Lek means small in Thai. It’s also the name of the indomitable lady who set up the Elephant Nature Park, about an hour and a half north of Chiang Mai in Thailand. Besides her petite frame, there is nothing small about her. She is one amazing woman who has taken on everyone right up to the Thai government fighting for the rights of elephants.
Half of the 5000 elephants which remain in Thailand, the wild ones, are protected. The others, the working elephants, are classed as domestic animals and as such have almost no rights at all. They can be killed or tortured with little penalty.
In 1989 logging was banned in Thailand. It meant there were nearly 3000 working elephants out of work.
There is a traditional way of making working elephants submit to the will of their master, or mahout. It’s called Phajaan or “crushing”. At about 4 years old, the elephant is removed from his or her mother and tied into in a purpose-made wooden frame for 3 to 7 days. They stay there until their will is crushed.
The elephant is deprived of water, food and sleep, and stabbed or poked with sharp sticks or nails. A really terrifying and painful ordeal for a baby who has often just been separated from his or her mother for the first time. They learn to moved their feet on command, or to allow someone on their back, or to pick up a paintbrush, or basically do what their master tells them. It was harrowing to watch the ceremony on film. The stronger-willed elephants often die from shock or injuries before they submit.
The Phajaan “ceremony” is the current way in which working elephants are trained in Thailand.
Lek is trying to reeducate mahouts, and is also trying to removed abused elephants from their often horrific environments.
It is healthy and natural that we are curious about each other’s lives and lands and cultures. But the customer dictates the market, and so long as we turn a blind eye to the Phajaan and the working environment of many elephants, things will never change.
Battling against tradition, Thai officialdom, and many local people who need to make a living from their elephants, Lek has made an incredible start to tackling this issue. It is quite humbling to see what someone so “small” can do.
What we did at the Elephant Park?
Katie and I tried to get a place volunteering for a week but it was fully booked. We were delighted to get a stay of 2 days. There were 5 of us who arrived at the same time and who were staying overnight. A big thank you to Brent and Saxon from the States and Bob from Canada for sharing this unforgettable experience with us.
Staying over at the park, volunteering for a week if possible, is something I would thoroughly recommend to anyone, as one of those experiences that you will never forget.
Volunteers help prepare food (there’s a basket for each elephant to prepare, all with varying diets), the fruit and veg needs washing to remove any pesticides, the elephants are fed, the night shelter is mucked out, grass is cut as food for the dry season, lots of things.
We fed the elephants and bathed them, but short overnighters are not on the jobs rota. We also got to spend a LOT of time with the elephants. Ten and Sunshine our guides were passionate about the elephants and super informative.
Our accommodation was perfect, the shower room and wooden balcony looking out onto the night shelter. The food was excellent.
It has to be said that it’s quite noisy at night. But if you’re tired, I’m sure sleep is possible. For me the lack of it was partly because being onsite felt as exciting as the anticipation of Christmas Eve, and partly because elephant farts are very loud. And their trumpeting. And rumbling. Elephants only need 4 to 6 hours sleep a night. That leaves a lot of time for trumpeting, rumbling and farting.
There is also the hastily created dog sanctuary near the park, where 400 dogs rescued mainly from the recent extensive flooding around Bangkok, have found temporary shelter. They are understandably a bit noisy.
And the cat. With purring as noisy as an elephant fart, she jumped back in the bathroom window (it’s a big open space the length of one wall where you can see out to the elephant night shelter) as fast as we gently plonked her out the front door of the cabin.
Our visit to Elephant Nature Park was an incredible, incredible experience. For me what made it all the more priceless was spending the time there with my daughter, whose eyes said it all.
20 years ago Neil and I trekked on a tourist elephant. I hope we have helped to show Katie alternative ways to appreciate these beautiful animals.
10 cool things everyone should know about elephants
1. Elephants sweat through their toenails. It’s logical and pretty smart on the evolutionary front when their skin is an inch thick.
2. They live about as long as a human, from 60 or so to 100 years. The optimum age to become a mum is between 10 and 40, and a dad around 10. As a result, there are quite a few toyboys around. Unlike geese (see the blog post called “The ugly duckling and other tales from Alicante”) they do not mate for life, but they do form incredibly strong family units.
The oldest elephant on the park is Mae Jan Peng, which means Full Moon. She’s 70 and is now retired from the logging industry. We watched this gentle old lady stretch and get up this morning at sunrise.
The wonderful thing at the park is that the elephants have formed strong “family” units as initial strangers to one another when they are first rescued. Thirty six elephants are now in residence with five definite family/friend groupings of 3 to 9 elephants. Loyalty runs so deep that if two elephants are not friends, the elephants don’t like one another’s mahouts either! Katie met the biggest family group up close on a hike round the park. So close there was a bit of running involved when Jungle Boy, the naughty male, came over to investigate.
Jungle boy’s mum was heavily pregnant with him, carrying tourists on a trek, when Lek first saw his mother (the area is a common trekking route). She managed to lease his mother from the owner to take her to rest at the park until she gave birth to Jungle Boy 2 weeks later.
3. They have different coloured eyes. Medo on the park has beautiful hazel eyes. Behind them lies maybe the saddest story if all.
She worked in the logging industry until she badly broke her rear left ankle. She was then subjected to a forced breeding programme (baby elephants are valuable) but the bull attacked her whilst she was in chains and her back was broken. She spent the next 15 years in isolation moving the small logs that she could. If we had to choose a favourite elephant, it would be Medo. She’s just a few years younger than I am and nobly makes her way around, accompanied always by her two best friends.
Elephants have stronger necks than backs. One ex-trekking elephant arrived at the park after breaking her back – the twin trekking seats are heavy.
4. A newborn baby elephant weighs around 100kgs. In their lifetime a female will usually have 5 or 6 pregnancies producing usually single calves. They drink their mother’s milk for up to 4 years. Something truly lovely about elephants is the care and protection other females give to calves which are not their own, they can even produce milk.
This is a little toot, born in the park, will never face a Phajaan ceremony.
5. They eat… a LOT. Up to 10% of their bodyweight per day. They eat for around 18 hours a day. Katie and I had a discussion before we arrived at the park about whether elephants like banana peel. Some of the elephants at the park have poor digestion so bananas are peeled for them. The rest eat them whole, sometimes whole bunches at a time. 90 % of the fruit is bought locally and pumpkin seeds are returned back to local farmers. The park employs nearly 200 local people as well as volunteers – the locals are slowly coming around.
6. Elephants have very, very sensitive eyes. Lucky, one of the park elephants, performed in a circus for 30 years. She is blind in both eyes as a result of the flashlights. Joika’s blindness is a more harrowing tale. She was a logging elephant who gave birth whilst working. The baby died, Jokia became depressed and refused to work. Her handler deliberately blinded her.
You can easily tell it’s Jokia coming from a distance. Her ears are well out to pick up more sounds, her trunk trails along the ground testing where she is going, and she is always accompanied by an elephant who had become an inseparable and loving friend, Mae Perm. They are beautiful to watch.
7. Katie’s is going back to her school next year to tell the teacher the class don’t stomp around like elephants. I was told that at school too. But elephants don’t stomp. They are almost silent, and can be right behind you before you know it. They can also run at 25km per hour.
Ten percent of the information about their surroundings comes from an elephant’s eyes, 30% from their ears, and 60% from their feet. Before a Tsunami elephants have been found to have trekked miles inland long before the coming of the Tsunami is known to humans. They are super sensitive to vibrations and can “hear” up to several kilometers away.
Can you imagine what this is like for a street elephant brought into the centre of a city to beg? It’s bewildering and terrifying, just the traffic and noise alone. Street begging in Thailand is now illegal, but it’s still done. Fines are minimal, nightly cash rewards are high.
8. You can tell the age of an elephant in several ways. Their ears roll forward at the top, their temples sink in at each side and they get age spots.
9. They have 4 teeth. And these are replaced six times during their lifetime, the last time being at around the age of 60. An elephant’s tooth is really heavy!
10. In the wild, Asian elephants live near water so that they can bathe every day. This keeps them cool and mud acts as a sunscreen. In one trunk full of water they can blow out 2 gallons of water. A swipe of a trunk can also easily knock someone unconscious. We bathed the elephants. Way high up on the bucket list. This is Dani, who’s almost 50, and who was destined to become a street beggar after her logging life was over.
I’ve added an 11.
11. Their farts are INCREDIBLY loud.