I saw my first group of Asian elephants as I walked through the floating markets of Ayutthaya a fortnight ago. Drawing closer, I realised to my horror that they were all in chains, bound to one another. Even more distressing, was the numerable amount of tourists lapping up the novelty of seeing elephants, and encouraging the industry by paying to ride them.
Wanting to experience the Asian elephants without the exploitation, Caitlin, Katy and I booked a day trip to the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary north of Chiang Mai. We were picked up from our hotel by the company in the morning and watched horrifically distressing docu-adverts for the park, of which the sincerity of the subject was somewhat ruined by novice presenters, as we drove up into the rainforests of Northern Thailand. Approaching the sanctuary, we witnessed a abominal demonstration of the exploitation we sought to avoid. We drove past an elephant tourist group trekking alongside the road, with two or three people seated on elephants back, with a mahout carry a spiked whip seated on top of its head.
After a few safety demonstrations from our guide Soi on arrival, we were allowed to feed the elephants. Crates of fruit were allocated to each elephant, and I apprehensively administered a gigantic hunk of watermelon to our greedy trunk.
Once the elephants had demolished over 10kg of fruit each, Soi took us for a walk through the sanctuary. Taking in the impressively spectacular backdrop of the jungle that enclosed the sanctuary as we met some of the elephants, Soi explained the barbarity of the Elephant tourist trade to us. In the videos we watched en route to the park, there were scenes of the founder and owner Lek riding atop of some of the elephants. Having been under the impression that doing so caused pain to the animals, Soi told us that it is process of training elephants to carry people on their backs safely that causes the damage, not the riding.
All the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park are either rescued or orphaned as a result of tourism brutality or the illegal logging trade. ‘Street elephants’, or those used for begging is not illegal in Thailand, and nor is the training methods used to ensure the animals obey their mahouts. All non wild elephants, and thus all of those at the Elephant Nature Park has without a doubt gone through the process of ‘elephant crushing’. At an attempt to domestication, young elephants are placed in a crushing cage for days on end, where they are beaten with spiked whips and forced into barbed harnesses.
Every adult elephant we met as we explored the park was either blind or noticeably maimed in some way, all as a result of ‘crushing’ and being slaves to the commercial tourism industry. Boasting several hundred acres of natural rainforest habitat, the elephants are independently free to roam with their herds wherever they like. The sanctuary is free from chains and visitors work their day around where the elephants are. Often we’d approach an elephant who invariably didn’t want to be oggled at would skulk off in the opposite direction.
Lunch was included in the package we paid for our day visit, and we were completely spoilt by an incredible vegetarian buffet. We all piled our plates so high that, despite all being overfed with out mentors, it looked like we weren’t eating at all in Thailand. After we’d eaten, we changed in preparation to bathe the elephants. Barefoot, we waded through the faeces infested mud into the stream with buckets in hand with Soi’s instructions being simply ‘chuck water over elephant’.
It wasn’t long before ‘bathing’ turned into a water fight between Katy and I over the elephants back. My fun was arbruptly brought to a halt, as in slow motion an enourmous elephant poo floated towards me, bounced off my leg and went off down the stream. Frozen and dumbfounded, I attempted to keep my cool before abandoning my elephant and wading out of the water in complete horror to observe from the sidelines.
As the Elephant Nature Park promotes the animals independence, the majority of the day was spent wandering through the wilderness observing the elephants in their natural habitat. We were fortunate enough to meet the infamous Lek, whose work in environmental sustainability and animal rights has had her featured in documentaries on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, BBC and Animal Planet and won her an Earth Day award amoungst numerous others. We first sighted Lek sitting under a fully grown elephant, and it wasn’t long before she invited us to join her. All day the mahouts had stressed that our safety was of paramount importance, and we were only to approach them from certain angles where the animal could see that we meant no harm. The credence Lek had built with the elephants and the trust both parties had in one another was conspicuously demonstrated. Just by being with her, we were able to sit and stand amongst a group of five or six adult elephants and know no harm would come to us.