This is the second of two articles on the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Two elephants, each with their own mahouts-the name for the local people who care for the elephants are ready for us. We approach cautiously with visions of crushed feet on our minds, but these two are truly gentle giants we soon discover.
Our guide walks us towards them, remind us to move slowly, not to be loud, and to stay where they can see you-never directly behind them. She takes Alex by the arm and literally places his hand on Mae Perm’s side, the reserve’s oldest elephant and grand dame. Born around 1922, she began life lucky with a wealthy British family as a backyard showpiece for guests. Later, her luck ran out as she was repeatedly sold and forced into manual labor in logging camps near the Burmese boarder. Her paperwork shows that she moved around constantly and become less useful to her owners as she aged. Mae Perm, which translates to “Luckier” was Lek’s first rescue and began her new life in 1991.
Nim introduces a smaller elephant just a few feet away standing in the shadow of Mae Perm. She is Jokia, a fifty year old elephant who we are told is blind. Jokia, which translates to mean “Eyes from Heaven” was used in logging too, but when she gave birth and the baby died, she refused to work and became difficult for her mahout to handle. To punish her, he blinded both of her eyes with a slingshot. Lek heard about the blind elephant but could not afford the high price demanded for her until a group of American woman raised the funds to rescue her in 2001. Nim explains that quickly after her arrival, Mae Perm bonded with the younger elephant and since then serves as her eyes, leading her by making small sounds and gently touching her with her trunk. The two are rarely apart and like most elephants, bond for a lifetime.
Nim invites the rest of us to join in the big love. We find a spot to explore on each animal, gradually moving closer to their face. The skins feels cool and rough, dry, and course. The ears as big as a beach towel but gently moving, catching small sounds, cooling the face, and shooing away insects. The trunk always catches you by surprise, suddenly within inches of your face as they use it to figure you out too. Within minutes, their sad stories still lingering in the mind, we are all in love with these 3 ton animals. We walk with them as they slowly make their way toward the green river. Pausing for a second to take a picture or look around, it becomes startling how quiet elephants are when they move. Unlike the cartoon character or movie elephants stomping through the forest, shaking the earth, these creatures could easily sneak up on you. More than once, when we later met the whole herd, I was startled to discover an elephant inches from me.
We can see other groups walking with their new best friends toward the river on the edge of the camp. We make our way and are instructed on how to give an elephant a bath. The mahouts lead Mae Pram and Jokia into the shallow river as we take turns filling buckets of river water and washing them down. No soap is needed but scrubbing and rinsing is part of the plan and before you know it, you forget for minute you are doing something amazing that few can mark off their bucket list.
After a bath, ironically, our work is undone by the traditional mud bath. One by one the herd head to a pile of dry red soil and suck up the soil with their trunks to throw onto their backs and head. The wet skin absorbs the dry dirt forming a barrier from insects and the tropical sun, as the herd goes from sleek and wet to filthy and caked with drying red mud.
After our own vegetarian lunch, it’s time to feed the herd lunch as they anticipate our arrival and wander up at the pavilion. By now, the anticipation and hesitation from the morning is gone as each of us has grown more comfortable around the herd. After lunch, it’s a siesta for everyone as the herd heads out to the shade tress and the humans inside to watch a documentary on the plight of the Asian elephant. We learn the Asian elephant population has declined by over 50% in the past few decades with fewer than 1500 wild elephants in all of Thailand. We learn of the cruel methods used to ‘break’ elephants and how no governmental protections exist to protect elephants from abuse or neglect-in fact no animals enjoy any protection in most of Asia including pets like dogs, cats, and horses. People like Lek are their only protection.
As the sun begins to fade, we have time to visit the newest elephant at the reserve: Navaan was born in late October and we find him curled up and sleeping at his mother’s feet. Still too young to be out with the herd just yet, he and his mother are staying under the watchful eyes of humans in a giant shady paddocks near the camp.
Finally, before we head back to Chiang Mai and the noise and traffic of modern life, we stop to feed a few stragglers who know where the garden hose is used for fresh water near the paddock. Alex delights in filling each trunk with seemingly endless gallons of water-The trunk bent at the perfect angle to fill up for a thirsty elephant. Alex squeals as the massive filled trunk swings by him, the elephant remarkably careful not to hit on the way.
As we turn to leave, Alex questions me as to why we didn’t sign up to stay longer. It’s easy to see he is in love with the idea of being part of something so hopeful and fulfilling. We both are affected by what we have learned and experienced. Later at school, he will be an expert on elephants and will be quick to point out to others the cruelty of riding or performing animals. I can’t think of a good answer but promise him if we come back, we will come back to stay for a lot longer. Knowing Alex, like our new pachyderm friends, he won’t forget to remind me of my promise.
You can learn more about the Elephant Nature Park by visiting their website at elephantnaturepark.org and liking them on Facebook.