Many months ago, when I decided that Thailand would be included on my trip, I booked a week-long volunteering gig at Elephant Nature Park. ENP is a brilliant organization in Northern Thailand founded by Lek Chailert. Lek has made it her life goal to rescue and rehabilitate as many elephants (as well as dogs, cats, water buffalo, and monkeys) as she can from the tourism and logging industries in SE Asia. She is an incredible woman who works extremely hard for animal and human rights. She fights back against inhumane practices, educates locals about better ways to treat/train animals, and works closely with the Thai government to try to enact laws of protection for elephants. When you hear her speak about these issues, you realize that Lek herself is the embodiment of love, strength, perseverance, and determination. She is an inspiration to everyone who meets her. She spoke to our group for about two hours one afternoon about the abuses that elephants face here in SE Asia, about the struggles she encounters when trying to fight against these abuses, about the slow but positives changes that are being made, and about how horrific animal tourism is. For two days following her presentation, I would just burst into tears every time I thought about it. I still, as I’m writing this, feel on the verge of tears. But I’ll get more into the awful truth later. For now, I’ll tell you about what is was like volunteering at ENP.
Our group of week-long volunteers was about 65 people from all over the world, mostly people in their 20s and majority females. On our first day we were divided into four work groups and assigned a cabin and roommates. One of my roommates was Lucy from California, a spunky Asian-American girl in her 20s, and the other was Francis from Australia, a quiet, reserved lady in her late 50s who traveled to Thailand for the sole purpose of volunteering at ENP. Our cabin was pretty basic with three single beds, mosquito nets, two fans, and an attached bathroom (although most rooms do not have attached bathrooms, so we were lucky).
Within our first hours at the sanctuary, we watched an orientation video that gave some history about how elephants have been used for work in SE Asia and about ENP. We were warned that the last 8 minutes of the video were graphic and showed the violence endured by working/domesticated elephants and were invited to leave the room if we didn’t want to watch. I stayed. I stayed and cried. It was extremely disturbing, but honest and real. But again, more on that later.
Our first task at the park was to unload a truck that was overflowing with watermelons. They put us in assembly lines with some people standing on the watermelons in the truck and others inside a storage area, with a line of people in between. But they also had people throwing watermelons up to others who would catch them from the upper racks of the storage area. Within about 10 minutes of unloading, the girl that was catching watermelons five feet above me dropped one and it hit me directly on the top of my head. I blacked out for a moment and had to go sit down. I later heard that the watermelon that hit me was quite large and cracked open in several places upon contact with my head. Guess I am as hard-headed as they say.
Throughout the course of the week, there were several more watermelon-truck unloading jobs, as well as cutting corn, scooping poo, preparing elephant food, bathing elephants, feeding elephants, cleaning the park (which was really just more scooping poo), building a dam, and creating a firewall so that local villagers won’t unintentionally burn down the sanctuary when they burn their farms every March/April. The work was laborious and hot (it was in the mid-high 90s every day), but it went quickly with each group consisting of about 15 people. Some people even claimed that they enjoyed the work. One guy, John, enjoyed cutting corn so much that I think he did it three times. My favorite jobs were building the dam (because we got to hang out in the river) and making rice balls for elephant snacks. Of course everyone enjoyed feeding and bathing the elephants. Those were the highlights of our days.
A special moment, feeding an elephant with Lek, the founder of ENP
But it wasn’t all work and no play. We had tons of down time. We worked for 2-3 hours in the morning, had a lunch break, then worked again for 2-3 hours in the afternoon, and that was it! So there was plenty of time for things like napping (if you could sleep in that heat), attempting to get wifi (which was always hit or miss), getting $5 massages offered by a wonderful group of women at the park (I got four!), walking or playing with the 400+ dogs that live at the sanctuary, taking multiple showers a day, floating down the river in an inner tube, or just hanging out with new friends. Plus there was a lot of stuffing our faces with amazing vegan food three times a day! It was a lot like being at an adult summer camp, except better because we were supporting a great cause.
Now, back to the reason that the sanctuary exists in the first place: Elephants being used for tourism and logging. In Southeast Asia and India, elephants used for tourism are taken away from their mothers at a very young age, usually before they’re even done nursing. It takes 50 men to separate the baby from his mother. The babies are then forced into a cage-like structure called “the crush.” All of their legs are tied to posts and for 7-10 days they are submitted to the “phajaan,” or spirit-breaking ceremony. Their trunks also have to be tied to a post to prevent them from committing suicide by stepping on their trunks or putting their trunks in their mouths, thus suffocating themselves. During the torture the babies are brutally beaten with sticks, stabbed with nails and hooks, hit by rocks from slingshots, poked in the eyes, starved, and sleep deprived. The end goal of the phajaan is that the elephant will be submissive to humans for the rest of its life. The mental trauma is so severe that the baby no longer recognizes it’s own mother. These babies can then be “trained” (which is really just continued torture and beatings) by their mahouts so that tourists can ride them, watch them perform or paint, touch them, feed them, pay them for a photo, etc. But it doesn’t end at the phajaan. Tourism elephants continue to live horrible, tortured lives, as they are tied up with shackles, beaten with bull hooks, forced to walk on hot streets that burn their feet, forced to pick up people with their trunks for photos, starved, brought into bars and fed alcohol by stupid tourists for a ridiculous $1 photo op. They develop sores from the chairs that are mounted on their backs for riding. Baby elephants fall into deep holes and cannot be saved. The suffer every single second of every day. And logging elephants (which is illegal in Thailand but authorities get paid off to look the other way and allow it to happen anyway) suffer from broken bones, dislocated joints, and even get blown up by land mines. This is no joke. Elephants all over the world in circuses and zoos are also subjected to this kind of treatment in order to make them fearful and obedient. Elephants are not entertainment. ANIMALS are not entertainment. Please, please, please DO NOT support animal tourism and entertainment. People don’t think about what happened to get that creature “tamed” and they don’t think about the repercussions (money going back into the same industry, thus fueling it for more and more elephants to be treated this way), and it’s this ignorance that is the reason this industry is so huge here.
Thailand used to have approximately 100,000 elephants. Now there are less than 3,000. Please help save what’s left of these magnificent beings.
If you can and would like to donate to ENP (and you should! It’s a WONDERFUL cause!), you can do so here: