Elephant Nature Park No Circus Trick
Best known for their enormous ears, talented trunks, sharp social skills and overall heft, elephants, it turns out, are also fast. Very fast.
It was a fact I probably should have had before a pair of 3 1/2-ton female Asian elephants started to rumble in my direction on a wet, grassy plain in a lush valley of northern Thailand. This definitely isn't a petting zoo.
It was a startling (albeit thrilling) reminder that I was on the elephants' home turf. I had traveled on an overnight train from Bangkok to see and experience the curious creatures in the wild - instead of at the zoo or the circus - and was peacefully gazing at several clusters of elephants when the ground started to shake.
Asian elephants still populate parts of Thailand, Burma, India, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, but their natural habitats have dwindled and the beautiful beasts are precariously close to extinction. Travelers now typically experience Asian elephants only on trekking trips where they carry passengers and luggage, or as part of choreographed and unnatural spectacles.
An exception is the Elephant Nature Park. Equal parts pachyderm preserve, health clinic and advocacy organization for the humane treatment of working elephants, the park is a learning center for those who want to get up close: feed, bathe and observe the giants and their babies. There also is a hostel for working vacationers who can help with veterinary care, conservation projects or park maintenance.
There are elephant sanctuaries in Asia, Africa and the United States, but most do not offer direct, hand-to-trunk interaction and immersion into elephant life. And few are situated in a setting as scenic as the Mae Taeng Valley, surrounded by rain-forested hills and blessed by a tranquil river. The valley serves as a dramatic backdrop for gazing over the herd as the sun goes down, as well as for waking to their trumpeting the next morning.
Sell or beg
The nature park was opened in 1996 by Lek Chailert, who fell in love with elephants while growing up in a nearby hill tribe that used them for farming and heavy labor. After the government banned logging in the 1990s - the main source of employment for elephants - many were out of work, and their handlers (or mahouts), who often stay with one elephant for life, lacked options: sell their elephants to a trekking company or take them out to beg on the congested, dirty streets in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
In helping place elephants with small locally owned trekking camps, Chailert encountered animals that were struggling, without enough food or proper veterinary care, and many that were worn down after a lifetime of grueling work. She started a field clinic for treating sick and injured elephants, but it became clear that some needed ongoing medical care and a furlough so they could heal. Among the patients: a female with half of a hind foot blown off by a land mine, and a male that suffered broken bones when he was hit and dragged by an 18-wheel truck.
The need for long-term treatment gave rise to the Elephant Nature Park. Chailert and field clinic volunteers still make emergency calls to remote areas. But the park, which now has about 30 elephants, has taken on a life of its own.
The park is open for day visits, overnights and longer working vacations. Every stay here, however, starts the same way - with food.
Elephants are majestic and charming, but they are the earth's largest land animals and they seem to never stop eating. They ingest 220 to 650 pounds of produce and grass daily, and observing their daily intake provides a clue about the challenges involved in maintaining the herbivores' healthy diet.
So it made sense that my fellow travelers and I were introduced to the herd during their midday meal. To emphasize the weight and volume of produce needed to keep the elephants happy, our guide pulled over at a produce stand and asked us to collect their provisions. After hauling hundreds of bags of corn and bananas, hand-to-hand into a pickup in the hot morning sun, we got the point - they eat a lot.
As we walked out onto an elevated bamboo platform that juts out into the valley, we got our first glimpse of the majestic creatures. Soon about 20 of them had surrounded the platform. A roiling, gray sea of soulful faces, the elephants looked at us with eager anticipation, waved their undulating trunks and ran them along the platform, searching out morsels.
I matched up with a teenage elephant named Jungle Boy and, never having touched a real trunk, tentatively reached out with an ear of corn. He leveled a steady gaze at me as his wrinkly, gray and damp appendage deftly wrapped around the corn and gingerly removed it from my hand, slowly rolled it back toward his gaping maw and plopped it on to his huge, pink tongue.
Before I had time to grab more corn out of a nearby basket, Jungle Boy's trunk was back for more. This routine didn't stop for the next 20 minutes - ending only when the corn was all gone. Meanwhile, I patted and rubbed Jungle Boy's trunk, he kissed me on the cheek (more like a wet suction).
Next, we got our lunch: a large and tasty Thai meal on an adjoining covered platform. While enjoying some fruit and deserts, we saw the mahouts lead some elephants and their babies down to the river for a bath. As we had been told, we'd be the ones doing the washing.
Elephants love water because it cools off their thick, but sensitive skin and they like to frolic in rivers and ponds. It turns out they also enjoy a good scrubbing with big bristly brushes and will stand by patiently while they are bathed.
So, armed with some basic instructions, a brush and a bucket, we waded into the gentle current and cozied up next to the elephants. It takes a little time to get comfortable with being close to such big animals, but after a few instructions from the mahouts, we splashed the giants behind the ears, scrubbed their sides and rubbed their foreheads and backs. We also looked at one another in awe. Were we really in a river in Thailand washing elephants?
Afterward, we mingled among the herd on a riverside beach, patting their hides and feeding them bread and learning about typical living conditions for Thai elephants. I became transfixed by a baby who was rambling around, butting people with his hairy little head. Once the baby nudged me, I wanted to take him home but figured he probably would not fit into my carry-on luggage.
As bath time came to a close, the visit became more serious. The park staff encouraged us to watch some films about the declining Asian elephant population and the brutal elephant training practices in Thailand. Mae Taeng and the surrounding Chiang Mai province is home to approximately 20 percent of the 3,000 to 4,000 elephants left in Thailand - down from 100,000 at the start of the 20th century.
If an elephant survives, its life can be painful. Traditionally, elephant owners try to break the creature's spirit through several days of tying it up and prodding it with sticks and other sharp tools until it follows specific commands. In the end, the elephant believes that it can be dominated and controlled by its owner and from then on will comply with his demands.
The films were hard to watch after seeing how intelligent and loving the animals can be. But they served an important purpose by underscoring why Chailert's efforts to change training to a more humane model needs support and funding.
In the late afternoon, I was on my own. I was the only one of my group to stay the night and my friends had packed up and headed back to Chiang Mai.
Soon, a heavy darkness fell over the park. The absence of electric lights outside the park's main compound made it almost pitch black. Ambling down a moonlit dirt road toward my stilted bamboo hut, I could hear elephants rustling in the distance.
The next morning I awoke to more elephant sounds and walked out on my raised deck to see a cluster of three of them tromping through the grass. Jungle Boy and an older female were play fighting and pushing each other around.
Before I returned to Chiang Mai, I was treated to breakfast and a personal tour of the elephants' habitat on what the park calls the elephant walk. My guide Jodi and I strolled out into the valley, and as the morning fog began, she regaled me with stories about the herd and its eclectic personalities.
One female elephant, Mae Elu, hasn't had any babies yet, but she's the auntie of all the calves in the herd; Maximus, who was hit by the truck while working as a beggar with his owner, is believed to be the tallest elephant in Thailand; Mai Lae and Jokia are both disabled and spend all their time together.
Mai Lae has an old leg injury and Jokia was blinded by a cruel trainer. Out on the grassy plain, it turned out that the companions that had been rumbling my way were just playing and apparently decided not to trample me into the dirt - despite everything that humans had done to them.
Sometimes progress comes slowly.
Unlike some elephants.
5 unforgettable facts about elephants
While there are different types of elephants, some characteristics seem to be shared by almost all of them, according to "Elephant Reflections" (University of California Press, 2009), a coffee-table book by wildlife photographer Karl Ammann and author Dale Peterson. Among the more, um, odd characteristics, says Peterson, are:
If you go
Elephant Park staff will pick you up from your hotel or hostel in Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park, 209/2 Sridorn Chai Road, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand. + 66 (0) 53 818754, 818932, 272855. firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE TO STAY
Those who stay overnight or for longer visits stay at the Elephant Nature Park bamboo huts. Visitors can stay for up to eight days. Volunteers can stay for weeks. The huts are cozy and clean and have mosquito nets. Overnight stays include breakfast, dinner and two lunches, transportation and admission to the park plus a guide for $167.
WHERE TO EAT
At the park. The food was traditional Thai buffet and delicious.