For several years I’ve been following Elephant Nature Park on Facebook and have considered volunteering there for a couple of weeks. However, when we decided to come to Thailand I suggested that we include an overnight stay at ENP, which is about 1.5 hours north of Chiang Mai. This wonderful place is a sanctuary for elephants who have lived a life of misery at the hands of humans, and they have been bought from their owners to spend their final years in freedom and to be well looked after. The elephants often form strong bonds with other members of the rescued ‘herd’, and will always be in close contact with each other. There is one that is blind for example – she was a good performer in a circus and because of that the spotlight was shone on her far too much and caused her to go blind. When she could no longer perform, her owner tried to use her for forced breeding – a practice that had been performed on several other elephants ENP and which resulted in dislocated hips due to being mounted by big bull elephants whilst being shackled and harnessed so that they couldn’t get away from the unwelcome advances. She is always with two other elephants, and they flank her wherever they are so that she is in the middle of them. They act as her eyes, and it’s typical of how caring and emotionally attached these creature are to each other.
Each elephant has its own mahout, who is responsible for staying close all throughout the day. Because the elephants are used to verbal commands they will still obey instructions but the ethos here is for them to have as much freedom as is safely possible.
This mahoot is giving his elephant a good massage 🙂
This old lady has a hole in her ear, so her mahoot has put a flower in it!
Recently there has been very unusual weather – colder than ever before, and the mahoots have lit fires just outside the bomas where the elephants spend their nights. Although these bomas have a roof, they are all open sided, and the mahoots got up every three hours throughout the night to stoke the fires to try to keep the elephants warm. Sadly, one elephant has such poor circulation due to her age that she got frostbite on one of her ears and it had to be partially amputated:(
On the way to ENP, we watched a video of how an elephant is ‘broken’ in order for it to obey its owner. It was absolutely heartbreaking and every elephant that is used for entertainment, rides, or logging has been put through this abuse. If you are willing to understand just how extreme this procedure is, just google ‘how to break an elephant’. One old lady who has recently arrived at the park has two huge absesses at the same point on both front legs – this is where she has been repeatedly hit with the bull hook which has a sharp end, to the extent that infection set in and remained untreated. She needs feeding up and needs to learn to trust the vets before they can X-Ray her and decide how best to treat her. Our little group of overnight guests made up some rice balls for her, which consist of rice, mashed banana, and sweetcorn, and then we went to feed her.
She was a huge old lady but very calm and we were able to stand right in front of her. You can clearly see the absess on her leg below though 😦
There are perhaps a couple of hundred day and overnight visitors and volunteers there, and whilst they bring in much needed income, they all have to follow the rules that are there for their own safety and the comfort and well being of the elephants. We could all feed the elephants and they wander up to a raised platform where we stood behind a red line on the ground. The elephants can put their trunks forwards and take the food that’s offered to them, but we are not allowed to cross this line for our own safety, and we’re not allowed to reach out to the elephants if we have no food, as that is teasing them.
Another fun activity is taking the elephants down to the river for them (and us) to cool off. We get in the river with them and throw buckets of water over them whilst they happily munch on a basket of fruit.
Just up from the river is a set of tyres hanging on ropes and some of the elephants have fun playing with them 🙂
When we got back to our room in the evening we found that we had a friend asleep in a chair on our balcony and he was still there the next morning 🙂 ENP has also rescued a lot of dogs and cats and they are everywhere you look.
Cat ‘baskets’ and houses on stilts have been built for them and if you want a cuddle you only have to sit down and a cat or dog will find its way into your lap. Dog beds and blankets are also everywhere and there are numerous sudden outbreaks of barking and scrapping, but we didn’t see any real fights.
Overnight and during the second morning we had heavy rain, which was great for the mud bath. Elephants spray themselves with mud or dust in order to act as a sunscreen, and this particular one below had a great wallow 🙂
The volunteers are at ENP for a minimum of one week, and a big part of the daily routine is preparing food. In the wild, elephants spend up to 18 hours a day eating, and many of the ones at ENP are nearing the end of their lives which means that their last set of teeth is nearly ground down. When this happens they can no longer eat and so they die, but at ENP they are given soft food if necessary. With over 37 elephants at the sanctuary, and each one eating 200-600 pounds of food each day, that is a LOT of food to prepare and the expense must be ginormous.
All corn has to be prepared. From this:To this:
Watermelon is a firm favourite:
An example of a ‘soft food’ diet. Everything is cut up to tiny pieces so that it can be digested. Vet treatment and positive reinforcement training go hand in hand at ENP. Medical treatment can be stressful for them. Having spent their lives in the tourist and logging industry, the elephants have suffered injuries that would often go untreated in their previous lives. The pain and abuse inflicted on these elephants leaves them very untrusting and uncomfortable with people touching certain areas of their body such as their feet and ears. To desensitise parts of the elephant’s body takes time, kindness, patience and lots of bananas. The trainers at ENP are required to read each elephant’s body language and understand their movements in order to successfully work safely with them. Their dedication means that many of their elephants now accept vet treatment. Positive reinforcement is one of the most important factors of the elephants’ routine, as it is essential for the vet team to work with the elephants safely, while causing minimum stress to the elephants themselves. With the use of positive reinforcement instead of the pain of bull hooks that they have previously been subjected to, elephants voluntarily offer their feet for medical checks, their ears for blood tests, their trunks for trunk washes etc. Banana balls, chopped bananas and other treats are on offer when the elephant responds well to the training. Positive reinforcement allows the elephants to associate their training with food, meaning that they enjoy their sessions with the trainer and visits from the vets are unthreatening. The sessions are voluntary and elephants are able to walk away should they chose to do so… but those bananas are too much to resist. With many different injuries such as landmines, broken limbs and dislocated hips, to name a few, the vets at ENP have a steady stream of patients who require medical assistance. Their positive reinforcement training allows the elephant to respond to commands that will make accessing the area that requires treatment easier and safer for the vet team. Throughout their training, elephants display many different behaviours such a lifting their feet or holding their ears steady. Their intelligence shines through as they quickly master the techniques. As they become comfortable with the routine, the elephants no longer fear their treatment as they know that it will come with a nice bucket of bananas and plenty of praise. One landmine victim (below) will even assists the vets with her treatment by cleaning her injured foot with the water hose herself. The blue on her foot is antibiotic treatment.
If an elephant has dislocated hips or broken and twisted legs it will constantly shift its weight from one to the other to try to get some relief. Shortly before we left, we saw Lek, who is the lady who set up this whole operation. Sangduen “Lek” Chailert was born in 1962 in the small hill tribe village of Baan Lao, two hours north of Chiang Mai. Her love for elephants began when her grandfather, a traditional healer, received a baby elephant as payment for saving a man’s life. Lek spent many hours with her newfound friend, resulting in a passion that would shape the rest of her life, as well as the lives of others. She is tiny, but a force to be reckoned with when it comes to bureacracy and rescuing an elephant in need. One of the elephants was born at the sanctuary, and he has such a bond with her that he likes to keep her close. An elephant protects its young by pushing it between its legs, and it was very amusing to see this particular youngster doing this with Lek. At one point she disappeared in between and underneath 5 or 6 elephants, but they know exactly where she is and would never step on her.
Here he is pushing Lek between his legs with his trunk!
Although it’s heartbreaking to hear the stories, it was a fantastic experience to be able to get so close to these magnificent creatures and Jayne and I thoroughly enjoyed it.