After leaving Baan Hom, Neda and I decided to take a day to visit the Elephant Nature Park
about 65km outside of Chiang Mai. The founder of the park, Sangduen Chailert (nicknamed “Lek”) has created a sanctuary there for 35 elephants that have been rescued from logging operations, trekking jobs, and landmine accidents. She also cares for elephants whose parents have died, leaving them orphaned with no one to care for them.
Jeff, Neda and Lek, founder of the Elephant Nature Park with Chang Yim, a baby born at the park
A "Family" at the Sanctuary
Sanctuaries like this one are increasingly necessary as over the past 100 years the population of elephants in Thailand has plummeted from 100,000 to a mere 3,000. This decline was exacerbated in 1989 when logging was banned in Thailand. Elephants whose main job was dragging cut wood out of forests (which sadly was destroying their own habitat) found themselves out of work and often abandoned. The animals would then search for food and be shot by farmers as nuisances when they encroached upon crops.
Domesticated elephants also suffered because they weren't suited for life in the wild after undergoing the process of Phajaan, or “The Crush”. In this ancient ritual, an elephant is prepared for a life of work through 3-7 days of torture in a wooden cell too small for its body. A whole village participates in the constant prodding and stabbing of an elephant if it shows any resistance to the process. They also throw in sleep, food, and water deprivation for good measure. The local shaman performs black magic to crush the animal's connection to its mother, and thereby its very soul. Some elephants don't even survive the brutal process, and those that do are irreparably traumatized. This trauma is no small thing considering elephant's 80 year lifespan. The Park felt it was important we saw a video of the process of the Phajaan that had been obtained by a journalist, and I agree that it is something everyone should be aware of. I am providing a link here, but please be aware that it is very hard to watch.
to see it.
A Mahout Feeding his Elephant
The Elephant Nature Park is a special place because it seeks to create new paradigms for our relationships with elephants. Lek believes that domesticated elephants can be trained using positive reinforcement, patience, and love. Each elephant has a mahout (handler) who, instead of using chains and hooks to subdue the animals, uses fruit and baths in the river to reward the elephant for good behavior. The elephants roam freely and create social groups amongst themselves (an amazing feat since they are not related, but are all rescued). Lek and her mahouts' patience seem endless as they lovingly teach and care for their elephants. It is striking how for centuries local people have used only pain and negative reinforcement to train these animals, when a method of love is just as effective and preserves the dignity of the animal.
For us Lek’s approach had broader implications about the way we raise our own children and the ways in which we interact with each other in everyday life. How often do we find ourselves trying to resolve a problem by manipulating someone with fear, pain, triggering their insecurity, etc… It is the ego’s quick solution to getting what it wants and it is incredibly destructive both to the person doing the action and the receiver of it. Lek inspired us to see yet again how a path of love, while sometimes requiring more mindfulness, consistency, and patience, pays off in the long run by preserving the spirit of both parties.
For Neda and me it was a wonderful day. We fed the elephants fresh bananas, melons, and squash. We learned about their personalities and individual stories. We helped bathe them in the park’s river and got elephant kisses for our efforts. They are truly loving, peaceful creatures whose majesty is inspiring to be around.
We experienced their intense loyalty to one another and the nurturing and playful spirit that the elephants were able to partly recapture, despite their abuse at the hands of humans. If you’d like to find out more about what you can do to help the plight of the Asian elephant, you can click HERE
. Logging is still perfectly legal in Burma so the need for sanctuaries will not stop anytime soon. But if we can remember Lek and her message of love, there may be hope for the elephants as well as for us. Below are a few pics from our day, to see all of the great shots we captures, click here - http://flic.kr/s/aHsjyKDTfQ
Neda gets an elephant kiss!
Cuddling with Mom
Nothing like a mud bath and taking a load off to cap off a long day!