Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Elephant Nature Park

[Something new: 2 video clips at the bottom- check 'em out!]
Hello everyone! I just finished the week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park. Let me start off by saying the Park is much more than that; it's really a sanctuary. In fact I think the only elephant sanctuary in Thailand, a country with a strange dichotomy of attutudes towards pachyderms: they claim to revere elephants, and in fact they are cultural icons and used as symbols everywhere, yet the Thais have a centuries-old history of the most extreme brutality towards them imaginable, especially the young.

But I'll get to that later. I had a fantastic time at the Park; I shoveled manure (briefly) and planted corn and worked my duff off, and probably lost 10 pounds in the heat, and loved every minute of it!
I could list a detailed summary of what I did every day, but that would be tedious for both you and me, so let me just list a few memorable images from the week, with photos of most of them.

The whole complex at the Park is build of mostly renewable and/or recycled wood and bamboo, and for those who ever saw my toothpick "house", it looks quite a lot like that! It's got cool little walkways zig-zagging around that took me almost the whole week to figure out. And the forty or so dogs have plenty of places to hang out, sleep, and play. As I mentioned before, the Park is also a shelter for dogs, cats, water buffalo and other cattle who were all rescued. Sangduen "Lek" Chailert (the founder) loves them all, and her Park is a shining example of what can be done with a little love, some hard work, and a bit of forward-thinking.

While it's not the Four Seasons Hotel, it was pretty comfortable. I had my own hut with futon and mosquito netting, not that I noticed any of those. No air conditioning, but the nights were cool and each room had a fan available if you wanted one. You'd fall asleep listening to crickets, gekkos, distant exotic, haunting birdcalls, and the occaisional elephant hoot. Once in a while the dogs would get in the mood to howl, and serenade us with a chorus that sounded almost like wolves!
Anyway, some memorable events: trekking through some tropical forest to a camp known as "Elephant Heavan", a patch of woods Lek uses to give the elephants some time in a more forested area than the main camp. A small group of us volunteers got to spend the night out there, have dinner cooked for us, and we talked and sang around a little campfire until sleep overtook us. The next day we hiked back, but not without tying buddhist monk-blessed sashes around trees, in the hopes that illegal loggers would be too superstitious to cut them down. Lek uses every method she can to save and preserve what's left of the habitat. Even in spite of that, there were some patches of woods that some locals had burnt to try to clear; it's a never-ending battle-- or at least a long one. Hopefully it will end some day.

Another memorable moment: "Hope" giving me a muddy kiss! The young elephant has been trained (by rewards) to give a big sucking smooch to people's cheeks-- it's the cutest thing ever! I never quite got a picture of him (yes, a boy) actually doing it, but this photo is right after one. Note: Hope is quite literally that: he's the first baby elephant Lek got that has not been "broken" by the primitive Thai "phajaan" elephant torture techniques, which are almost too horrible to describe here, but are assumed to be the only way to control elephants. Lek hopes to show the world that they can be trained and controlled with kindness instead of brutality. As you can see, it seems to be working!
Speaking of elephants, I think my favorite would have to be Medo, a sweet old lady pictured here with a broken back (or pelvis, I suspect) who was damaged by a greedy owner who tried to breed her with her foot already broken. But she holds no malice, and the old girl determinedly limps around the place, making sure she's included in the goings-on, especially the feeding and bathing! She's always gentle, and was a pleasure to sneak extra bananas to! Here she is in her usual spot, next to her big boyfriend "Uncle Max" who also happens to have an old broken foot. They seem to take comfort in each other, along with another old female missing a foot from a land mine. I was asked not to feel sorry for them, instead to be glad that they will spend their remaining years in loving care. I quickly agreed with that philosophy.
Then there was building the benches. It took two days, and I worked through lunches, as this was the best time to get stuff done without people coming to borrow tools and such. I built one long one and a little triangular one, and it was interesting re-learning carpentry with bamboo and the hardest teak I've ever used. (I owe them a new box of drillbits!) Anyway, they came out pretty nice, though I wish I had had time to build another one around a big tree growing through the deck. I was surprised and touched when, on the last day, some other volunteers showed me a sign they had painted saying "Dave's Bench". It was great... thanks again, Anna!
There were lots of other great volunteers-- too many to mention, but the two couples I seemed to hang out with the most were Paul & Barb, and Greg & Therese, all from Australia, pictured above at the Heaven Hut in the foreground. I wish I had known them when I was Down Under! Thanks, guys, for making it extra special. And thanks also to Matt & Hanna, Chris & Cathy, Jack, Lief, Lee & Anna, and all the rest. And Polly, you were a terrific group leader!

Let's see... there were also the delicious meals cooked up by Phom and her crew, sometimes joined by Lek herself who whipped up the best vegetable fritters I've ever had... and the Chang (which means elephant in Thai) beers given to me by Derrick (The one in the middle), Lek's partner, after a long day's work, which we drank along with Chaz, the head maintenance guy. Those two are the most talented handymen I've seen since Pappa; they can fix anything from water pumps to electric heaters. Unfortunately, they're both going on extended leaves this summer; I hope the place survives without them. Any volunteers? They could sure use you, Dad or Jim!

There were also trivia games and contests, memorable dinners--especially one where we had to use teams to represent animals (can you guess which animal they are above?), more elephant baths and feedings, and finally, best of all, a talk and video by Lek herself, about the current state of elephant care in Thailand and her plans to change it.
Later I got her autograph in her book and a great photo of her and Derrick at the final night's party.
The last day before I left I couldn't resist a final bath in the river with the elephants. I was glad I did, because Lek was there and I was able to get a photo of both of us-- quite an honor to be with someone who's won the "Hero of Asia" and "Hero of the Planet" awards!
Then all too soon it was time to go, but not before I said goodbye to all my new friends, human and otherwise!
**Check out the new video clips below.**

For anyone who's interested in reading more about the park, and maybe to order some gifts or even visit or volunteer yourself, here's the link:


WHAT I LEARNED ON MY VACATION: If you travel, especially to Asia or India, please keep the following in mind:

**Do NOT give money to feed elephants on city streets. You may feel sorry for them, but what they don't tell you is that they are owned by rich people, not the beggars you see, who make a profit on the suffering of the elephants as they wander the hot, hard, dangerous streets-- don't fall for this scam! The elephants are usually weak, hungry and scared, and usually torn from their mothers when far too young; they don't belong in the city, period. If nobody gives them money they'll stop the cruel practice.

**Before you go on an elephant trek or to a camp where they perform or give rides, you owe it to them to educate yourself on what goes on behind the scenes. All kinds of abuse takes place that you don't see (and some you do), including beatings, lack of food & water, separation of families, exhaustion, the list goes on. Elephants are trained to paint, for example, with up to four men poking them with sharp sticks or other weapons. Please don't support this kind of abuse. If you really want to see elephants, go to the Elephant Nature Park and see happy, playful elephants just being themselves.

**Pretty much any time you see elephants in some kind of show or display designed to get your pity-- and hence your money-- remember, they've all been through the phajaan torture, and think: do you want to support and perpetuate this? Be an educated traveler, not a clueless tourist, and don't pay for animal "entertainment" anywhere-- that includes "dancing" bears and ANY animals posed for photo ops.
[These photos were NOT repeat NOT taken at the Park; they were gotten online and taken somewhere in Thailand or Burma at a real phajaan, the "breaking" ritual that all domesticated Asian elephants go through-- except for Lek's.]

**If you have any questions at all, please email me at: hodave40@hotmail.com , leave a comment or check out the Park's website listed above.

Bathing "Jungle Boy" in the river:


Anonymous said...

I love what it says on Dereks T-shirt by Gandhi, in one of your photos. Also checked out the elephant park website...I will probably order some things from it. Thanks for all the help you gave them...it does look like you lost weight! and what a way to lose it! once again envious, Betsy

MozzarElla said...

Thank you, David, for posting even more photos from the elephant sanctuary! Medo is quite the lucky young elephant. Tomorrow I will show Ella, the 3.75 year old animal expert, this entry's photos.

I would like to know what the nights were like as you were falling asleep. At the end of the day what did you hear, feel, etc.? Your senses must be so confused to now be in busy, bustling manmade Tokyo.

I'm honored to be commenting again with Betsy. :-)

Take good care!

Unknown said...

Theres no boundaries for the amount of pain and torture humans will afflict on any creatures for the migthy dollar. http://finnhjalmar.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/torture-for-your-pleasure/