“They are not some thing, they are some one” is one of the first things we learned about elephants at Elephant Nature Park, in Northern Thailand.
One of the three families of elephants at Elephant Nature Park, in Thailand.
I am happy to report that this is a place that actually makes a difference and is the kind of place that I like to think all non-profits aspire to be.
The wonderful, large property of Elephant Nature Park. The smoke in the background is from the slash and burn method the villagers use to prepare fields for planting.
It started with a Thai teenager named Lex, who saw the way an elephant was abused and decided to make a difference. It has grown into a park with 44 elephants, a herd of water buffalo,
and a bunch of cats. (This is a woman who cannot say no to animals in need.)
Elephants are the main focus- the dogs came later. Some of the dogs were found in a warehouse waiting to be slaughtered as dog meat for other countries. Some were rescued from rooftops during massive flooding in Bangkok. They have been given their shots, spayed / neutered and treated for fleas, and are up for adoption.
The water buffalo were facing a similar fate of being eaten and were rescued by a group of Hindus. Since Lek had available land, she agreed to take them in.
10 years ago, Lek had 9 elephants and was struggling to support them. Elephants eat up to 300 pounds of fruit, veggies and grasses per day – each.
Unloading the daily watermelon truck – 4000 watermelons.
After unloading the watermelons, we washed and cut them. I noticed the next day when scooping the poo, that the rinds were not completely digested by the elephants.
A westerner convinced Lek that foreigners cared about elephants so much that they would volunteer to help and even pay money for the experience.
Yep, I paid money to volunteer to clean up elephant poo.
Some Westerners care about the plight of endangered elephants and believe in treating them well.
Lek’s example of using positive reinforcement, rather than brutality has made her business so successful that her limited volunteer slots fill up quickly and she must turn away business.
Our group of volunteers for the week. It was fun getting to know so many other interesting and compassionate people
Even better, other local businesses have seen that Elephant Nature Park is always busy, and have changed the way they do things. As a matter of fact, a nearby camp offered to sell out to her, and she declined. (Her goal is not to become rich, it is to help elephants). She agreed to teach them her methods of positive reinforcement, and how to run a business, and even refer people to them – however she had two rules. One, they were not allowed to use the bullhook, and two, they were not allowed to ride the elephants. That same camp now has a “walk with elephants” tour and is doing great. Money may be the primary motivator for them, but if it is good for the elephants, who cares?
Bullhook – it is attached to a handle about 2 feet long.
What makes this place special is that they are truly looking out for the elephants. This is a sanctuary where elephants who have been beaten and abused get to live out their lives as elephants, without being a slave to people.
Many of the elephants who come here have mental issues, and some have killed people. Some of them have major health problems; several have land mine injuries. One baby elephant was found in a steel trap, and several are blind because their mahouts (trainers) used slingshots to shoot them in the eye when they refused to work. Because the elephants are so big and weigh so much, the foot and leg wounds have not healed, even though it has been years since the accidents. Each day, the foot and leg wounds are treated.
The baby who was caught in the trap was adopted by one of the females.
Lek teaches that these huge, magnificent creatures have feelings and thoughts, just like cats and dogs (which many Thai people do not know), and that positive reinforcement is a better and more humane way to treat these creatures.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captive_elephants Elephants exhibit a wide variety of behaviors, including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness,memory, and language.
And the elephants are not the only ones effected. 75% of the mahouts come from a nearby Burmese refugee camp. Some of the young mahouts were child soldiers. They have seen the brutality of their mothers and sisters being raped and worse, right in front of them. They have not known love.
In Asia, a Mahout is considered one of the lowest ranking jobs. It is a job for someone who has no other options in life.The mahouts are uneducated and poor. They cannot get any other job, and are not respected.
The mahouts earn about $3.50 per day; and are able to supplement their income by making handicrafts, such as elephants carvings and sell them in ‘the gift shop. The money for the carvings go directly to the mahouts.
One thing I really enjoyed were the other volunteers. Most of them are compassionate people and I saw their kindness. For instance, one of the volunteers decided she was going to buy an elephant carving as a gift for someone back home. She did not particularly care which one. Each mahout carves the elephant that he works with so each carving is different. The mother and baby elephants are attached, the elephant with a hole in her ear, is represented by a carving with a hole in its ear. The old lady elephant who gets cold wears a blanket and so does the carving. All the carvings were quite nice. One of the employees at Elephant Nature Park suggested that is someone did not have a preference, to choose the mahout’s carving that got the least amount of sales. The mahouts get disheartened when they don’t earn extra money and the mama and baby elephants sell the best, I am sure. So, she remembered to ask the lady running the gift shop, which mahout sold the least amount and purchased his carving.
I am continuously heartened about the kindness of strangers. Although we hear so much negativity every day, in fact, there are wonderful and giving people all over the world. As westerners (and rich compared to the rest of the world), we truly can make an impact by making choices with our wallets. A fancy coffee for us is a day’s pay for a mahout.
I have learned that what the people in the developing world need is money. They want to work. They want to earn it. The western world has the money and tourism is having an impact. As a westerner, we can make a difference as to the kinds of tourism we want to promote, based on our pocketbooks.
This job changes the Mahout’s lives too.
This mahout is 55 years old.
Most of the mahouts have experience working with elephants which realistically means experience beating them and using the metal hook. Sorry to say it, but it is true. I was shocked at the brutality when I learned how the elephants are beaten into submission.
No worries- there are no photos of abuse in this post. There are plenty on the internet if you care to know more.
We watch a video of how an elephant is “trained”. I had heard stories that elephants are abused, but never saw it in action. We were shown a short documentary and learned the way they are taught- even now. They are tied up by a group of men, and confined. When the elephant tries to move, they are beaten with sticks, and hit with boards with 6-inch nails in them. Their legs are tied apart, chains are used to tie them up, they are sleep deprived and starved as well. And once their spirit is broken, they are ready to learn commands. No doubt that this is torture.
Perhaps the CIA learned some of the torture techniques from brutalities like this. The traditional breaking of an elephant’s spirit has been going on since elephants have been used for the purposes of man, hundreds if not thousands of years. The only thing lacking are electrical shocks, and I bet if there was access to electricity, that would be done too. No wonder the elephants arrive at the sanctuary angry, crazy and distrustful.
If an elephant is lucky enough to be brought to this sanctuary, she or he is treated with love and respect. Mahouts here are not allowed to use the bullhook or slingshots.
Lek shared some stories about the different elephants. A recent arrival, who is not free to roam with humans yet – too dangerous, would pretend he didn’t see a person behind him. He would pick up a rock with his trunk, and throw it over his shoulder at the person. I was told he has excellent aim. The mahouts removed all the rocks from his area. Now he sucks up pebbles with his trunk and shoots them at people. He has also been known to pick up dung and throw it. Again- he is known for his accurate aim.
It was amazing to see a blind elephant with her best friend/companion by her side, guiding her.
The elephant on the left has a damaged foot
It looked like best human friends who are their for each other. I have a friend like that, and had no idea that elephants do too. They have adopted each other because they have each lost their whole family. Instead of herds being formed by blood relatives, they have formed their own families by choosing who they like and dislike.
One sweet elephant is afraid of all other elephants. If another elephant approaches, she leaves – even leaving behind food. I can’t imagine what must have happened to her.
I asked one of our volunteer coordinators about his experience. He has been employed here for nearly 3 years. Tourism in Thailand has only been around for about 20 years. The reason he chose tourism as a profession is because of the money he could make.
He used to drive past ENP every day and thought that this person running it must be crazy to let such big animals roam freely. He worked at a trekking company, giving rides to tourists on the backs of the elephants. To him they were machines. He told me that elephants were only job and a means for him to make money.
A friend of his suggested he apply here when there was an opening. He noticed it was always busy and he knew he could make more money. After arriving here, he learned about the way elephants are “trained”; restrained and tortured with sticks and nails, and ropes holding them in a squeeze. They have sensitive ears, so this is a common place to jab them with the pointy end of the bullhook. They were beaten into submission.
He had treated his dogs and cats the same way, not thinking of them as a “someone”, and would kick them when they were in the way, and liked to fight / roughhouse, with his dog. Now, he has changed. He can see that elephants are happier and healthier here. For the record, he mentioned that he treats his dog and cat differently now too. As the saying goes, “when you know better, you do better.”
There was an instance when 20 of the 30 mahouts got together and complained that they could not control the elephants without the bullhook and slingshots. They told Lek they were going to quit unless she allowed them to use these tools. The mahouts knew these giant animals can be dangerous. Lek decided to prove to them that elephants can be gentle when treated with kindness and respect. She sat on the ground feeding a group of 4 elephants from her hands. The elephants caressed her with their trunks, putting their trunks all over her and feeling her, while eating the small berries she gave them. Each of us strangers, aka tourists, got right up there with her to have our photo taken. The mahouts could see that the elephants responded to kindness.
Lek is sitting behind me feeding the elephants small fruits. The elephants are touching her all over with their trunks and caressing her.
Each afternoon we got to learn something. Sometimes is was about elephants; one day we learned about the stories of some of these elephants and the different personalities, the behavior of elephants, history of the park, breeding in the wild vs captivity etc., another was learning about Thai culture.
All in all, it was a very fulfilling week. I really enjoyed my adventure, and the interesting variety of people I met. If you ever go to Thailand, this is an experience that won’t easily be forgotten.