Elephant heaven.

Mae Taeng Travel Blog

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If elephants laughed, this is exactly what it would look like.
In 1988, the Thai government, in a belated move to save what forests remained in the country, banned all logging in Thailand. While this was happy news for the environment, it was very bad news for the thousands of elephants employed in the logging industry. Almost overnight, they lost their jobs. And they had done their jobs so well, there was no longer forestland for them to live in.

Many, many elephants died. Elephants require lots of food, certainly more than unemployed loggers can afford. Some elephants were sold to Myanmar, and some were sold to work as city “beggars,” garnering big money from tourists who pay to see the elephants do tricks. Some got jobs giving tourist rides. The lucky ones are treated well and enjoy good relationships with their handlers, or mahouts, but many have not been so lucky.
Cover for me, I'm going in to get the food!


Today I met a woman, named Sangduen “Lek” Chailert,  who has made it her mission in life to make better lives for the elephants of Thailand. We paid a visit to the elephant sanctuary she founded, Elephant Nature Park, and what an incredible place it is.

The park, situated in a gorgeous valley 1.5 hours from Chaing Mai city, is home to over 30 elephants that Lek has rescued from bad situations. Steve and I fed a basket of food to an enormous guy named Max (reportedly the tallest elephant in Thailand), whose misshapen front leg was the result of an improperly healed broken bone. The elephant Jokita is completely blind because her handler on the logging camp took out her eyes with a slingshot.
Me and my guy, Max. He really liked the watermelon.
(When Lek brought her in, she was worried Jokita would not be accepted by the other elephants. One old auntie elephant immediately took Jokita “under her wing” and now they are inseparable, best friends!) Heartbreaking stories with happy endings abound in the Park.

Not all the stories have happy endings. In 2001 (I think), Lek guided a documentary filmmaker to view a paah jaan, the process where young elephants are “broken in.” The elephants are taken from their mothers, put in a tiny pen so they can’t move, and deprived of food, sleep, and water for several (up to 7) days. During this time they are really tortured: jabbed with nails, metal hooks, and hot irons, poked in the sensitive inner ear for maximum pain, beaten on the trunk with sticks. This is supposed to break their spirit and make them better workers.
Hmmm, could use a pedicure!
Many elephants die in the process. It was all captured on film, as was Lek’s work so save a newborn elephant whose mom had died from disease right after she was born. Ging Mae was in very bad shape, nearly starved, with open wounds from where she had wedged herself between two trees.  But Ging Mae was a real success story: Lek nursed her back to health and together they beat Ging Mae’s almost impossible odds for survival.    

Then the documentary was released (we watched it at the Park -- brutal. There was not a dry eye in the room.), and caused some very negative attention to be focused on the country. Many Thais denied that this type of treatment is common. Lek received death threats for her role in the story. The baby elephant, Ging Mae, was poisoned and she died.
A little kiss from the elephant named Hope.
What devastation. (I should note here that we were not told all these things during our tour…I read about most of it in the many newspaper articles about Lek posted in the reception area. Aside from the documentary we watched, our visit focused on the positive things going on at the park, not the horrors in these elephants’ past lives. We fed the elephants and bathed with them in the river. Although scarred and in some cases misshapen, they were healthy and well cared for. So despite the tone of this blog, it really was a happy place, not sad. Check out my photos for proof :^)   

The good news is, of course, that this "elephant heaven" exists... and Lek is now receiving accolades. In fact, she was named Time Magazine’s Asia Heroes of 2005 for her work (article link below).
Steve gets an impromptu shower.
A Texan heard of her work and purchased and donated the land on which her elephants now live. Many volunteers come from all over the world to work at the camp, and still more visitors come for the day, paying a rather high entrance fee (2500 baht) which goes to the care of the elephants. Lek has really accomplished something in the face of many obstacles, and I will forever be impressed by this dynamic lady’s story. Althought I have talked much about what we did there (look at the photos for that, it was a great day. If you are in Chiang Mai, I would highly recommend a visit to The Elephant Nature Park.
 
For more information:
The park's website: 
www.elephantnaturefoundation.org

Times article on Lek:
www.time.com/time/asia/2005/heroes/sangduen_chailert.html

Controversy surrounding the paah jaan video:
www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article804512.ece

Another visitor's article, better than my blog: http://www.travelintelligence.com/travel-writing/1003791/Asia/Thailand/The-North/Chiang-Rai/Elephant-Conservation.html
 
cmgervais says:
I went for a full day, and there WAS some downtime, but it was a nice place to just chill out. There are many programs for volunteers -- some become trained in elephant handling, some help build shelters (and repair fences that the little elephant keep tearing down!), some dig mud holes for elephant baths... I think you can choose your activity based on your interests. In my opinion, it would be a very rewarding volunteer experience.
Posted on: May 19, 2008
reikunboy says:
This place looks awesome did you go for the half day trip or the full day. I've read on other sites that the full day is a little long, what do you think? Is it easy to volunteer here being a teacher I get lots of holidays.It would be great to do.
Posted on: May 19, 2008
cmgervais says:
Thanks, all.

Hopefully the "training" video we saw is not typical...it was so terrible. Unfortunately, the documentary implied that is WAS usually like this.
:^( But hopefully not for long.
Posted on: May 19, 2008
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If elephants laughed, this is exac…
If elephants laughed, this is exa…
Cover for me, Im going in to get …
Cover for me, I'm going in to get…
Me and my guy, Max. He really like…
Me and my guy, Max. He really lik…
Hmmm, could use a pedicure!
Hmmm, could use a pedicure!
A little kiss from the elephant na…
A little kiss from the elephant n…
Steve gets an impromptu shower.
Steve gets an impromptu shower.
Elephant food.
Elephant food.
In the morning, we stopped at the …
In the morning, we stopped at the…
Cucumbers, bananas, squash ... ele…
Cucumbers, bananas, squash ... el…
There are dozens of dogs at the Na…
There are dozens of dogs at the N…
The group gets a safety briefing b…
The group gets a safety briefing …
Here comes a little one, looking f…
Here comes a little one, looking …
Baby elephant. Asian elephants hav…
Baby elephant. Asian elephants ha…
Waiting in the wings.
Waiting in the wings.
Max, the tallest elephant in Thail…
Max, the tallest elephant in Thai…
Max strikes a pose.
Max strikes a pose.
Wrinkles.
Wrinkles.
Mom and baby.
Mom and baby.
Asian elephants have a different f…
Asian elephants have a different …
FOOD PLEASE, NOW!!!
FOOD PLEASE, NOW!!!
Little trouble maker.
Little trouble maker.
Steve reaches out to an elephant w…
Steve reaches out to an elephant …
Elephant butt.
Elephant butt.
Elephants at play.
Elephants at play.
Hello, anyone home?? Got anything …
Hello, anyone home?? Got anything…
Elephants spray dirt on their head…
Elephants spray dirt on their hea…
Preparing the elephants breakfast.
Preparing the elephants' breakfast.
In memory. Ging Mai, the murdered …
In memory. Ging Mai, the murdered…
Many of them lived very long lives.
Many of them lived very long lives.
In line for breakfast.
In line for breakfast.
Elephant with a pile of dirt on he…
Elephant with a pile of dirt on h…
Max chows down.
Max chows down.
Steve feeds Max.
Steve feeds Max.
Max munches his breakfast.
Max munches his breakfast.
Elephants line up for breakfast.
Elephants line up for breakfast.
I think hes wagging his tail.
I think he's wagging his tail.
Another elephant wants some of Max…
Another elephant wants some of Ma…
Now I am feeding two elephants.
Now I am feeding two elephants.
Feed me! Now!
Feed me! Now!
I have my hands full handing out f…
I have my hands full handing out …
Right down the hatch!
Right down the hatch!
Sniffing for food.
Sniffing for food.
Well, hello, nice to meet ya.
Well, hello, nice to meet ya.
Wont someone hand me a banana?
Won't someone hand me a banana?
Elephant sniffs my foot.
Elephant sniffs my foot.
Steve enjoys lunch.
Steve enjoys lunch.
My lunch. All vegetarian, and all …
My lunch. All vegetarian, and all…
Hopeful dog.
Hopeful dog.
Open wide!
Open wide!
Heading to the river to give the e…
Heading to the river to give the …
Leading the elephants to the river.
Leading the elephants to the river.
Having fun at bathtime.
Having fun at bathtime.
Steve douses an elephant.
Steve douses an elephant.
Another visitor gives an elephant …
Another visitor gives an elephant…
Elephant bath time.
Elephant bath time.
The visitors group around the nice…
The visitors group around the nic…
Elephant bath.
Elephant bath.
When an elephant moves, its best …
When an elephant moves, it's best…
Steve and new friend.
Steve and new friend.
Steve poses with his new friend...
Steve poses with his new friend...
Ouch! The elephant sprayed himself…
Ouch! The elephant sprayed himsel…
Looks for this shot in our 2008 Ch…
Looks for this shot in our 2008 C…
The elephants love white bread.
The elephants love white bread.
Lady ducks an elephant kiss.
Lady ducks an elephant kiss.
Steve enjoys and elephant shower.
Steve enjoys and elephant shower.
Lek Chailert, the founder of the E…
Lek Chailert, the founder of the …
Taking a dirt bath.
Taking a dirt bath.
Elephant valley.
Elephant valley.
He lost his foot in a landmine and…
He lost his foot in a landmine an…
My turn to bath the elephants!
My turn to bath the elephants!
Elephant bath time (again).
Elephant bath time (again).
Dousing the elephant, so he can go…
Dousing the elephant, so he can g…
Peek a boo.
Peek a boo.
One guy tries to make a break for …
One guy tries to make a break for…
A group of volunteers pose with Ho…
A group of volunteers pose with H…
Steve makes a new friend.
Steve makes a new friend.
Me feeding Max the elephant at Th…
Mae Taeng
photo by: louise2553