Knowing only a little about the program I was already excited about lending a helping hand. Before arriving I knew that it was an elephant reservation of some sort that rescued hurt, abused elephants and rehabilitated them within their compound. But I was appalled by what I had seen and heard over the next week about what happened to these poor creatures. Lek, Volunteers, The Elephant Nature Park and everyone involved fight against logging, street begging, training rituals and poor trekking companies.
Logging is causing deforestation in all of Thailand and there are only 500 wild elephants left from being threatened with this practice. Not to mention the elephants used in logging generally sustain some sort of injury by being overworked. Street begging has been regulated in major cities but is still happening. It is essentially when owners parade their elephants around bars, streets etc. in hopes the star-struck tourists will pay for photos with the foreign animals. This is incredibly stressful on the young elephants due to the fact that they hold sensory cells in their feet and the infinite vibrations caused by a crowded city street causes confusion. As far as certain trekking companies several of them do not treat the elephants with respect and work them to exhaustion and the seats on their backs can do permanent damage.
The one thing all of these practices have in common is the way the animal is trained, through the age old Phajaan Ceremony. This ritual is said to wean the younger elephants away from their mother as well as train them for their mahouts( each elephant has one, a trainer.) In all reality this ceremony is an act that is incomprehensible. The baby elephants are restrained by ropes and corralled into a small pen that can barley even house the animal. They are left there for days without food and away from their family for the first time. The trainers beat the elephants day in and day out with hooks and also long sticks attached with a five inch nail on the tip. Not knowing what is going on the vulnerable elephant is terrified, crying and from this behavior just receives several more stabs all throughout his body and behind his ears, which are an ultra sensitive spot. Depending how long it takes to beat the elephant into submission he/she could be locked up for several days to several weeks.
Lek is the founder of the Elephant Nature Park/Foundation. Before being recognized by Animal Planet, BBC, and National Geographic; receiving two PhDs; and also being called a Hero of Asia, Lek was just a young girl with a love and passion for these gentle giants.
Later on in life after deciding she was going to strive to be an advocate and a voice for these elephants is where the Elephant Nature Park comes into play. This didn't come without cost on her behalf, being hassled,threatened etc. about trying to change a long-lasting Thai tradition. Overcoming loops and hurdles the park came to fruition in 1995. Their mission is to,' Save the Asian elephant from extinction and to give the domesticated elephant a life worth living by preserving habitat and increasing public awareness on humane treatment practices.'
The sanctuary has acres and acres of free land for the elephants to roam as well as mud pits, for them to apply their mud-screen, and a refreshing river to relax in. There are over 35 rescued elephants residing in the camp and since they can't be completely set free (logging and just being captured again) the ENP is the best alternative. The park has many expenses to keep it going and provide the best care for the elephants. Getting the chance to volunteer and have a unique experience interacting with the elephants is the answer to two questions. How to keep the park going financially? And how to spread the word about the Asian elephant situation in Thailand?
Beginning the volunteer program meant the beginning of seven days without air conditioning. Now that I think about it, it's the longest consistent time that I can remember being without air conditioning in any shape or form ( like walking into a 7/11.) Our rooms were equipped with two beds, a fan and mosquito nets with only a few holes :) Our first task was elephant bathing time and getting up close and personal...even with their poo. This is always a fun time splashing the beasts with water but at the same time seems almost pointless since they cover themselves with dirt upon exiting.
We came to find out that one of our favorite times was meal time! This always consisted of a large buffet arranged with various foods. Breakfast is always my favorite and made it only a little bit easier to pull myself out of bed at 7 AM every morning. After dinner on our first day we were put into our groups for the week. Group C got stuck with Whitney and I while Mike had to finagle his way into a seven day session after being a procrastinator with paying the moolah.
Mud Brick- We had to slosh around int his mud to get it to the right consistency to make bricks out of. They use these bricks to build various buildings throughout the park.
Each day consisted of a morning chore/project, lunch, afternoon project, dinner, and something happening in the evening. We completed many duties while at the park. Here are some photos of most with a brief description. One that I didn't have my personal paparazzi (Whitney) in tow for was cutting the banana trees. You can go ahead and picture me as badass as possible wielding a machete and hauling huge amounts of banana shrubs on my shoulders across a field...in the blistering heat. Good image?
The park was extremely nice and serene. If you had free time you could do what you please; relax, unload the days shipment of fruit and veg, or maybe walk over and listen while Lek is sitting underneath the baby elephants and singing them lullabies. It was a nice escape from the constant movement of backpacking. The whole staff was incredibly helpful and always smiling. We had two main leaders we worked with, one was Bee. She was just adorable and never looked angry. Even when we could tell we weren't exactly completing the project the correct way she would just smile and help you out. Can was our other main leader. He is an awesome guy with a kind/ soft spirit about him. He was very knowledgeable and was always there to answer any questions. There is one more leader that was full of personality and a love for Lady Gage. His name is Chet. Chet always had something to say and it was normally hilarious and in reference to the Mother Monster herself. He will be attending the Gaga Concert in Bangkok. Hope you have a great time my little monster!
The experience I had this week was awesome and something I could never forget about. I had an amazing time with the staff, elephants, and all my fellow volunteers. I hope from this you can take knowledge about the elephants you probably didn't know beforehand, and think twice before that trek or the photo you want so badly. And instead support a good cause like the ENP that encourages through positive reinforcement. Anyone can be a volunteer for different amounts of time, and I would urge anyway that was on this side of the world to swing by and volunteer if only for the day.
Put your paws up
Baby I was born this way