Feeding elephants

Within an hour of arriving to the park, I have met my first elephants.

Our van is the first to arrive at Elephant Nature Park, so we drop our bags, and sit down. But, it is hard for any of us to sit still.

There are elephants. Everywhere.

Not just the actual animals, either. There are elephant carvings. Walls covered with stories of elephants. Photos of elephants and their mahouts.

Jack sits us down and goes over the rules: don’t approach an elephant without its mahout; don’t tease the elephant with food; never stand directly in front of the elephant; don’t stand over the line on the feeding platform; don’t place the food directly in the elephants mouths.

They’re basic rules, but ones that could save our lives. We are told to remember, while these elephants are all living here safely, it doesn’t mean that we are necessarily safe around them. They may have grown up in captivity and have been victims of unspeakable abuse at the hands of humans, but, at the end of the day, they are still wild animals. Wild animals with silent footsteps, who weigh upwards of six tons.

“OK, then, we will go feed elephants,” Jack announces.

I can’t believe where I am, what I am doing, as we walk through the mud and fields to meet our first elephant.

Elephants. Real elephants. Standing in front of me.

Our group approaches Mae Tee under a shelter, her mahout standing by her. In front of her are two buckets, filled with halves of watermelon and small bananas still on the stem.

Mae Tee and her best friend, Mae Kham Geao. You can clearly see the scars from being beaten with the hook on her head.

Mae Tee is a former logging elephant. She first worked in the industry when it was legal, and then when Thailand banned it, since it was all she had known, she worked in the illegal industry. Already in poor condition, her owners fed methamphetamine to keep her going. However, after working tirelessly (thanks to the pills), her body began to lose fat and muscle and the cartilage in her front wrist joints deteriorated. Her ankle joints were entirely worn. Because of the exhaustion, she stopped listening to commands, resulting in beatings with the hook, causing deep trenches in her head, to keep her moving.

While not much is known about her past, her owners realized she didn’t have much left in her, so they took her off the job. However, she ended up once again working at a rubber tree plantation, once again logging. Lek Chailert, the founder of the park, found her after she was sold to a nearby trekking camp. When she collapsed from exhaustion and malnutrition, the owners decided to sell her to Lek. Within days of arriving to the park, Mae Tee made friends with another elephant, Mae Kham Geao, who had a similar upbringing.

Jack quickly explains to us about elephant relationships. It turns out, they are similar to humans. They make friends. They have boyfriends/girlfriends. They chat with each other, an adorable clucking sound.

“Go ahead,” Jack coaxes. “Walk up to her.”

We stand there, a few feet away, staring at her. Mae Kham Gaeo is next to her, being fed at the same time.

I’m in pure awe.

A lifetime of seeing elephants in photos, on television, and now … I am so close to one.

We tentatively walk up to her.

“Give her food,” Jack instructs. “Give her a cluster of bananas.”

I watch as one by one, the group begins to grow more confident near her.

Mae Tee’s long, pink speckled trunk curiously reaches towards Sarah’s hand holding the fruit. We can hear her breathe in the scent, and then quickly wrap her trunk around the food and put her trunk into her mouth, depositing the bananas onto her big, pink tongue.

Slosh. Slosh.

Ready to eat the entire cluster

Slosh, courtesy of Mae Kham Geao.

Then, it’s my turn. I give Steven my camera and instruct him to take photos. I feel such an urgency, an importance, in having my first moment with Mae Tee documented.

I stick my hands into the bucket and pull up bananas.

Mae Tee’s trunk is swinging out towards me. For a moment, I hesitate as she begins to touch her trunk on my hand, around the fruit.

I’m feeding an elephant. 

My hand touches her trunk. It feels like leather, with coarse hairs sprouting up from her skin. I am instantly in love.

I keep thinking to myself, over and over, how blessed I am to be standing next to this rescued creature. My heart aches for her story, the life she had lead up until 2009 when she arrived to the park. And then, my heart bursts with warmth and joy at the life she is living now.

I touch her and I want to hug her. I want to wrap my arms around her big neck and just feel her skin against my face. I want to cry because the moment for me is just sheer amazing. It is a moment I never want to lose.

She takes the fruit, curls her trunk into her mouth, and chomps on the entire cluster.

The smile on my face can’t be contained as I watch her chew.

We continue to feed her and Mae Kham Geao for about 30 minutes, laughing at how smart Mae Tee is. She likes her bananas, not the watermelon. So,whenever she is handed a watermelon, she accepts it, and then tosses it behind her with her trunk. It isn’t until all of the bananas are gone that she is willing to eat the juicy fruit. In its entirety.

The group of us laughs at her adorable picky eating.

She’s a lucky girl.

 

Friendship

I look back at the two elephants as we head to the main area for lunch — something I have heard nothing but raves about from other visitors to the park.

She’s standing there, talking to her best friend. Their trunks tangle together as they softly chatter.

My heart nearly explodes with joy.

 

 

For more information on Elephant Nature Foundation and Elephant Nature Park, please visit www.saveelephant.org

For more information about the elephant tourism industry and why you shouldn’t ride elephants, support circuses and more in Thailand, click here.

 

 

Asia Blog Responsible Tourism Thailand

Tuk tuks, red cabs … and elephants: arriving to Elephant Nature Park

The drive from Chiang Mai to the Elephant Nature Park is nothing short of surreal: from urban to highway to jungle in about an hour. And from cars and tuk tuks to elephants and ox on the side of the road.

We start our first day as volunteers, 23 of us ranging in age from 8 to retired, at the park’s office in Chiang Mai. There, we sign papers, get volunteer T-shirts and water bottles, and begin to mingle with the group who would become our family in the next week.

Jack is the first person I meet, our volunteer coordinator with a dry (and endearing) sense of humor. Example: “I’m Thai. But, my name is Jack.”

Over tea and fresh muffins, I make my first volunteer friends: Sarah, Lucy, Katy, Pam and Steven. Sarah, from the UK, is like me — a solo traveler. This stint marks nearly the end of her long-term travel. Talking to her brings me instantly back to my travel-travel days. Lucy and Katy, also from the UK, are fresh off of volunteering for an NGO in Cambodia. And, Pam and Steven, a couple from Vancouver, are at the beginning of a sublime month-long holiday taking them to various parts of Southeast Asia.

Together, we sit on couches, sharing space with three-legged dogs and other animals, doing the obligatory Travel Talk, until Jack hustles us back into vans to begin the trip up to the park.

En route, I begin to shoot questions at him, all about the elephants. Would we ride them? What’s the situation with the park? What’s the deal with the elephants?

Fortunately, there is a video for us to watch on the way up that answers most of my questions.

My primer to the plight of Thailand’s elephants.

We learn quickly about the logging industry that became illegal, which prompted elephant mahouts (owners) to seek ways to make money with their animals a different way.

Enter elephant tourism.

With people coming in droves to Thailand to see these revered creatures, the elephant tourism industry quickly snapped up the elephants and mahouts once they found tourists would pay money to feed their street-begging elephants bananas. And, found tourists would pay to take an uncomfortable ride on their backs, because who doesn’t want to say they have ridden an elephant? Or, they would sit and giggle as the big, adorable creatures balanced their bodies on one foot or played a game or something cutesy like that. They even found people would pay to see them paint.

Sadly, we learn that to introduce elephants to this world, there is a great deal of suffering that goes into the training process. (For more details, check out this post I wrote a few weeks ago)

The video we watch hits me as soon as the camera zooms in on the vacant look in the elephant’s eyes as it stands, feet in pain, in front of a store, begging for food, mahout next to it, doling out fruits to people to place in the creature’s trunk.

Tears well up in my eyes, and Pam, who is next to me, shoots me a sympathetic glance as I try to cover up the fact that I am getting upset.

In that moment, I know Pam and I will be friends.

Once the video concludes, we are nearly to the park. The highway has given way to pothole spattered jungle roads.

That’s when I see my first elephant.

She’s huge. Walking slowly on the side of the road. And, there is a bench tied around her. With people on it.

“Jack, do we get to ride an elephant while we are at the park?”

He looks at me and instantly I regret those words. Hadn’t I just watched a video that basically makes it known the elephant tourism industry is riddled with abuse?

“No.” He states, then looks out the window at the elephant. I look, too. “It isn’t good for them to be ridden on like that. They aren’t made to take riders on their backs. The only place they should be ridden is a spot on their head, and they shouldn’t go on treks like that with tourists.”

I feel bad as I hear his words, and again, tears fill my eyes as I look back out at the elephant and the tourists riding her who don’t know any better. Just that brief amount of information Jack presented was enough to convince me I don’t ever need to ride an elephant.

I realize something in that moment: this week isn’t going to be easy.

We continue on the road to the park, passing more elephants than I ever would have liked to see walking alongside the road, competing for space with our van, red cabs, trucks and more. We drive by the camps where we can plainly see the elephants, standing under shelters, feet chained and rocking back and forth in discomfort. We see ox with huge wooden carts strapped to them, giving people rides (often times, tour operators offer package deals — elephant trekking, ox cart rides and then river rafting).

And then, I see a sign announcing we are entering the Elephant Nature Park.

In the next moment, I see her, in the distance, standing in a field of grass with huge jungle hills in the background. The sky is overcast. And she is beautiful. A dark grey with brown.

My first rescued elephant.

It feels very Jurassic Park-like, elephants wandering freely as we are brought up in a van to the park.

The first photo of an elephant I have ever taken. Can you spot her?

I am instantly in love as we pull up to my new home for the week.

When we get out of the car and are greeted by an onslaught of saved dogs (there’s more than 100), and head up to the main park structure –essentially a huge covered deck with three feeding platforms, a kitchen, plenty of seating, a conference room and a sky walk — the views take my breath away.

Bright green hills shrouded in clouds. A rushing river. And elephants. As far as the eye can see.

For more information about Elephant Nature Park and the Elephant Nature Foundation, visit it’s Web site.

For more information about the elephant tourism industry in Thailand, click here.

Asia Blog Thailand Travel

Escape of the Week: An Ele Family

Yes, another elephant Escape of the Week. Here’s the deal: I took about 500 photos of elephants, which is more than I took of any one city while I was traveling. Therefore, there is an obscene amount of elephant cuteness sitting on my laptop, begging to be shared with the world.

But first, a note to you, my wonderful readers:

I promise, the stories start tomorrow and will go on and on and on. To be truthful, over the next few weeks, there are going to be some stories you may not want to read. There are going to be some stories that make you cry. There are going to be some stories that make you angry. And, most importantly, there are going to be stories that make your heart smile and remind you just how beautiful people can truly be.

My goal isn’t just to share with you my experiences living with elephants, it is to educate each and every one of you with the hope you educate someone else and so on … until we, as travelers and tourists, can send a clear message to the elephant tourism industry about acceptable practices.

Please share as much as you can. It takes one person to start a movement, and this beautiful community of travelers is powerful when we take a stand together.

This is one of the elephant families at the park, covered in mud, plodding on down to the riverbank to wash off, only to toss mud back on themselves minutes later.

Asia Destinations Thailand