to break their spirit, so the animal eventually submits to it’s mahout. We were shown documentary footage of an elephant going though this awful ordeal and it made for uncomfortable viewing, to say the least. Lek has proven that through use of positive reinforcement (instead of cruel beatings) elephants respond to human command. It seems ironic that a country which reveres the elephant as a symbolic icon (practically every temple has elephant statues outside) can treat real life ones so cruelly.
If you are in Thailand, and thinking of visiting elephants, we would highly recommend a day here. Although it's more expensive than other elephant park trips (it cost 2500 bhat each for the day), you get to see elephants in their own habitat, and instead of "amusing" tourists with rides, circus tricks or painting shows (as some parks offer), you get a glimpse of how elephants behave naturally. Also, it is a not for profit organisation, so all the money spent, goes towards the elephants.
For the record, being kissed by a baby elephant is quite pleasant, although it does feel as if someone has suctioned a (wet) Dyson to your face for a second. Here is a video of Lisa receiving her peck: