Sunday, March 15, 2009

SE Asia, Chapter Two: Elephant Nature Park

I have no idea how I am going to write about this part of the trip. There are no words or pictures that will do it justice. The experience is lodged in my guts and my bones now. But I will try. I will just preface it by saying, my week at Elephant Nature Park as a volunteer was the best week of my life.

After signing some additional paperwork, donning our free t-shirts and playing with the office puppies, Amanda and I got in a van with about 8 other volunteers and our guide, Brad. Brad does his best to warm us up, but his jokes are stifled by a mix of eagerness and summer-camp-esque self-conciousness from being around new people. Well I speak for myself, Amanda was shaking hands and introducing herself to everyone like a prostar! The 1.5 hour drive to the park went by quickly, I was engrossed by the beautiful scenery of small rolling mountains and lush jungle encroaching on plantations and farmers fields. Imagine how much more beautiful it must be outside of the dry seaon!
As we come around the last bend in the battered road, the park reveals itself like the "Great Valley" at the end of "The Land Before Time": nestled between jungle-covered mountains and a river running through it that reflects the morning sunlight beautifully.
The park's mandate is to promote ethical Elephant Tourism in Thailand, where the wild Asian Ele has dwindled to as little as 1500, and the domestic Ele population has the same legal protection as any livestock: none. The economics of the Ele tourism industry combines with tribal traditions for "taming" the elephant to create conditions that are truly cruel and apalling. An unaware rich tourists create demand for it by going to elephant trekking camps, watching elephant shows, buying elephant paintings or buying food for "street elephants" in the larger cities. The crazy part is that none of these Ele Tourism options offer the level of interaction with these beautiful animals that a visit to ENP does. I won't go into it at great length, but there are some excellents videos worth watching on the subject that feature the work the Park and Lek, ENP's founder. You can see once released by National Geographic here:

At the park, the elephants are never forced to perform circus tricks or trek for miles with guests on their backs. Instead, guests and volunteers are involved with basic elephant care by feeding the elephants by hand and bathing them in the river twice daily. And in participating in these activities, guests can get the kind of up close and personal contact they want but would never get on a trek or from watching a show. On my first day, I quite literally hugged an elephant while I scrubbed it's hide in the river, as it calmly lay in the water. At the end of the day, Amanda and I sat up in our bamboo hut, thrilled we'd be there for six more days, and the other girls had extended their stay for another night.

The entire week we ate amazing food, the best food we had the entire time we were in south east Asia. And we learned alot. As volunteers, Amanda and I had signed up for pitching in on chores and projects that the park needed some extra hands for. Our daily tasks included:
  • scooping elephant and buffalo poo and cleaning shelters
  • cutting down spent corn fields with machete's for Ele dinner
  • working on the fire break (cutting an 8 foot path through brush to stop fires from crossing into park land)
  • dismantling bamboo rafts to use as building supplies at the park
  • cutting down banana trees (with machete's once again!) for Ele dinner
  • hauling rock and reinforcing a water resevoir
  • shucking corn in the elephant kitchen
  • picking up garbage around the park
  • teaching at the nearby village elementary school
It's hard to explain why you would pay money to do hard labour, but every experience was fun and rewarding. And we could do it happily knowing that our work and money was directly supporting the elephants who live at the park. And truth be told, the most hard labour we ever did in a day was 3 - 4 hours. On top of the daily feeding times and bath times, we had many other special experiences with the elephants. Like...

1) Participating in an Elephant rescue from a trekking camp just up the road from ENP. Two of the elephants there had fallen very ill from malnutrition and a skin fungus infection. The manager of the camp had asked Lek to care for the sick elephants, as ENP also acts as a free hospital for these gentle giants. Providing free medical care ensures the Eles will get the care they need and creates opportunities for Lek to influence trekking camps and teach them about humane Ele care. As with every elephant that comes to the Park, Lek will try everything to buy the elephant from the owner so that it can stay at the park. Sometimes she is successful and the animal never goes back to work. Sometimes though, the owner knows they can still make money by leasing the elephant to a Tourist camp and won't sell her until she is too old to earn any money. Going to this camp, after spending just a few days at ENP, was heartbreaking. The elephants were kept chained in close quarters when they weren't trekking, babies chained to their mothers and working alongside them. Many of the elephants were underweight, often kept this way so that they are not too fat for riding. Our first rescue, named Golden Leaf, went into the truck without a fuss and we successfully transferred her to the park without a problem. After the vet had a good look at her, we bathed her in the river with medical soap and then rubbed a medicated location on her skin to treat the fungal infection. The next day, the second elephant was brought to the park and both Ele's were docile and subdued as we bathed and treated them. And several of the resident elephants insisted on joining us in the river, in order to meet the newcomers. However, Amanda and I weren't actually there for the second rescue because....
2) We went up to the Elephant Haven overnight. Elephant Haven is where Lek began, with four Elephants she had rescued from tragic circumstances (Two babies and two aunties, three of which accompanied us: Hope, Mae Perm, and Jokia. Another family of four, Mom and two aunties of baby Aura, also went with us.) It is a small bamboo hut nestled in the jungle on a mountain side that is a 2 hour hike from where the park now exists. Here the elephants can roam in the jungle and forage for food naturally. It was surreal enough hiking along with the Ele's, but it was a real treat to go out at night to find Hope with the mahouts, as Hope sometimes wanders too far from the safety of the Haven mountainside at night. We located him fairly quickly, but discovered it was best friends Mae Perm and Jokia (blinded by her previous owners) who had wandered off. No problem. Hope's mahout, Dam, tracked them down within a few minutes, stopping to show us the snapped vegetations and tracks in the ground that led the way. Nothing but moonlight, jungle and a couple of the worlds largest mammals. The mahouts also played music for us after cooking an amazing dinner. That night we slept on the floor, under mosquito nets, listening to Hope's family trumpeting from above us back and forth with Aura's family, who had settled in further down the mountain for the night. On the hike back the next morning, we were given orange scarves blessed by buddhists monks to tie around the trees around the haven to protect them from logging.

Other park highlights:
  • traditional Thai massage for $4/hr
  • over 50 dogs to hang out with
  • cuddles from Mae Keaw and Kha Moon and others
  • waking up to the sunrise hitting the Ele shelters behind our hut
  • baby elephants checking us out freely on our Park walk around.
  • learning the elephant song and legend from Pom, Lek's second in command.
  • welcome ceremony including music performed by village teenagers and a blessing from the Shaman.
Pictures from my week at the park can been seen here:

Album #1 -

Album #2 -

There were so many special moments, I'd be happy to recount them for you at any time. I just need to bring this entry to a close. I know I will return to the park. Being there was like realizing a childhood dream. I hope after I have paid off my school debt, I will be able to stay there and work there for longer than a week.

Stay tuned for Chapter 3: featuring pick pocket monkeys, reclining Buddha's, tourist scams and drag shows!

No comments:

Post a Comment