The Elephant Nature Park is a safe haven for elephants just 60km outside of Chiang Mai. The reserve was first established in the 1990s by an inspirational Thai woman, Lek. She grew up in a small rural village surrounded by elephants. Her grandfather taught her to love the gentle giants and her love for them only grew. As an adult she has dedicated her entire life to aiding and saving elephants, as well as educating the public about them. If only the world had more Leks, our planet would be in a much better state.
To give you a vivid picture of the plight of the Asian Elephant, I have taken the following information directly from the Elephant Nature Park’s website (http://www.elephantnaturepark.org). Everything in italics comes directly from the park’s site.
There are two different species of elephant – the African (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian variety (Elephas maximus). The former is larger and there are a few distinct differences. The African species numbers are estimated at approximately 500,000 whilst the Asian variety has fallen to an disturbingly low estimated figure of below 30,000.
There are a number of elephant races within the Asian species. For instance the Indian elephant, is bigger, has longer front legs and a thinner body than their Thai counterparts. As the park deals exclusively with Thai elephants we will concern ourselves with this particular order. The facts are, however, generally applicable to all types of Asian Elephant.
Various authorities differ somewhat on exact details. Using our own experience and taking into account numerous sources we present you with our own interpretation. Elephants, like human beings, can and do vary in many characteristics, emotions and personality.
Asian Elephants – Existing Numbers
The Asian Elephant, still known to many as the Indian Elephant, is officially an endangered species. Present numbers have dropped to an alarmingly low level with estimates of under 30,000 left in the entire world. This disturbingly small number of survivors is epitomised by the fact that these gentle beast have been exterminated from large areas of their former habitat.
In Thailand there is an estimated 3,000-4,000 elephants. Around half of this number are domesticated, the remainder living wild in National Parks Reserves. Some 300 are suffer under appalling conditions in Bangkok.
It is notable that at the start of the 20th century (1900AD) over 100,000 elephants graced the Siamese (Thai) countryside.
They are forced to walk on hot tarmac roads by gangs of elephant owners and beg for fruit and food. The owner of often buys the elephant purely to obtain begging money from sympathetic passers by. As he has scant experience with animal training, the hapless creature is cruelly treated and beaten as the rider becomes impatient. In the city the animal cannot possibly get the 200-300 kg of food and 100-200 litres of water necessary for it’s daily nourishment so it plods the hot polluted streets, thirsty hungry and confused. These animals quickly suffer from stress through polluted air, poor diet, dehydration, loneliness and their sensitive ears are soon damaged. Much of the fruit purchased from local sellers has been treated with chemicals and causes serious stomach problems and eventually death.
Other forms of, less apparent abuse come in the form of pet baby elephants featured at hotels and entertainment complexes. Although the animals may seem happy enough they are invariably fed the wrong diet, suffer from loneliness and boredom and will soon die. Many unwitting tourists, delighted at the sight of a “cute” baby elephant, are completely unaware that the lifespan of the creature is likely to be only a few years.
There are a number of important factors to consider but we will deal with the four main ones;
First and foremost is human encroachment in the domain of the elephant. With a fast growing population Asia does not have the land resources for both humans and the indigenous wildlife populations. There is not a government in the world that will sacrifice it’s voters in favour of mere animals.
Secondary is greed. Whilst it is inevitable that much land is set aside for growing human populations there are a number of influential persons seeking huge land areas for personal gain. Illegal logging and such environmentally detrimental pursuits lead to a reduction in grazing or browsing land for the animals.
Thirdly is poaching for ivory, skin or aphrodisiacs which the elephant is said to possess.
Fourthly: Sport. Unbelievably there are such deluded souls amongst us that actually think the killing a defenseless animal is sport. Wealthy patron’s of these games are willing to travel and pay handsomely for the sheer pleasure of “bagging” an elephant.
Once the government made it illegal to use elephants for logging, many mahouts were out of work. They turned to begging and performing tricks for tourists to raise money as stated above. In these situations the elephants greatly suffer. They are usually confined to small urban spaces with limited access to clean food and water. In addition to this, living in a city is emotionally disturbing for an elephant. One way they communicate is through vibrations in their feet. The constant thundering of cars and vehicles can cause them distress. One of the videos we watched at the park showed clips of city working elephants. In all the clips the elephants were rocking, which is a sign of agitation.
The abuse doesn’t stop there unfortunately. The way in which baby elephants are “broken” is absolutely disturbing. They are taken away for the first time from their mothers and placed in cages that are smaller than they are. They are left in the cage for 4 to 7 days. During this time they are not fed, not allowed to sleep, and repeatedly stabbed. This process is meant to break the will of the elephant, so that it follows all orders of its human owner. Once working, the elephant will most likely often be abused by impatient mahouts. Lek has dedicated a lot of her time to seeking out these working elephant whom she can not save and provides them with medical care.
One of the older elephants at the park had a sad story to tell. She was a logging elephant in Myanmar for many years. One day while dragging a log uphill, she gave birth. The baby slid down the hill and died. She was so upset her baby had died, she refused to work. Her mahout out of impatience shot one of her eyes out with a sling shot. In response she hit him with her trunk, which led him to stab her in the other eye with a knife. She is completely blind now, but fortunately retired at ENP. We were able to calmly pet her and observe her grazing for over an hour. She is now a part of a new herd and thriving. It is a true testament to the strong familial instinct of elephants that all these injured and abused creatures have been able to come together and form herds.
I highly recommend visiting the Elephant Nature Park. Some elephant sanctuaries fund themselves through entertaining guests with elephant art, acts, or elephant rides. In these cases the elephants are still “working” and not completely free. At the ENP, the elephants are fully retired and you know your money is going to their care. We definitely enjoyed our time washing, feeding, and observing the elephants. I only wish I had had a month to spend learning more about these beautiful creatures.