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Trip Report Week long volunteer stay at the Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

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Do you love elephants? Would you like to observe them go thru their daily activities? Would you like to help the plight of the Asian Elephant ? Do you like to travel to exotic places ?

If you answered ‘yes’ to each of the above, then you need to consider visiting the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in northern Thailand, about 40 km north of Chiang Mai.

Elephants have been a part of Thailand since the beginning of recorded history. In times of peace, the elephants were Thailand’s bulldozers. In times of war, they were her tanks. The elephant is revered in Thailand’s Buddhist culture. So, if the elephants have always been that much of a part of Thailand, why are they so endangered?

In 1989, bowing to the efforts of conservationists, Thailand banned all forms of forest logging. Countless years of over-harvesting had left her jungles and forests in danger of being lost forever. This move was wonderful for the forests, but spelled trouble for the Asian elephants. Banning logging put tens of thousands of elephants out of work. Unable to pay for the necessary food and medicine, many elephant owners simply abandoned them. Others were moved into the tourist industry, where unscrupulous kwans (elephant handlers) underfed and under cared for these magnificent creatures.

Elephants were brought into the cities of Bangkok & Chiang Mai, used to beg donations from unsuspecting travelers. Constant road vibrations, felt by the elephants’ nerves in their feet overstimulated the poor beasts. Lack of river access, crucial to the elephant’s daily bathing routine, and insufficient food and medicine hurt the elephants further.

In the last century, the Asian elephant population in Thailand (wild and domestic) has been reduced by an incredible 95%. For a country that so revered the elephant, how could this be?

Luckily, there are a few individuals who are concerned enough about the plight of the elephant. One of these is Lek (meaing ‘Little’ in Thai) Chailert. Lek grew up in a small village in northern Thailand. Her grandfather, the village shaman, was given an elephant as payment for saving a man’s life. Elephants became an integral part of Lek’s family.

Image: Lek and 1 year old elephant, born at the ENP

Lek purchased many acres of land north of Chiang Mai. She then purchased four sick elephants from tourist camps, and opened up the Elephant Nature Park. Fast forward 16 years and her elephant population has grown to 35. (she also has 50 dogs, 20 cats, 25 water buffalo, some pigs, two sloths, a biting pony and a bear! Lek can’t seem to say ‘no’ to anyone’s castaway animal!)

Each elephant has a story. One stepped on a landmine in Burma, taking away ½ of her rear foot. One was blinded by a Kwan in a fit of rage. One was pumped with emphatimes so that it could log day and night.

For as horrible as each individual story was, the elephants all share a much happier ending. Purchased by Lek, these elephants are given the medical care, the nutrition and the love to help them heal their wounds. Elephants at the ENP are able to spend their remaining years (with proper care, Asian elephants can live to be 70-80 years old). No longer will these animals need to perform tricks, beg for donations, or be ridden by tourists not knowing better. At ENP, these elephants are free to roam the forest, and simply be elephants, once more.

To pay expenses (Lek spends over $250,000 US dollars on elephant food per year), Lek introduced ecotourism to the ENP. For a small fee ($500), elephant lovers are able to spend a week observing, feeding, bathing the elephants. ‘Elephant Volunteers’ work about 5 hours per day, preparing food, maintaining the ENP property, and working on special building projects for the park.

In this article, I will be documenting each wonderful day spent at the ENP, and sharing interesting stories about elephants, as told to us by the ENP staff. Please note that your experiences may vary from ours. You may do/see things that we did not. We may have done/seen things that you may not. Every day is different, schedules change very quickly. Access to Lek may be plentiful or not at all. As the car manufacturers say ‘Your mileage may vary”.

If you do volunteer for a week, I would recommend that you bring several long sleeve shirts and several pairs of shorts, none of which you want to bring back with you. They will get muddy, torn by bamboo grass and generally very worn out. We also brought plenty of tee-shirts which we wore during the week and donated to the kwans on our way out. There is an overnite laundry facility, in by lunch, back by dinner the next evening, for about 40 baht / kilo.

Day 1: Orientation:

We were picked up at our hotel in Chiang Mai by the ENP van. An hour and a half later, we arrived. Day one was a non-working day, allowing ENP Volunteer Coordinators (VCs) to brief us on what to expect during the upcoming week.

Our first opportunity to meet the elephants was at lunch time (their, not ours!). We hand fed cut watermelon, whole bananas and cucumbers to the elephants, placing the food in their constantly outstretching trunks. It was amazing to see how much food these animals could pack away.

We were told that it is very easy to identify the gender of Asian elephants. Unlike their African cousins, only male Asian elephants grow tusks. Some female Asian elephants do have small tusk-like protusions, about an inch or two long. These are called ‘tushes’, and should not be confused with the longer tusks of the males.

Image: Feeding Time

After feeding the elephants, it was our time to eat. The ENP put on an incredible buffet of thai dishes – with meat, without, vegan, fresh fruit. We won’t go hungry here !

After lunch, it was our first opportunity to bathe the elephants. ‘Bathing’ is a very literal term. The ritual is far more for the volunteers benefit than for the elephants (Elephants are very capable of bathing themselves !!). We brought plastic buckets from the main building while the kwans brought the elephants to the stream. Once there, we splashed and poured river water over the obliging elephants. It truly was an incredible feeling to be that close to the elephants, in their space – the river. One did have to take care not to walk behind the elephants, or too close to their trunks. One slip could prove to have detrimental results.

Image – Bathing the elephants in the stream.

Image: Hangin’ with a freshly bathed elephant

Once they were clean, the elephants did what any self respecting elephant would do – pile on the mud – a natural deterrent to insects and a sunscreen, all in one.

Image: Mud bath – the perfect follow up to a bath in the stream.

After watching them ‘mud up’, we watched a 45 minute documentary detailing the elephants plight and the work of Lek and the ENP.

Dinner followed shortly. As the night became dark, we all wandered back to our rooms in search of a good night’s sleep. Note – the bamboo clad rooms are very, very basic. One bed, a mosquito net and a light bulb. Community rest rooms are down a ramp.

Day 2: Who needs an alarm clock ??

We were awoken promptly at 6:00 by an incredible symphony of elephant noises. There are three adults and one baby in a pen right outside of our hut. In unison, these four animals trumpeted, slapped trunks on the ground and made the most scary, low, guttural noises that I have ever heard. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that this noise was coming from lion, as it sounded very much like the deep loud ‘purring’ that the cat makes before it roars.

image: Volunteer Schedule

Morning activities began with an hour and a half of pooper scooper duty. Following a cart pulled by a tractor, we fanned out picking up large ‘elephant balls’ in the main yard. They had very little scent. Apparently the elephant doesn’t digest a majority of the fruit and grass that it eats each day. The ‘fresh’ specimens were moist, and heavy. Those that had been around for a day or two were very dry, and very light. A few that had been around for more then this time had sprouted vegetation, most likely from the fruit seeds that the elephant consumed and passed.

Image: Poo Poo

After elle poo duty, we unloaded a truck of small watermelons. Five and ½ tons of melons to be exact ! We created two lines and used the ‘bucket brigade’ method to pass the melons from one to another, loading them into the storage bins. We were told that this shipment of melons would last about a week.

In the afternoon, Lek addressed us, telling us the history of the park, the problems that elephants face. It was an incredible one hour discussion.

Side Note: Jungle Boy

On day one, we were introduced to a fairly new acquisition to the park – Jungle Boy. Approximately 11 years old, he was rescued from the jungle when his mother was killed. A bit ‘rambunctious’, we were told not to get too close. The park assigns three kwans to this elephant, in an attempt to bring him under full control. Unlike all of the adult elephants in the park, Jungle Boy has not undergone the ordeal of the ‘crush’ (also known as the ‘pajean’) . This cruel process has been used for centuries to ‘break’ a young elephant’s spirits and assist in the domestication process. The young elephant is taken from it’s mother and put into a wooden structure not too much larger then itself. For three days (females) and up to 7 days (males), the young elephant is hit, poked, sleep deprived. When it emerges from the crush, the young elephant no longer recognizes his/her mother. The youngster can walk right by the mother and show now recognition.

Lek has campaigned very hard to educate the public about this cruel practice. At the ENP, she has shown that the crush can be replaced by positive reinforcement and affection. Jungle Boy’s will be an excellent case study in the use of these non-cruel methods to domestic these wonderful animals.

image: Jungle Boy

This evening, we got our first foot massages, courtesy of the ladies that Lek allows to come into ENP. A one hour foot massage cost 150 baht. A one hour Thai massage cost 120 baht.

After massages, we went to the common area, purchased a beer (40 baht) from a woman who runs a cooler-style ‘bar’, and hung out with the other volunteers.

Day 3: Food Prep – Elephant Heaven

We got an easy assignment today, washing and preparing food for the eles. We started off with hundreds of overripe bananas. After peeling them all into a container, we mashed them by hand until it was a thick paste. To this, we added rice and corn meal until it had enough consistency to form balls. The banana balls are for the older elephants who need the grains (rice/corn meal), but cannot chew the grasses well enough to obtain the nutrients from them. {see side note – Elephant Graveyard} . After making banana balls, we then washed and sorted cucumbers and melons, soaking them in a sodium bicarbonate solution. After that, work day was over. After lunch, we head to Elephant Heaven overnite.

Side Note – Elephant Graveyard:

Note: The opinion about the Elephant Graveyard belongs to Michelle, the woman who has been in charge of the elephants’ diet for several years. I have not been able to find anything to concur with or object to her beliefs. That being said, her ideas seems to make sense.

For as romanticized as we humans have made it to be, there is a truth to the Elephant Graveyard. To understand it, it is necessary to remove the notion of an elephant trekking for miles and miles, just to die in the same place as it’s ancestors. Instead, the real reason for the Elephant Graveyard is teeth – elephant teeth to be precise. An elephant will go thru six sets of large molars in its lifetime, each set of four lasting approximately 10 years. When young, the elephant’s teeth have many rough ridges on top, useful to tear the grasses efficiently, extracting the maximum amount of nutrition. As the elephant ages, the teeth become like polished marble, losing the tearing efficiency of the youth. To compensate, the elephants move to wetter areas where the grass is softer and easier to chew. Unfortunately, this is but a stop gap in the life of the elephant. Eventually, the elephant is no longer able to eat/digest enough to sustain it. The elephant slowly starves to death, and dies, in the Elephant Graveyard.

Image: Young elephant tooth – note the rows of ridges

Day 3 into Day 4: Elephant Heaven, or ‘How do you find an elephant in the dark?’

After lunch, our small group of 14 meets up with three kwans and their three elephants – Jokia (the blind one), Hope (the rambunctious male), and Mae Prahn, Jokia’s other-half. (See side note on Jokia/Mae Prahn). We walked for about an hour, not an easy thing to do with three elephants insistent on grabbing/eating vegetation on the side of the road. The kwans were patient, but often needed several attempts at verbal commands to keep the elephants moving. At one point, a large construction vehicle approached slowly from behind. Mae Prahn was not happy, and repeatedly slapped her trunk on the ground, making a large, hollow bellow.

After an hour’s walk, we made it to the river. Those of us with two feet took a bamboo raft to the other side. The eles waded across easily. From there, it was a slightly over 1 hour walk uphill to Lek’s mountain property. Lek and the Kwans built the property (and the path going to it) to allow a few eles each week to be able to spend the night in ‘Elephant Heaven’. Here, the eles could wander all nite, not constrained by ropes or corrals. They were free to eat what they wanted and investigate anything that interested them.

While the kwans were setting the eles free, we set up shop in the human portion of the Elephant Heaven. The retreat was very rustic, but charming. A single level, on a tall platform, held a sleeping area for 10 (including the requisite mosquito nets), and another sleeping area for four. A rudimentary kitchen was in the back, and a communal area, with a fire pit, was in the center. There was an out-house on the ground in the back.

Image: Our home away from home.

While some of the ENP staff was setting out the sleeping bags and putting up the netting, others were beginning to cook dinner. Dinner was, per usual, excellent.

After dinner, we sat around the campfire talking with ‘Bum’, a woman who has been with Lek since 1996. The sun set at approximately 6:30, casting the jungle into complete darkness. We could occasionally hear an elephant’s trumpet or the wooden bell that Mae Prahn wore.

Bum asked if anyone was interested in joining the kwans, at 7:30 that evening to help then ‘find the elephants’. Looking out over the darkness, several of us laughed, thinking that Bum was pulling our legs. Bum wasn’t laughing. She explained that we needed to bring the eles closer to the shelter, to keep them from running onto neighboring properties. So, at 7:30 pm, in a pitch black jungle, armed with only bug spray and head lamps, we followed the kwans on their search for the eles. The kwans split up, splitting our small group of 6 in half (most of the folks had the good sense to stay by the campfire at the shelter). Most of the time, we walked on paths made by the elephants over many stays at Heaven. At one point, however, we walked thru a 20 foot section of 7+ foot grasses, using our hands to ‘swim’ thru. All the while, our headlamps were illuminating a virtual cloud of flying insects, staying just far away from our faces to avoid the deet we had applied before embarking. It took but 15 minutes for our kwan to find our elle – Jokia, the blind one. (Apparently the eles are very predictable as to where they like to wander to!). Several voice commands from the kwan, and Jokia turned around and approached us. We walked for a few minutes, back to the retreat, and were met on a path by Mae Prahn and her kwan, and the ENP volunteers who were with him. With the two eles, we all continued to head to the shelter. Having one blind, and one sighted elle, I would have thought that Mae Prahn would lead the way, with Jokia following behind by scent and sound. I was dumbfounded to see Jokia, with no eyesight at all, leading the group, swaying her trunk left to right, sensing the path. When we arrived back at the shelter, I asked Bum why Mae Prahn didn’t lead. Bum replied that since ‘adopting’ Jokia several years ago, Mae Prahn does not leave her out of her sight. Walking in front of Jokia would prevent her from seeing her. This appeared to be a case of the blind leading the elle.

Once near the shelter, the kwans took the eles to a small clearing where they would (hopefully) stay for the evening. No ropes or chains were used on the animals. We returned to the shelter, and very soon retired for the night. The jungle sounds were incredible, and changed constantly during the evening (I awoke several times, and listened to the sounds each time). The tweats, buzzes, clicks, etc seemed to morph all evening, as one set of insects and frogs did their things, followed by different creatures later in the nite.

In the morning, after a basic breakfast, we all packed our gear and followed the kwans, again looking for our eles. It didn’t take long to find them, and soon we were working our way down the hill.

Image: Following the eles

We were each given a long golden fabric, blessed by the monks. We were instructed to wrap the fabric around any tree that we individually liked. The intent is to prevent illegal logging, through the country’s reverence of and obedience to the monks.

Image: Monk’s fabric, tied to trees previously

Thirty minutes later, we were back to the river, and said goodbye to our eles for the day. Another group from ENP would be repeating the same Elephant Heaven experience that day, bringing the eles back up the hill to the retreat.

Soon after arriving back at ENP, we were ‘back to work’. This time, it was a bit strenuous. We needed to complete the digging of the foundation for a new feature that ENP is building, called Elephant Gym. Less of a gym then we humans might consider, the final product will be five large steps, three up and two back down. In addition to being able to be used to exercise the eles, it will become a much more sturdy butt scratching surface, then are the present wooden columns holding up the observation walkway, leading to the stream. It took over 10 of us to complete the task, digging foundations 24, 32 & 48 inches deep by 42 inches square. We moved A LOT of dirt.

After digging duty, we had our choice of rewards. Some of the volunteers accompanied the VC on an impromptu tubing run down the river. Others of us met Lek at the pen holding the 1 year olds, and watched her serenade the young male to sleep. Singing Que Sera Sera, Lek easily brought the young elle to a very relaxed state:

Lek then invited each of us, one at a time, to join her in the pen, with the baby, surrounded by the mother and auntie. It was a very emotional moment for all of us, one that we shall not forget easily.

Image: Lek singing to the young elle.

Image: Cheryl and Lek sharing some very personal space.

Image: Joe shares some quality time with Lek and baby

After the lullaby, we enjoyed a nice meal, a Thai massage and a quick beer.

Side Note: Jokia & Mae Prahn

Very soon after blind Jokia came to ENP, she was ‘adopted’ by Mae Prahn. Mae Prahn is always by her side, and is quick to defend her against any other. This love does not, however, come cheaply. Bum told us that on one occasion ENP was feeding the two of them from a communal pile of bananas. At first, each ate at the same pace. Soon, however, Mae Prahn began to ‘eat one, fling one to the side’. The kwans couldn’t figure out what was happening – Why was an elephant throwing bananas away? The answer was soon found. After the communal pile was completed, Jokia, sensing that there were no more bananas, moved away. At this time, Mae Prahn moved to each of the bananas that she had ‘flung’, and finished her meal.

Day Five: Banana trees & mud:

We had no elephant interaction today. We left ENP shortly after breakfast and traveled by bumpy pickup truck to a place that the ENP refers to as the ‘New Property’. Now two years old, this property belongs to the ‘’ (bteh). Run by Antoinette Van de Water (ENPs first volunteer, and now a very close associate to Lek), BTEH works very closely with ENP, but it has a different mission. While ENP is primarily focused on rescuing sick elephants and training kwans in the art of non-violent elle training, BTEH is concerned with bringing Thailand’s natural forests and jungles back. Their goal is to provide adequate space to allow wild elephants to live, and to allow domesticated elephants to live, in an almost wild state. BTEH will not provide any elephant interaction to visiting guests.

We started out day at BTEH by digging out a small garden space, and planting banana trees and lemon grass plants. The garden will be watered directly from the hand and kitchen sinks. The premise is that the lemon grass plants will extract the soap products, leaving clean water for the banana plants.

After the garden was complete, we started making mud bricks, which will be used to build the seed germination shed. The process involved digging out a pit of red soil and hoeing it until it had only smaller chunks. We added water to the soil and began to mix the water/soil by stomping our feet in it, as if we were mashing grapes for wine. When a good consistency was obtained, we added a lot of rice husks, to firm the mixture up. After that, some sand was added. By the time we finished ‘kneading’ the mud, it was very, very firm. Several people in the pit would scoop up the mud in their hands, and pass it to others above. Those people would drop the mud into a series of wooden moulds. When filled, the wooden molds were removed, leaving the wet mud bricks exposed. They will air dry for four days, at which time they can be used for building.

Image: Making mud bricks

Day 6: Easy Day

The day started off with easy poo poo duty. About 1 ½ hours, we cleaned the pens and yards. After that, equally easy duty to unload 3 tons of melons and a small pickup truck of bananas.

After lunch, we were supposed to clean the park, picking up pieces of plastic that had come from one bag or another. Soon after beginning, Lek asked us to go to the beach with her to collect black and white stones to decorate the top of the elephant gym. We used the black stones to create ‘elephant paws’, surrounding them with white stones. I hope the eles like their new gym!

Image: Finishing touches

The next day, the eles got to enjoy their gym for the first time. Lek is pleased – this will give some of the older eles the chances that they need to strengthen their knees.

Volunteers in our group came from Germany, Canada, United States, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, England & Wales. Our group picture is below.

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