Friday, July 20, 2012

Elephant Nature Park

We're back home, and this post is long overdue, but I still need to finish blogging about our vacation to Thailand. After Koh Ngai, which is almost at the southern tip of Thailand, we flew to the northern city of Chiang Mai. After an exhausting day of traveling we checked into our hotel, went shopping (I was obsessed with the markets-so much more laid back than Bangkok), and slept for 10 hours. The next day was incredible and requires a long post in order to show how magnificent these animals are as well as the park efforts. 

I knew I wanted to see elephants and learn more about them, but I also knew I wanted to go somewhere where our money would be used well and where the animals were treated humanely. I found several positive reviews for Elephant Nature Park, about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai. I reserved two spots and an incredible, educational, and bittersweet day was our reward.

A very nice Toyota tourist van (you see them all over) picked us up around 8:30 where we got in the 12 seater van, which had two guides up front (obviously one a driver), a single lady, and one other couple. We proceded to pick up two other couples and headed out of Chiang Mai. Our guide spoke English very well but with a thick accent. Casey could catch what he was saying, but I missed words here and there. He gave us a summary of the park and elephants in Thailand and then showed us a documentary on the built-in screen while we headed into the mountains.

A century ago there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand. As a sacred and revered animal (think Buddhism), elephants have an important but contradictory part in Thai culture. Elephants are everywhere in Thailand, from tourists figurines to the statues in wats. All life is sacred, especially elephants, and euthanization is not generally practiced. However, elephants are also a vital work force (or were) to the Thais. They used them for logging (as Myanmar, Laos, and other areas still do) but loss their jobs in 1989 with the logging ban. After a severe flood Thailand realized deforestation increased the floods as well as severity and banned the practice. However, not only did wild jungle elephants have a drastically depleted habitat, but 30,000 elephants were also out of jobs. Many were left in the camps to starve, having loss the ability to forage for food (being born in captivity). Others were taken into over-sensitizing cities to be used as tourist traps, having to beg for their food each nights. Even more were adopted in the riding camps-some in good areas while others neglected. Because Thailand places elephants in the same category as livestock (ironic considering their supposed reverence) there are little laws to protect them. This is where Lek comes in. (Lek is in the blue shirt. The crazy Australian lady that adopted Casey and I as her family is in the black.)

Lek, born in a northern hill-tribe, was introduced to elephants at an early life. She founded Elephant Nature Park in the mid 1990s and has rescued dozens of elephants as well helped introduce new life to the park.  She's constantly striving to change laws and has since helped gained awareness for elephants' plights. To give an example of recent changes consider the tourist elephants in the cities. While Casey was on his mission from 2006-2008 he saw countless elephants in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Today, 4 years later, we saw none in either city This is one result of Lek's increasing spread of information on the world. (Below is a picture of Casey talking to Lek.)

Not all of these elephants have had a happy life, though. Many of the elephants we saw had to be rescued as they had been abused and blinded, hit by cars and left with badly healed broken backs or legs, or incapable of trusting humans. Lek has nourished and gained the love of every elephant at the park (35 while we were there!) She's rescued day-old orphans and made friends with the matriarchs. Keep in mind that elephants have the same life-span as humans (as well as behavior appropriate their age) and taking in an elephant isn't exactly the same as a cat. Lek knows many of these elephants will outlive her but has provided a great foundation for them for a better future. For instance, below is one elephant who is blind and another who had her back leg and pelvis broken when she was younger.

While many of them have a life to live out at the park a couple of the elephants have been "borrowed" from their owners to heal and rehabilitate. The park tries to buy these elephants from these owners who use them for tourism or work but often the owners refuse to sell. There are several incredible stories of people raising or donating money in order to buy these elephants and give them a home to rest for the rest of their lives. For instance, a young boy from the U.S. recently raised $20,000 for an elephant to be able to stay at Elephant Nature Park. Despite the great stories of a few elephants there are still thousands more not only in Thailand but Myanmar, Cambodia, and other countries of SE Asia who need homes free from worry. 

We learned most of these facts from our guide at the park and talking to Lek or other volunteers. We spent the day feeding the elephants, bathing them in the river, and watching them walk around or interact with each other. And now for a bunch of pictures. 

They love their mud baths. One of the babies rolled around in it for about 20 minutes and couldn't get up. Mom or aunt or someone finally put her leg out and pushed her up. It was incredible watching them help each other.

The end. Literally.