Wednesday, December 25, 2013


My friend Connie signed us up for a date with some big guys.  We were minibussed to The Elephant Nature Park about 60 kilometers north of ChiangMai in a secluded mountain valley which is bordered by a river.

This camp is completely different from the elephant riding camp I visited last year.  There is no riding the elephants, no performance of tricks by the elephants, and no hitting them with sticks to herd them here and there.  You just hang out with them for a day, or do an overnight stay.  You can also pay to be a volunteer worker for a week or two if you really want to get cosy with these gentle giants.

This is a sanctuary for distressed Asian elephants, all of which have been abused or injured.  Each elephant has its own mahout, or caretaker, who is trained here in the use of positive reinforcement to control the elephant's behavior.  They are controlled entirely by voice command and rewarded for compliance.  There are 36 elephants in residence here, as well as around 400 rescued dogs, 50 water buffalo, and a bunch of cats.  It's quite a story of compassion for mistreated animals, made possible by the devotion of the camp's founder, Lek Chailert, a Thai woman who was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time Magazine in 2005.  She wasn't at the camp when we were there, and I was sorry to miss the opportunity to meet this remarkable woman.

Elephants are purchased by the camp from their abusive owners.  Many lost their employment when Thailand banned further logging several years ago.  The stories of abuse are heartbreaking.  One was blinded by its owner for disobedience; another was crippled by a landmine explosion.  Several were rescued from a life of begging on the streets of Bangkok or ChiangMai.  

It was feeding time when we arrived.  Elephants are vegetarians and this herd consumes about 5 tons a days.  That's a lot of veggies!  They eat bananas, corn, squash, sugar cane, and melons.  Each elephant here has its own food basket, because some cannot digest rinds, for example.  We both enjoyed the feeding frenzy.  

We were toured around the grounds afterwards, and we visited the clinic where 3 elephants were receiving treatment.  This elephant has a nasty abcess on her shoulder.

We learned a bit here about the anatomy of elephants.  Connie is holding an elephant tooth here, which weighs about 6 pounds.  Elephants have 4 of these molars to grind their vegetable diet into pulp.  

We were also vegetarians on this camp visit.  We were fed from a buffet of 20+ dishes, all of which were delicious.  After lunch, we went to the river, where some people helped to wash the elephants.  Connie and I watched the show from an elevated seating area.  One of the elephants stopped to scratch her rump on the post below.

I think the bathing was mostly to provide photo ops for us tourists.  

I refer to all these elephants as "she" because the ones we were allowed to interact with were all females.  Because male elephants are aggressive, camp guests are not allowed to go near them.  After the bathing, a family with a baby elephant came to visit.  The elephants form in groups of 2 or more.  The females are very protective of their babies and we were not allowed to touch them.  The baby's mother somehow chooses another female to be her baby's "nanny", and the nanny spends more time tending the baby than the mother-- just like humans, eh?

We walked the grounds again to visit a group of three which were a baby, mother, and nanny, and passed by a herd of water buffalo on the way.

When we came back for the afternoon feeding, we found this camp dog claiming its table in the eating area.  We were told that every table was the territory of a particular dog.

At the afternoon feeding, we enjoyed the antics of these two adorable baby elephants.  What's really wonderful is that the camp's goal is to return as many elephants as possible to the wild, so these little ones will have a chance to live in their natural habitat.

This experience was very positive, even though the elephants were required to hang around with camp guests for photo ops.  It was a different kind of performance, much more humane, but it's income from tourist visits that provides a large chunk of the camp's operating expenses.  

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