In the 1990s Sangdeaun Lek Chailert set up Elephant Nature Park, a non-profit organisation dedicated to providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population.
Using multiple approaches, Lek began to advocate the rights and welfare of Asian elephants in Thailand – Some of these approaches include the involvement of local communities, rescue and rehabilitation programs and educational ecotourism operations.
I spent a week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, a decision that came about after hours of extensive research. I had to ensure I wasn’t handing over money to an organisation that would further endanger the species and so I plummeted full-throttle into dozens of articles, reviews and the organisation’s own policies and history.
On the first day volunteers were told to meet at the ENP office in Chiang Mai. After the application was finalised and the payment processed we were organised into multiple minivans to begin the journey to the highlands.
One of the greatest things about volunteering for an organisation like ENP is that most volunteers are a lot like you. Everyone I met were animal enthusiasts too and were deeply passionate about the issues surrounding animal welfare in the tourism industry.
There was a group of girls of whom I can now say I have grown a special bond with. We spent our time driving each other absolutely crazy over the absurdity and ignorance of some tourists in relation to animal tourism. In the minivan, on our way to the camp, we brushed upon topics like SeaWorld and Elephant trekking, raising our adrenaline levels and pumping ourselves up for the week ahead. This bond spurred from our shared love for animals, something that has kept our bond running ever since.
In the minivan, mid-rage, a television screen dropped from the ceiling of the roof. It started off light-hearted – a white man frolicking around ENP educating volunteers about the rules and precautions to take whilst around the elephants. It then, however, got a lot darker.
The video began by outlining the torture elephants endure in order to be used by humans. It showed elephants being beaten with a hook, forced to trek for hours each day with a heavy iron box and tourists on their backs. They were forced to carry heavy logs through thick jungles and perform in circuses to entertain tourists. It ended with a graphic video of the Phajaan – the traditional Asian torture of young elephants to make them so fearful of humans they become submissive to them.
I was not oblivious of this torture, I attempted to educate myself fully on all these issues prior to the trip and I knew exactly what was happening. Nothing, however, could have ever prepared me for the disturbing truths that would unravel during that week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park.
We drove through the gates of the park – on the left was a dog shelter, home to over 600 dogs, and on the right were some stables and a field where a couple of horses ran wildly. As we drove in further a herd of buffalos lay on a field of grass sunbathing. Later on I also stumbled upon a cat sanctuary.
The main building was a massive wooden structure built upon a platform. It stood on a small portion of elephants’ land, completely open which allowed incredible view of the surrounding mountains and, of course, elephants.
A spectacular skywalk offered outstanding, picturesque views of the surrounding area and offered incredible sights of the elephants coming in and out of the river that ran below it.
Every morning at breakfast my new friends and I would sit at the same spot where we had the unforgettable experience of watching the elephants leave their enclosures and enter the mass expanse of land that holds their freedom.
On the first working day, whilst carrying out elephant duties, we got to explore the elephant zones. Multiple scratch posts and mud baths were scattered along the land, along with trees and enclosures for shade. There were multiple herds within ENP and each of them took up a section of the park to mark their own territory.
The first task I was ever assigned to was to scoop the elephants’ poop from their enclosures. This probably sounds horrifying and maybe even a little off-putting but let me remind you – elephants are herbivores; their poop doesn’t smell at all. Plus, if you’re as passionate about elephants as I am you’ll have no problem. Carrying out these tasks is what gets you close to the elephants and that’s good enough motivation for most people.
Elephant Nature Park is different to most elephant parks out there – its procedures work for elephants not tourists. You don’t attend the park and cuddle with elephants all day and take a billion selfies with them. You are there to be educated and help the organisation carry out its day to day tasks. If you want your photos, you need to be on the scene and this means carrying out your duties. All the photos I have with elephants are either feeding or bathing and the only time we were allowed to take photos with a random elephant was with permission from the guide and the elephant’s mahout. This is rare – you never walk around the elephant zone unless you’re carrying out duties.
This is the kind of thing I was looking for in an elephant sanctuary. The aim is to release them back into the wild if deemed capable so what use is it having hundreds of tourists climbing around them and hassling them all the time.
In the final presentation, Lek said that a goal in the future of ENP is to stop all human-animal interaction completely. Even if the interaction occurs whilst carrying out the tasks. She hopes for a future where the elephants will only be observed from behind the wooden structure, allowing elephants to roam completely wild.
This being said, most of the elephants at ENP at the moment will never be able to survive in the wild. They are too damaged. Most of them are blind, a disability that would usually be ok for wild elephants considering they can navigate using their trunks and the vibrations in the ground. However, most of the captive elephants at ENP were captured way too young and were never taught the vital survival skills necessary by their mothers. They are too reliant on humans.
After the first working day I felt a mix of anger and helplessness along with a desperate desire to save the species. I knew I was incapable of doing it on my own.
Watching the videos and seeing the elephants so mentally and physically damaged after all those years of torture sickened me. It filled me with an overwhelming sense of anger and disgrace that I found extremely difficult to discard.
A couple of days in all the volunteers got to experience something rare in ENP – the introduction of a newly rescued elephant. ENP doesn’t have space for any more elephants and is constantly looking for new land. This elephant, however, would have been a lost cause and it appears that Lek could not let her die.
Within thirty minutes of it being in the park, we had poop duty again which meant walking past the medical zone where the new elephant was being kept. We got to see it fresh out of a life filled with torture. It was the best and worst experience of my life.
I felt honoured to be able to experience that moment. I was watching the final freedom of an elephant that endured so many years of torture. No more chains, no more suffering.
However, I couldn’t help but feel miserable. All those educational videos perfectly present the physical and mental damage – but nothing prepares anyone for the live viewing. The new elephant’s stab wounds were clearly visible on its skull. It was extremely skinny and malnourished, rocking back and forth in the corner of the enclosure.
In its eyes you could see the pain as well as the obvious signs of blindness. It was extremely difficult to look at. The elephant is free now but I couldn’t help but think about how much torture it took to get it there. She was around 70 years old.
On the final evening Lek came in to give a talk and show us a final documentary. I have never in my life felt such a strong hatred for humanity – the stories she told were so horrifying it literally made me ill.
I wouldn’t have known about all this if it weren’t for my week at ENP and for that I am eternally grateful. I can use this knowledge to speak out and educate others. I realised that was how I could make a difference. All week I felt constantly helpless, I felt as though the weight of the species was on my shoulders. After Lek’s talk I realised I was wrong – it was dependant on my voice. I could make a difference by spreading the word and that is what I will do.