“Okay, look. If at any point I say ‘run,’ we need to run. Got it?”
I nod to signal understanding as we traipse through a rutted grass field at the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary and rescue operation roughly 40 miles north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Although the speed of an elephant, how far it will chase, and the layout of the park are all mysteries to me, I assume these details will be made clear if showing off our most basic survival skill becomes necessary. Directly ahead, an elephant with terrible wounds to its ears, and a whole pumpkin clutched in the sturdy grasp of its trunk, approaches me curiously. It pauses in stride to assess my intentions and, perhaps, whether or not it’s interested in the camera I’m holding up. Having been warned earlier that they will take cameras from people’s hands, believing them to be food, I get my shot and slide it around to my back, out of sight. Uninterested in my hunk of metal and plastic, it lifts the pumpkin effortlessly and places the entire mass into its mouth. There’s a sudden deep pop, followed by low crunching, as the fruit is obliterated in one devastating bite.
There’s no reason to run. This older elephant, aged ~50 years, as determined by the deep recesses in its forehead, is one of the sweetest we’ll meet all day. Sensing some kind of acceptance, I ignore my slightly elevated heart rate and move forward to make contact. It allows me to run my hands along its trunk and shoulder where I find its skin and hair to be surprisingly course. As I move away, allowing others interact with a creature we only see from afar in the west, the bizarre nature of this moment begins to register. Being this close – let alone touching an elephant – back home is almost unheard of, but here in Thailand elephants are classified as livestock despite being firmly planted on the endangered species list. With less than an estimated 40,000 remaining in the wild, they are afforded no more protections than an average farm animal. This is a puzzling reality in a country where their iconic likeness, something which seems to go hand in hand with the mere mention of “Thailand,” appears on basically everything official and important – from money to sculptures.
The road that lead to my brief interaction in this field is a long one. In the late 1980s, mass deforestation had begun to spiral out of control. To protect the remaining natural forests, the Thai government stepped in to ban logging. Overnight, tens of thousands of elephants found themselves “out of work.” Those elephants not sold to neighboring Myanmar, where logging remained legal, soon found themselves transitioned into tourism for jungle trekking and other ride-based ventures. For obvious reasons, elephant tourism has since become extremely popular in Thailand. Millions of people per year arrive intent on riding an elephant, watching them paint, or perform in animal shows. Caught up in the excitement of a unique experience, tourists are often completely unaware of what must happen behind the scenes to make these desires a reality.
Despite their docile and extremely intelligent nature, elephants have not been domesticated by generations of breeding. In order to interact predictably and submissively with humans, they must be subjected to a tremendously cruel breaking process called Phajaan. It begins with the separation of baby elephants from their mothers. Forced into small crates, their legs are bound with ropes and their limbs are stretched. They are deprived of food, sleep, and subject to constant yelling. They are beaten with sharp metal tools used to stab their head and neck, cut their skin, and tear their ears. After weeks of extreme stress from the separation, confinement, torture, confusion, and ongoing mental abuse, their spirits break. The mental domination continues when the the elephant’s new handler, the mahout, arrives to greet it with food and water. The mahout then guides the elephant away from the crate, leading it to believe this person is a type of savior to be trusted.
In the logging days, abuse didn’t end with the Phajaan. Baby elephants were often sold to other logging businesses at high prices and the separation could trigger a deep depression in the mother. If she or any other elephants refused to work, they could expect to be beaten into submission. As a result of attacks by former owners and handlers, a few elephants at the ENP suffer from blindness in one or both eyes, and various disfigurements.
Unfortunately tourists can be unknowingly responsible for indirect forms of abuse as well. Riding an elephant can be done safely by straddling its powerful neck, but too many ride companies instead saddle the elephant’s back with elaborate wooden benches, allowing room for two adults. Despite the size and power of these animals, their back is surprising weak, able to support only about 330lbs. The elephant pictured above serves as an example of what can happen over time. When the weight becomes too much, the back is crushed, rendering the elephant useless.
In the 1990s, answering an internal call to create a sanctuary for these unwanted elephants, Lek Chailert established the Elephant Nature Park. To date, 44 rescued elephants roam the property. Lek also rescues water buffalo, and large numbers of stray dogs and cats. My favorite of which, a black and white dog named Duke, followed me around most of the day showing no fear of his much larger counterparts.
Aside from bringing van loads of tourists into the park for day tours, the staff works hard to ensure the health of the elephants is maintained. This is no more visible than in the “medicine room” where a large white-board details the ailments and treatment plan for each animal. The medicine room appears makeshift, consisting only of a slab of concrete, one wall, and a high ceiling, but the care provided within is crucial. Procedures range from the minor – toenail and cuticle maintenance – to the more involved – abscess/rot treatment, monitoring the internal organs, and land mine injury rehabilitation.
It’s important to note that despite the joy of foreign visitors, what Lek has created with the ENP remains extremely unpopular in certain circles within Thailand. Her requests to purchase elephants from tourism companies are often unpleasantly denied. The Thai Department of National Parks has raided the grounds on a handful of occasions in what is interpreted by activists to be acts of intimidation. Despite ongoing bureaucratic obstacles, and the occasional anonymous death threat, she continues the dangerous work of conservation, speaking out against illegal elephant trading within the country.
As of June 2015, all 44 elephants at the ENP are officially recognized as legal under a new Elephant Passport program implemented by the Thai government. To crack down on poaching and smuggling, and to better account for the presence of Thai elephants within the country, the passport includes details about bodily markings, date of birth, height, eye color, and other distinguishing characteristics. Although not every elephant will be registered, and the wait to obtain a passport can be lengthy, this is a step in the right direction for elephant protection in Thailand.
Partially hidden by clouds, the sun begins its daily descent behind the lush green hills surrounding the park. As the visit comes to an end we spread out along a wooden catwalk to watch as dinner is served to four freshly “washed” elephants. It’s a riverside feast of pumpkin and melons while the park’s gentle mahouts wait patiently. In this peaceful yet anxiously reflective moment, I begin to wonder how long this can be sustained, when the park will be outgrown, to whom Lek will eventually pass the torch, and perhaps most importantly – if and when the country will begin to shift its collective opinion about the legal status of these beasts of burden. I break from that thinking to look over at Duke, asleep on a nearby bench, sprawled out flat on his side and clearly uninterested in any of this. After the elephants cross beneath us and continue out into the open field behind, we collect our belongings and say goodbyes. In the small white van bound for Chiang Mai we survey the picturesque countryside of northern Thailand in an introspective silence, undeniably changed.