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Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai, Thailand

15 Feb

When you think of Thailand, an elephant almost automatically pops in your head doesn’t it?  This majestic creature has been the symbol of this country for decades and interacting with one is the main tourist attraction for many of those visiting – especially in the north of the country.

But the question you want to ask yourself is this…. How do you want to engage with this elephant?…  Ride one?  Walk with one in nature? Observe or take photos of it in the wild?  Care for one and learn about their way of life?  We chose the latter and headed to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park (www.saveelephant.org) – located in the gorgeous Mae Taeng Valley – just about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai City.

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The view, while enjoying our morning coffee

Elephant Nature Park or ENP for short, is the best known sanctuary for elephants in the region – due to the vision, dedication and animal love of one small but very mighty Thai woman called Sangduen or “Lek” Chailert.

Lek grew up as the granddaughter of a Khmo hill tribe medicine man, in a remote mountain community in Northern Thailand.  Often, he brought back sick and injured animals from the jungle for healing. When he cured the Chief of the local Karen tribe – he was given an elephant.  This animal called “Golden One” became Lek’s close companion and started her affection to work with these majestic creatures.  It was early on in the forests where Lek first observed the suffering of elephants, engaged in logging.  The atrocities she witnessed here compelled her into her mission of rescuing Asian elephants from all over Thailand (and now also Cambodia and soon Burma) from logging, street begging and tourism (riding, elephant painting, etc.).

We felt honoured to meet Lek during our first orientation day in the Park. She explained to us what kind of abuse elephants go through to be able to welcome riders on their backs or perform e.g. a “painting show”.   A century-old ritual in northern Thailand (still legal to this date), designed to domesticate young elephants is called the “crush”.  Elephant calves, 4-5 years old, are put in a very tight cage while village men stab nails into their ears and feet for days. In addition to beatings, handlers use sleep-deprivation, hunger and thirst to “break” the elephants’ spirit and make them submissive to their owners.

The video we were shown of this “crush” ritual was unbearable to watch and I kept trying to shield the children from the gruesome images shown, but they insisted they wanted to see and learn.  Honestly, I don’t know anyone that in good faith can go ride an elephant after seeing that video (we are certainly “cured” for life and know better now).   Our orientation brought home right away why we were at ENP to volunteer!

Lek was on her way to Burma that evening (she recently opened an elephant sanctuary there – kudos to her & her staff for being the first foreign NGO allowed in Burma and trying to be ahead of the tourism industry that is just developing in that country)….but she was extremely gracious in allowing us to talk with her and seeing her interact with the animals.  As soon as she appeared, the elephants seemed to wrap themselves around her like a cozy blanket. Many of them, she cared for since they were very young – and her love for them just radiated.  Amazing to watch!

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Elephant Nature Park founder Sangduen “Lek” Chailert with her beloved elephants. They wrap themselves around her when she appears on the scene.

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Emile with one mighty inspirational woman and award-winning conservationist

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Lek showing the boys not to be afraid of the elephants

Following our interactions with Lek, we learned what our week at EPN would look like.  Days would start at 7 am with breakfast, followed by morning “duty” from 8-10:30 am, then lunch at 11:30 am and afternoon activity from 1:30-3:30 pm. Dinner at 6.  The park only serves vegetarian food – of the very best kind – wow what a variety, absolutely loved it! (Emile told me that if I could cook vegetarian like that, he would be able to give up meat for good…o my, the challenge is now before me!)

So what were our volunteer tasks at EPN?

Banana Trees and Grass Cutting

Our work on day one involved cutting (mostly done by the locals) and carrying banana tree leaves & stems into a truck for transport back to the park.  Emile and Filou quickly jumped in and had great fun carrying the heavy cargo.  Anthony also did his fair share of heavy lifting!

We skipped the grass cutting activity with the kids as it apparently involved large machete knives, burning sun – standing all day on a sloped hill (group members came back with cuts in their necks and arms from the razor sharp leaves – bless them for their hard work!).

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Banana tree “duty” was fun (and heavy)!

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Elephant Kitchen and/or Food Preparation

The sheer quantity of food for the elephants, stored in the kitchen, was amazing to observe – and each day more would come in! Every afternoon, we would unload another huge truck of bananas, pumpkins or watermelons for these vegetarian gourmands.

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As some of the young or abused animals do not have strong enough teeth to eat the skins of the fruits provided, we were on peel duty – I must have peeled 75 watermelons by the time the week was over! Emile and Filou enjoyed peeling bananas, mashing them up and turning them into “banana balls” (mushy bananas mixed with grains and medicine). Very fun!

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Two lovely Australian ladies in our group who said that the young and the old work well together!

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Filou with his “banana ball” 

Filou was also great at entertaining the crowds in the kitchen with silly dances and jokes….he even got himself buried in bananas by the volunteers who loved his playfulness!

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Filou clowning around and getting himself covered with bananas

Elephant Poo

Elephants eat an enormous amount of food (300-600 pounds of food a day!) and consequently eliminate an incredible amount.  In the centre of the Park was a “mountain” of elephant poo – which apparently was only 1 month’s worth; mind-blowing!

Emile quite enjoyed helping to scoop poo; he volunteered for this task several times (to spare others, perhaps?).  Together with his buddy and fellow Canadian Andrew Pye and other volunteers, he hauled wheel-barrels full of the smelly stuff from the premises – you stopped smelling it after a while he said!

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Emile and Andrew Pye, carrying barrels of poo and riverbank debris

Tree protection

Filou and I helped make pillars out of concrete and stones, used to protect some park trees against the hunger lust of the elephants.  The work that went into building these structures – 6-7 of them to protect one –  tree was truly noteworthy!

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Pillars to protect Park trees, made out of concrete and stones

Emile also did his part in protecting the trees as he joined a group of volunteers into the nearby forest.  They tied sacred saffron cloths around individual trees to protect them from being cut down. Locals are reluctant to cut these trees as they fear it will insult the jungle spirits.

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Tying sacred orange cloths around individual trees to protect them 

ENP’s Dog Shelter

ENP does not only house elephants but also over 500 dogs (as well as 30 cats, 50 buffalos, 2 horses, 2 pigs and a monkey), which have been abused, or rescued from floods. Filou became greats friends with Robyn Fowler, a real sweet animal lover from Australia who taught him how to handle and care for these four-legged friends. He got obsessed with the dogs and was at the shelter every day to pet the sad and little ones.

It was somewhat ironic for Anthony and me to be around these dogs as my husband is very allergic to dogs and cats and I am extremely afraid of dogs (as a child, I was bitten by a large German Shepherd).  It became Filou’s mission to get me over my fear and into the shelter with Robyn. I wanted to make him happy and made it as far as entering a cage with 4 dogs, picking up one soft, adorable puppy.  Unfortunately Anthony was not as lucky – on day 4 he had to leave ENP as the dogs seriously affected his breathing.

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Trying to overcome my fear of dogs; first step was ok – picking up this adorable, little puppy!

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Filou and Emile with Robyn Fowler at ENP’s dog shelter

Elephant Feeding & Washing

The afternoons were the time to help feed the elephants and/or head towards to river to see them bathe, and wash off the mud from their backs. A super fun activity and nice little reward!  As the days progressed we got better and better at it…

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Washing the elephants while being careful not to get water in their eyes (as it causes serious infections)

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What an opportunity to be up so close to the elephants and feed them!

The week at ENP was not only work and no fun. On the contrary…some volunteers were actually “complaining” that they could have taken on more work (everyone was just so happy to help!).

Emile truly enjoyed the daily 5 o’clock soccer games with the volunteers and children of the mahouts (elephant care givers), on a field right next to the elephants – so very cool!  I loved the yoga and martial arts class – kindly put on by the volunteers in our group. And we got to give back a little to the local community.  Lek had great difficulty gaining the support of the locals when she started her foundation and ENP (local villagers were afraid that the elephants would destroy their crops etc.), so she worked hard to find ways to engage and support them.  For our stay, she had local women offering massages for a small fee, little girls providing entertainment by performing traditional dances, as well we visited a school that she had helped built. We were also encouraged to donate some clothing that was distributed to local tribal villages.

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Emile playing his 5 o’clock soccer game with volunteers and children of the Mahouts (elephant caretakers).

What Emile enjoyed the most at ENP were the conversations during meal times with all the super nice and committed international volunteers. My oldest was truly in his element (he loved the animals, worked diligently all week and was a charming conversation partner for many).  He said that this week will probably go down for him as the best week of our travel year!  He is right that our time at ENP was very unique!

As heartbreaking as it sometimes was to see the abused elephants (they had broken backs & legs from forced breeding, logging or over-use for tourism purposes… were blind from abusive slingshots to their eyes… or still had open wounds on their feet 5 years after stepping on a landmine), there was also lots of hope and joy in the Park.  Happy and relaxed elephants bathing, elephants that found new family groupings and received such loving care that had turned them from aggressive to hopeful, playful and full of joy.

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Elephant with broken back, hip and leg – broke my heart to see him walk with such difficulty!

Elephant Nature Park is a wonderful place of recovery for the close to 40 elephants that Lek & team have saved there so far.  We salute this “Hero of the Planet” and thank her for creating an exceptional eco-tourism, family volunteer opportunity where we got to see her inspiring work up-close. In return, we make her the promise to never ride an elephant – but instead admire its magnificence from a distance – in the peaceful natural environment, where it belongs!

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