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For The Love Of Elephants

THAILAND | Wednesday, 10 December 2008 | Views [1843]

The Elephant has long been the symbol of Thailand. A majestic animal. It roamed the jungles, lived near streams and was occasionally put to work in the service of kings. It even was used as a religious symbol at temples. While some roamed free, many were domesticated. Families took on the tradition of the Mahout, where traditionally 3 different people would care for a single elephant. Yet training methods can be very harsh. Hooks are used, elephants are beaten or starved, the large elephants are chained up in very small cages. Anything to break the elephant into submission.

Elephants today face another problem. At one point close to 100,000 elephants worked in the logging industry here in Thailand. In a Hegelian turn ("the idea, in its self, lies the seeds of its own destruction") , the elephants were helping to destroy their own habitat. Now deforestation has eliminated much of their natural habitat. Finally, 30 years ago the Thai government banned logging, in part because of the devastating effect deforestation has on flooding during monsoon season. So now there are many out of work elephants, with no place to return to in the wild, and no work to pay for the vast amount they need to eat.  

Tourism has been one answer to these out of work elephants. But the tourist industry ranges from very some responsible people who actually care for the elephants, too many people just out to make a cheap buck and mistreat the elephants. Some people even take there elephants into the city to beg for food and money (tourists love feeding the elephants in the streeks of bangkok, or so I hear, even though bringing an elephant into bangkok is illegal). In the cities, the elephants do not get enough food, can't get clean water, and are sometimes hit by cars. This is not the place for elephants. 

Anyway, feeling guilty over riding an elephant the previous week (although they seem well treated while I was there, but probably were trained in the traditional brutal manner), I took a day trip to the elephant nature park ( http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/) north of Chiang Mai. This sanctuary for elephants, most of whom were abused or injured (one was even blinded by its mahout who used sharp hooks on both his eyes) was founded by a women named Lek, who comes from a small hill village in northern Thailand, and grew up with elephants. She started this sanctuary (initially a smaller sanctuary at a different location) and has devoted her life to rescuing elephants. Sometimes a village has an elephant that they can not feed, and Lek travels across the country to the elephant, helps care for it, and takes the elephant back to the sanctuary (this is all quite expensive- just think about how much the elephants eat!). Once she was called to an injured baby elephant, and she stayed with the elephant for a week, nursing her back to health, with hardly any sleep. Lek also departed from traditional methods for training the elephants. Lek trains the elephants just with positive reinforcement, rewards and not vicious punishment. Just as disciplining your kids in America by hitting your kids has been going away, hopefully the more civilized approach to training elephants will replace the old ways.

Anyway, the ENP is a magical place. It is a place filled with love. Everything about the place is amazing. Its a beautiful setting by a steam, surrounded by small mountains and dense jungle. The staff and many volunteers there are warm and caring- both to the elephants and each other (there are also lots of great and sweet dogs all around this place). The elephants seem to live a great life there. Somehow, despite all there abuse, most of the elephants are trusting of humans there, even the day visitors there (can they just sense the love?). Unlike other elephant camps, you do not get to ride the elephants. But you do get to feed the elephants , and bathe the elephants in the river (I got to do both twice). Volunteers may even be involved in an elephant rescue. I got kissed by an elephant. And I gave an elephant a scrub and a Thai massage. I loved playing with the elephants.  

We met many elephants, and learned there names and there stories. They had an elephant named Hope, who was brought to the camp as an orphan and was "adopted" by another elephant Ging Mai (who is now dead), and now lives free. They had Maximus, maybe Thailand tallest elephants. We met Mae Bia, a very old elephant. They had Jokia who was blinded by the mahouts (I didn't actually see Jokia). And many others.     

All I have to say is I cried multiple times in the day, both when I saw videos about the elephants.  I also was moved to tears by the whole experience. I did not want to leave and I will definitely return for a longer visit. (Probably a 1 week volunteer visit). This has been the highlight of my trip.     

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, I still beleive in an elephant named hope. And a women named Lek who is battling the powers that be, when she shines a light on the mistreatment of these great animals (she has even gotten death threats). One person can change the world, and change it for the better if they have enough love in their heart and moxy to go with it. I urge my readers to visit the website of the ENP, and learn more about these marvilous animals.

Tags: elephant

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