Part one of a two part story on how one group of dedicated people is helping to save the Asian elephant in northern Thailand quicker than the poachers and ivory traders can slaughter them…
I heard stories about Thailand for years before ever visiting: Exotic, sex tourism, jungles, temples, and elephants. Planning a trip that would include my 12 year old son would have to focus on the second half of my mental list. Except for two or three minutes at the zoo every decade or two, I had never shared space with an elephant. I vaguely remember being six or seven and my mother took my sister and I to a small traveling circus and there had been a few elephants or two. Today, I am horrified by the thought of wild animals traveling in circus and being forced to perform mundane tricks repeatedly for slack-jawed audiences every night. My son will not go to that type of circus with me.
Well-intentioned but perhaps less-informed colleagues who had been to Thailand described opportunities to ride elephants in the jungle, see silly slapstick orangutan shows, and even visit Buddhist monks who walked around with giant Bengal tigers, providing visitors opportunities to pet them and take pictures. Even in the retelling, my friends hinted that maybe this type of tourism had its dark side. That perhaps the tigers were so docile and compliant because they had a daily sedative mixed into their food, or the orangutan feared the trainer’s stick, or the elephant remembered the painful ‘breaking’ he received after being taken from his mother in the wild.
Having internalized the notion a few years back that every dollar, or in this case, Baht, you spend is a vote, I decided not to vote for this type of tourism in Thailand. My research took me to more than a dozen nature-oriented websites that to the uninitiated appeared to be eco-friendly or green. They all made clever use of seemingly happy animals more than willing to share some time with excited groups of mostly western tourists benignly petting, riding, and photographing them. Pictures of kids cuddling baby tigers and monkeys, smiling families on the back of elephants, and camouflage-outfitted trainers playfully tussling with snakes and crocodiles were plastered across the internet.
Dig deeper into these sites, however, it becomes obvious that these wild animals are not happy nor willing participants but captives in a never-ending and loosely-monitored animal entertainment industry in Asia. If not performing, exotic animals are harvested for their tusks, skins, tails, heads, and flesh. Despite western medicine’s rapid advances into many corners of Asia, a large percentage of people here still trust more in the age-old natural medicines that often require the use of animal products. Even in the age of Viagra and Cialis, Bears are permanently caged while their gallbladders are drained for bile to make supposedly aphrodisiac potions. Shark fin soup, despite it’s apocalyptic decimation of sharks worldwide, continues unabated in restaurants from Beijing to Singapore.
Through the myriad of websites promising to provide an eco-friendly Thai experience, I discovered the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai near the Burmese and Laos boarder. I knew I was onto something hopeful when the site informed the viewer, unlike most sites, visitors will definitely not be riding through the jungle on the back of an elephant here. In fact, the park is not so much an attraction as it is a sanctuary-a final home for dozens of rescued animals who ‘no longer work for humans’. In fact, Alex and I were to discover that we would be the ones doing some of the work.
We took over the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I purposely chose second class to experience train travel more like many Thais do or at least young backpackers. The eleven hour journey was an adventure for both of us as we settled in and quickly made friends with the couple next to us and their two boys, who ages and interests Alex was neatly sandwiched between. He gladly seized the opportunity to escape the constant narration and rules of traveling with your father (and teacher) for two weeks.
Jim, works for an NGO in Bangkok while his wife Lazeena coordinates efforts women’s health initiatives through the United Nations. Like us, they are on a holiday to see more of Thailand and in their case Burma too. They speak highly of Chiang Mai and the beauty of the foothills of the Himalayas north and west. Over train food and Thai beers we discuss our plans and the bigger picture of modern Thailand-An ancient country but one that feels anything but settled in or at rest with itself. Bangkok is teeming with people, movement, modern glass skyscrapers, high end shopping, and new cars. Look closer, however, and many live close to disastrous poverty, squalor, and the ever-present sex industry that serves the hordes of Westerners who descend every year. They are not here for the temples or elephants.
We arrive into sleepy Chiang Mai at sunrise and catch a waiting tuk-tuk to our hotel in the center of town not far from Wat Pha Singh- a major Buddhist temple. We have the day to prepare for tomorrow’s trip into the mountains and to the sanctuary. We feast on Thai food and see a dinner theater performance of traditional dance and music at an outdoor dinner theater. Chiang Mai reminds me of a town on the edge of a frontier and in this case the steamy dense jungles and the foothills of the Himalayan mountains as they begin their slow ascent far to the west and north.
It is still not quite light as we stumble to wait for the van in front of the hotel that will start our day. Alex is not complaining but he wants to I am convinced. We board an already full bus full of equally eager seekers and are met by a tiny Thai woman named Nim, sitting shotgun and she like most Thais we have met are all smiles and friendly. Already on board is a French family with college-aged kids, an American newlywed couple recently transferred to Jakarta, and a young school teacher on break from her South Korean school.
We all anticipate what we will see and getting up close to herds of Asian elephants. Our guide shows us a video on how a young Thai woman named Lek Chailert started the project in 1995. Lek witnessed the cruelty almost daily of elephants forced to do logging in the forests, perform tricks for tourists, and beg in the crowded city streets across southeastern Asia. After years of planning and raising money and a small army of loyal volunteers, the Elephant Nature Park now occupies a lush river valley of the Karen people in northern Thailand.
We turn off the main highway north of Chiang Mai and onto winding and narrow two lane roads where we spot our first elephant. Wonder is replaced by reflection, however, as we see these elephants are trekking and loaded down with tourists as they make their way along the side of the road. Already, we become more convinced we made the right choice in choosing the sanctuary. Before ever arriving, we are committed to Lek’s vision.
Nim announces we are turning onto the property and everyone scrambles for their cameras. Before I can find my own camera, Alex screams out, “There they are!”. We all gasp as we see a herd of a dozen elephants slowly walking toward the river in the distance. Like a scene from Jurassic Park, we watch as the elephants dwarf the trees around them and slowly move together towards the water. The park’s buildings appear as we dip down toward the river and we can see that the park area is vast-2000 acres in the main preserve as well as Elephant Haven-a more rustic mountain retreat used for overnights with volunteers and staff and more free-range land for the animals.
As the van roles to a stop and we climb out, the park is a beehive of activity with dozens of volunteers eagerly preparing for another day. The first thing we see is racks of bananas stacked ten feet high as well as hundreds of pumpkins, melons, and heads of lettuce. A group of volunteers is pulling apart bamboo leaves and filling plastic laundry baskets. Literally, a pack of dogs is walking through the open-air pavilion overlooking the river and herds. Most of the dogs arrived here after being left homeless from last year’s monumental flooding in Thailand. Dog bowls are stationed every few feet and filled simultaneously to keep any disagreements at bay. There is a feeling of teamwork-of single-mindedness within minutes of arriving. We are all here for one purpose: To volunteer our day helping these giant beasts and to help ourselves get close to them, understand them, and contemplate how anyone else could seem them as nothing more than living bulldozers, beggars, or transportation.
After a quick overview of our day, our guide takes us to the 6 foot high feeding platform. Each morning at this time, the herds know it is time for breakfast and line up eagerly to carb up for the day. Watermelon and bananas are waiting for us in baskets as we get our first close look at the elephants. Alex doesn’t need prompting and begins feeding fruit into the giant trunk of his first customer. She gently grasps the food and curls it wound tightly after he places it on the inside of her trunk, Her strength is obvious and her trunk quickly tosses the food into her mouth whole with little chewing. Alex squeals at the new sensation of feeding an elephant and feeling the tight rough grip of the trunk close around his hand. I join in and before long the baskets are empty.
Everyone seems happy with the feeding but is now anxious to get onto ground level with them. Our guide explains that today we will spend all day with many elephants but we will really get to know two of the residents, learn their stories, walk with them, bath them, and feed them lunch later. Despite it being December, we can feel the heat of the day and walk across the open pasture away from the buildings and river and toward the waiting herds.
The next entry is the conclusion of this two-part story on the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand. The park’s website is elephantnaturepark.org