Thursday, 4 August 2011

Elephant Nature Park

Last week, we spent an incredible week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, near Chiang Mai, in Thailand.  It was quite possible the most amazing week of my life, and I can't rave about it enough!  The park is a sanctuary for Asian elephants, many of whom were rescued from very abusive situations.  The park has over 2000 acres, and the elephants are allowed to roam free during the day, and form their own herds.  At night, they are chained up in shelters in their herds, for the safety of the elephants and the herd.  The farmers who own land surrounding the park are perfectly within their legal rights to shoot any elephants which wander onto their property, and it has happened in the past (the elephant survived).  I strongly encourage you to read about the park: and read the bios of some of the elephants.  Right now there are 37 elephants at the park, and there will soon be two more as they were in the process of acquiring a new pregnant female very close to giving birth.
At the park, the elephants are not required to perform tricks or do anything that they do not want to do.  They can roam the land freely, bathe in the river, and have limited access to park visitors except during specified feeding and bathing times.  Each elephant has a mahoot (caretaker) that is with the elephant all times during the day, with the exception of some of the males, which have either two or three mahoots each.  I never realized how rambunctious and mischievous male elephants can be!
The founder of the park is Sangduen Chailert (called Lek, which means 'small' in Thai).  She is an amazing woman who is leading an incredible life, and yet is so modest and welcoming.  She had some astonishing stories to tell about acquiring some of the elephants.  You can see the love and trust all the animals at the park had for her.  
One of the goals of the park is to educate tourists about the plight of the Asian elephant.  Elephant tourism brings in BIG money in Thailand, and most people do not realize the cruelty that these animals experience. Starting with separating the baby elephant away from its mother at a too young age, to the 'training' of the elephants using sharp pointed metal hooks (if you've seen the movie Water for Elephants, then you know what I'm talking about), to the use of amphetamines with trekking elephants to allow them to work longer and harder.  These are only some of the awful stories we heard, but it's very important to educate tourists so we can stop funding these cruel practices.  So, if any of you go to Thailand, don't buy elephant paintings, don't go on elephant treks, and don't pay to ride an elephant!!
Instead of giving a run-down of our week, I'm going to upload some pictures to give you an idea of what we experienced!

Bath time!  This was our first activity on our first day.  (I'm not sure why this elephant has an R on its butt, but I'm guessing its former Mahoot etched it in there)

This is the largest family group at the park.  There are 2 babies in this family, both of which were born at the park.  Elephants live in matriarchal groups in the wild.  At the park they are all unrelated (except for the babies of course) and so they form their own familes.  This instinct for female elephants to live together must be very strong!  Here, the family is returning from bath time.

There is a naughty elephant hiding in the bushes on the far side of the river.  The elephants are not allowed to cross the river, but this cheeky girl got over there while her mahoot wasn't watching. He called to her to return for quite some time (in vain) before he was forced to strip down and cross the river to get her.  Elephants can be very stubborn!

Here is Hope, one of the young males at the park after his bath time.  He is spraying the people on the viewing platform with water from his trunk.  This is a trick he takes obvious delight in performing!  His mahoot is ready to reward him with some fruit.  Hope wears a bell around his neck so you can hear him coming, as he is very mischievous!  Lek rescued him when he was just a young baby as his mother died from disease.  It took a long time (and a few broken ribs) to earn his trust, but now he is a very happy elephant!

One of our jobs was to cut corn for the elephants.  They eat the entire stalk!  Elephants spend the vast majority of their time eating, and only sleep 3-4 hours per night.  When they are in their shelters overnight, they are left with giant piles of grass or corn to graze on. In the morning, it is practically all gone, which is an impressive feat.

After cutting corn, we were absolutely exhausted!  It was ridiculously hot, but we had to wear long sleeves and long pants to protect ourselves from the sun, bugs, and the corn (very itchy!).  The Thai workers could work so much faster than us, and lift four or more bundles of corn at a time.  I struggled with two!  This gave me a whole new appreciation for the source of our food.

This is the truck of corn being delivered to the elephants in the evening.  They were *very* eager to get their trunks on their dinner. I must admit, it was very satisfying to watch the eles dine on all our hard work!

Every night, Lek would sing the baby girl elephant to sleep.  The baby boy was far too rambunctious!  It was pretty amazing to watch their interaction.  Here, she's not quite ready for sleep as she's enjoying her corn too much. 

Naughty baby boy trying to escape his pen!!  The babies aren't chained at night I'm guessing so they can move around at night and visit with the different females of the herd.  But apparently the babies had been getting out at night and wandering the park alone!  They had to make some adjustments to this fence to keep him in.  Such a little brat!  One of my best memories of the week was watching him steal a fellow volunteer's water bottle, and then dash around in circles just daring the mahoots to get it away from him.  It's the same little dance that my parents' dog, Zephyr, does when he has something he shouldn't!  Needless to say, the waterbottle was not functional after the encounter with this elephant.

Baby girl is finally ready for some sleep!  ADORABLE!

Planting trees!  Physical labour was absolutely exhausting in the heat.

This is Mookie (aka Toilet, aka Grumples), one of the 92 dogs at the park.  She was definitely a people dog, as she didn't have a pack.  Luckily the other dogs left her alone and just let her wander the property.  This girl is being adopted by two previous volunteers from Sweden, so she's going to be a Swedish dog!  She leaves in January, and I'm so happy for her as she was the sweetest, gentlest girl!  The park was practically overrun with dogs, and only 3 did not appreciate pets.  I was in heaven!

Shoveling elephant poop!  Man, is it ever heavy, and is there ever a lot of it!  Every morning one of the volunteer groups would be assigned the task of scooping poo.  It was a tiring task!  However, emptying the truck was probably the worst part.  Thank goodness elephants are vegetarians, and so their poop doesn't smell too bad!

Ele feeding time!  This is Jokia and Mae Pam (? not sure about the spelling of her name).  Mae Pam was the first elephant at the park, and Jokia is completely blind.  It's a heartbreakingly sad story, but I will just say that her previous mahoot blinding her when she became depressed and refused to work after losing her baby.  Now she is doing really well, and has a best friend in Mae Pam.  They don't leave each others sides!  

This picture was taken during our walk around the property to visit all the elephants.  We brought banana treats, so we were able to feed the friendly eles.  I forget this ones name, but I think she was new to the park as she just hung out by herself.  She was very happy to get some banana treats!

This is one of the teenage elephants at the park.  Again, this picture was taken on our walk.  Normally the volunteers are not allowed into the fields, and must watch the elephants from the many viewing places.  Elephants are very strong and it is dangerous to be around them unsupervised.  As well, many of the elephants are severely psychologically damaged from their previous owners, and can be unpredictable or unfriendly towards humans.

This is the elephant feeding platform as seen from the field.  Elephants receive large baskets of fruit and vegetables (mainly watermelon, pumpkin, banana and sugarcane) several times a day, in addition to their grazing in the fields and piles of grass or corn at night.  These are very well fed elephants!!

Sunset over the elevated viewing platform.  This was an excellent place to hang out and relax, watch the elephants and catch a nice breeze.

Elephant scratching post!  Even though their skin is over an inch thick, it is still very sensitive, especially to bug bites.  They cover themselves with mud and dirt which acts as a natural sunscreen and keeps bugs off.  But they still enjoy a goooood scratch!  (and I love the elephant bums... so adorable!)

White elephant!  Obviously not pure white, but they have more of a pinkish tone to their skin.  These elephants were considered very lucky and were prized by the ancient kings.  

Elephant kiss!!  This picture was taken just before we left the park for good (so sad!)  For every kiss this elephant gave, she was rewarded with a slice of bread... apparently elephants *love* bread!  Who knew?

This elephant has a hole in her ear, and every day her mahoot puts a flower in it.  

Family bath time!  It is very amusing to watch the elephants in the river.  They roll around, submerge themselves completely (except for a trunk used as a snorkel) and let the current carry them downstream.  There are 2 babies in this picture :)

Jungle Boy (with the tusks) and Hope, two of the young males at the park, playing.  

Outside the front gate to the park, with fellow volunteer and friend, Brooke.

Cutting sugar cane for the elephants!  I'm just glad I managed to keep all my fingers after a week of using machetes.

This has to be my favourite picture (and I can't even take credit for it!  Brooke (above) took this picture).  This is the baby boy trying to escape from his pen (again!).  This picture was taken on a different day from the above picture of the baby boy trying to escape.  He is TROUBLE!

Well, I have about a million more pictures and stories to share from this incredible week, but I will refrain from telling them here.  I couldn't recommend visiting this place more... if any of you ever find yourselves in Thailand, you HAVE to go.  It was such a magical, happy place! 


  1. AMAZING! Such incredible animals.

    Where to now?

    I'm emailing you canoe trip photos!


  2. Ok those eles are DAMN cute. Especially that last picture!! But seriously: GRUMPLES!! The doggie with a beard!! He is awesome! Sounds like you guys had an awesome time - can't wait to see some more ele photos when you are back.

  3. Love all the elephants and their stories. I like the elephant kiss photo best!