This past weekend I dragged Angelo with me to Elephant Nature Park in northern Chiang Mai – Mae Taeng District in Thailand. The ENP picked us up at our hotel at 8am on Saturday and we were introduced to the other 6 people who were in our team. The drive is about an hour from central Chiang Mai. On the ride up we watched a video about the park and two documentarians experience with the elephants and what it is striving to do. I had researched elephant parks while still in Japan, it was very important for us to visit a place where elephants were NOT used for trekking (rides) and were treated humanely. You see, in order for us tourists to ride the elephants you have to break them in. The traditional way to breaking in an elephant is for the mahout (its trainer) to chain the wild animal up or keep it in a cage physically beating up the animal until it surrenders to its owner. It is a process that takes days or longer if it is a male. The trainer is basically breaking its spirit. Most males do not make good for trekking as they are very disobedient and attack their owner. Many of the 34 elephants on the park were bought by the owner Lek Chailert – from circuses, trekking tours, forced breeding, injured from land mines and from abusive owners. Ms. Chailert has a very inspiring story and I urge you to research more about what she does for not only elephants but many other animals, wildlife habitats, environment, elephant education, and even her own employees (many of the mahouts at ENP are refugees from Burma). If you are looking to donate funds somewhere, Angelo and I can attest from our experience that Elephant Nature Park is a great place to send contributions. Please do not confuse the term mahout with negativity, there are many good mahouts that use positive reinforcement to get what they desire out of the animal. It is just not a common practice, something that Lek is trying to change.
At the park there are also dogs, cats, a pig, buffalo and other various rescued animals. When we first arrived you are greeted by lots of cats and dogs – some under the tables, on the tables, on the chairs – everywhere!! Its great, they all seem content albeit the few who have red ribbons on their neck (don’t pet them, they will bite). There is a large open area where all the groups meet up to do their various tasks during the day, this is the same spot where you eat your meals and where the human kitchen and elephant kitchen is. The elephants walk up to their spot on the platform so that you can feed them at specific scheduled times. Elephants are vegetarian and you are not allowed to touch any of them unless you have food. They eat 10% of their body weight per day, and eat – watermelon, squash, banana, banana trees and grass. You feed the elephants out of a very large basket. When the basket was empty, they would take their trunks and prod you and the ground looking for food. For the baby elephant and some of the “old ladies” who don’t have teeth you fed them this ball of mashed up ripe banana, corn flour and wheat. There were a couple of elephants who were blind because of cataracts (flash photography from performing with circuses), slingshots and knives to the eye for misconduct with their old trainer. One elephant had no eye, just an empty socket! When you fed these blind elephants, you had to touch the trunk so that they could sense that you had food in your other hand. When you feed some of the elephants you have to be very fast, they don’t really swallow their food. Others masticate for such a long time you could read a book in-between. I seemed to keep feeding the granny who took a really long time.
The elephants also eat out in the reserve, not only where the humans congregate. Large tractors bring out huge banana trees for the animals to eat when they are out in the park. The mahouts cut up the trees for the elephants quickly so they can eat. The elephants step on the tree and peel out the outer part to ingest the juicy fibrous food inside. I asked our tour leader what they do with the leftover byproducts, she said the water buffalo eat the outer part. The park consists of 250 acres where the pachyderms can run and be free. It is important to note that these are not wild elephants, these are rescued elephants from dangerous situations who are given a place to freely roam and food and medicine if needed. Most of these elephants would die if released back into the wild. Their ages range from 8 months to 86 years old. You can tell if the elephant is over 40 years if its ears curl back and if they are older the sides of the head caves in. There are 4 albino elephants at the park, they are pink in color and light eyes. Did you know that mothers are pregnant for 22 months?
The males grow long tusks and have 5 legs not 4. Hehe, thats the only joke you get today. No, but seriously the males after they are about 3 years like to be alone and are separate from the females. They don’t like old ladies!! Only young beautiful women! They will try to kick a female if she is old and she approaches him. The males do not approach future mates, the women approach the men. The park allows the females to mate, they do not try to disrupt what occurs naturally. We actually watched all of this happen during our morning walk. It was quite fascinating observing all of the herd. The park has built this playground of tires and swings for the elephants. They like to kick the swings and push them around with their trunks. The free tires are pulled around effortlessly with hind legs and thrown afar. Watching this one can observe how powerful and agile these creatures are.
Many of the elephants although not biologically connected have formed small family units. It was awesome watching two blind ladies conversing. These gentle giants get very close alongside one another and lift, twist and touch each others heads with their trunks – a sign which we learned they are having a conversation. One of the elephants we could not go near because she was bloated and had bad gas. If you looked at her from the rear it looked like she was pregnant with twins, I would be cranky too! One elephant had purple dye on her foot, which is actually antibiotics because she had stepped on a land mine while under the care of her previous owner. She is new to the park. Elephant feet are very sensitive, and can feel the vibrations of the earth. They are also what I call ninja walkers. So many times people were looking one way and an elephant would “surprise” them from behind. Many of the elephants had broken spines due to the harnesses and seats that are kept on their backs all day (one elephant with a broken spine was said that her old mahout never took the seat off). This is why it is important to not contribute to street begging elephants and mahouts in Bangkok as it perpetuates this problem. Some females were from forced elephant breeding programs. The female would be put head first into a cage and a male will approach her to mate. The only problem is that the female chooses her mate and if she has not met the bull and approves she will move her rear side to side resisting the forced interaction. Oftentimes the very powerful male elephant will get angry and kick the female, thus breaking her hip. This is what happened to Angelo’s favorite elephant, whom he got to wash in the river. Forced breeding is wherever there are elephants because on the black market a kilo of ivory is worth around 50,000 Thai Baht. Also, an elephant can earn a family a nice wage just begging on the streets of Bangkok.
In the afternoon all of the teams head out to the river to bathe the elephants. Throughout the day the elephants throw dirt onto their backs and mud on their bodies to keep off insects and it acts as sunblock. A dip in the river is very cooling for the animals and also gets the sediment off their backs and hairy heads. They love having water splashed all over them – including their faces while eating from their basket of food. They actually will bow their head lower so that you can put more water over their face and head. It is here in the sun that you can see some of their beautiful golden eye color. After they get out of the water they immediately throw dirt back on their bodies.
The elephants spend only 4 hours sleeping a night, the rest of the time they eat and move around with the herd. So at nighttime you can hear them around 2am start to be very vocal and it sounds like trumpets going off. Its a sound that you will never forget.When we left the reserve the next day after learning and taking care of them more, Angelo asked me if I missed them. I said no. But at dinner that night I kept daydreaming about them and all that I learned about these animals. If anything, their stories and resilience is so inspiring. It was such a unique experience and although quite saddening was very insightful. We were lucky to have the opportunity to get to know more about the asian elephants and was an experience we will never forget.