I spent three weeks in June/July of 2011 backpacking through Thailand. For one full week of that trip, I found myself as a volunteer at The Elephant Nature Park, located in Northern Thailand.
The Elephant Nature Park truly is a heaven on earth not only for elephants but cats, dogs, horses, water buffalo and a single moon bear. Lek, the founder of ENP has devoted her life to rescuing Thailand’s mistreated animals, teaching better care techniques, delivering medicines for the hill tribes and village animals putting an end to the abuse of animals in Thailand. Many people consider Lek to be the Jane Goodall of Thailand.
“Welcome to Jurassic Park,” our driver jokes as we drive down the winding road, surrounded by trees, mountains and, in the distance, elephants. Upon arriving at ENP, I’m filled with a sense of calm, peaceful happiness. The lodging area is filled with volunteers, interns, staff, dogs and cats. Surrounding the kitchen, elephants roam freely, often accompanied by their mahouts. All of this is nestled between lush green mountains, blue skies and a river running along the side.
Everyone here has the same goal: to work and care for the animals. When you’re here, it’s as if the rest of the world is forgotten. The thirty-seven elephants here, four male and thirty-three female, have been rescued by Lek from various lives of abuse, including logging, trekking and begging. She brings them here to be healed from injury and made happy again. For volunteers like myself, our first day begins with learning the rules of the park, having an orientation from our Volunteer Coordinators Dino and James, and being officially welcomed to the park with a ceremony where we are all blessed by the village shaman. The meals here are healthy, plentiful dishes of mainly vegetarian Thai cuisine; Vegetables and fruit here come from local farmers.
There is a daily schedule to be followed here. Breakfast is from 7AM – 8AM and then the dirty work begins. There are three groups of volunteers this week, and each day we will rotate the three morning chores: elephant food, elephant poop, and “cutting” grass. Today, my group was lucky and got the “easy” job of working in the elephant kitchen. For three hours we peeled endless buckets of corn, carried countless buckets of watermelon and pumpkins to the concrete trough, scrubbing each and every one of them, and peeled ripe bananas to mush them up and make banana balls, a special treat for the elephants. All of this fruit is from local farmers, pesticide free and given to the elephants in colorful buckets with their names on the side.
Lek has an agreement with the farmers that she buys her fruit from: the park will buy out the entire crop, whether the fruit has turned out good or bad, as long as the farmer uses no pesticides. Volunteers get to scrub them all anyways, just in case. 11:30 AM, a bamboo bell is chimed and the elephants come with their mahouts to be fed by volunteers and visitors on day trips. 12:30 AM is lunch time for all of the guests and staff, signaled by a different bell. As a volunteer, you learn quickly to race to the line and get in the front, as all the best dishes disappear quickly.
Once everyone’s bellies are filled with delicious food, we go down to the river to bathe the elephants. Washing the elephants is an amazing experience. Getting up close to these animals is such a wonderful feeling, even better knowing that they are no longer being mistreated. While these are not wild elephants – their spirits are broken by abuse – they are free here. The few that have been born here, two babies(one male, one female), have not been broken and do possess the natural animal instinct, we are warned.
The longer I stay at the park, the more I get to observe the relationship between an elephant and mahout. As our volunteer guides explain to us, the relationship between an elephant and mahout is stronger than a marriage between two people. Mahout and elephant are together every minute of the day, playing, relaxing together, disciplining for unruly behavior, and above all else, trusting and loving each other. Many of these mahouts are refugees from Burma, hired by Lek to work at the park. Though they get paid very little, it is considered a great job to have as their families often come and are provided with a place to stay, their wives often working as the park cooks. The park truly does give back to everyone it can: animals, refugees, farmers, and even the local village women who come and give massages to the guests.
In the afternoon, after washing the elephants is over for the day, it’s time for the odd jobs that need to be done around the park. Some days this included gathering logs of wood, shoveling trailer-fulls of sand to cover the holes in the road caused by so much rain, and cleaning the horse pasture. The Elephant Nature Park does a wonderful job of balancing work and fun for the volunteers. Many nights we had schedules activities up in the Conference Room: Thai Language and Culture Lessons, presentations by animal rights advocates, group bonding exercises, etc. And twice we were able to pile in the back of a loading truck, everyone squished between bodies and tubes, to drive up the river and float down until we reached the park once again.
Volunteering at ENP is a life-changing experience, something that I will never forget, and a place that I know I will return to many times in the future. Dogs, cats and elephants are seen anywhere you look and there is no judgement amongst the people there. Though the work is hard and sweaty, being with like-minded people and new friends make it a surprisingly fun part of the day. It really can’t be that terrible if we’ve all got big smiles on our faces, can it? One of my favorite parts of volunteering was the “Jungle Walk”, where Dino walked us all around the perimeter of the park to watch the elephants and learn the stories behind each of them.
Being so close to the elephants is such a surreal feeling, when you’re so small and they’re so big and powerful, but surprisingly gentle and kind. As you walk in the park, you constantly need to be aware of you surroundings. One minute there will be nothing around and the next you’ll be jumping out of the way as an elephant walks purposefully in your direction, or you’ll suddenly feel a trunk pushing you from behind. During the walk, each of us got to carry a handful of bananas to feed them. They’re so greedy and just want more, more, more, so the bananas are gone quickly.
The stories behind all of the elephants here are heartbreaking. Jokia, for example, worked as a logging elephant for many years, slowly moving from place to place to do different types of work and, in the end, was left blind in both eyes. Of all the elephants here, Jokia, flagged constantly by her friend Mae Perm, became one of my favorites due to her gentle nature and the tickle of her trunk as she sniffed your body to find the fruit you try to feed her. There are other devastating stories around the park. There is an elephant who’s hip is broken due to being hit by a vehicle while begging on busy streets, many elephants with infection being treated by the park vets, and one female elephant named Medo, left with a broken ankle when a log fell on her while logging, and a dislocated backbone from forced breeding and being attacked by a bull.
Although many of the elephants that come here have endured years of abuse and still have the marks to show for it, Elephant Nature Park does everything it can to treat the elephants and care for them in a way that no one else has ever done. Without the many volunteers that frequent the park year round, it would not be able to run as smoothly as it does today. I would recommend ENP to anyone, of any age, who is curious about volunteering or simply spending time with elephants as a part of their trip to Thailand.
By volunteering or spending a day at ENP, you are actively speaking out against trekking organizations and elephant abuse and you are personally doing something to prevent it. I urge anyone who is going to South East Asia not to support street begging elephants, elephant shows, elephant paintings, trekking, or any other form of tourist-influenced elephant abuse. You can find out more about what Elephant Nature Park is all about, how you can help, volunteer information, or biographies of the elephant herd at their website or their facebook page(click on the first two photo links at the top of the page.)
This post also appears at Traveling with a Purpose: Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park ; Vagabundo Magazine