Hanging with the herd at a refuge
Thai conservation park offers safe home for animals
An aging female elephant whips her trunk around wildly like a live electrical wire. She sniffs my outstretched palm and then inhales my banana offering with the suction of a vacuum cleaner.
I’m standing amidst a group of like-minded tourists, chucking food into the mouths of hungry elephants.
At the Elephant Nature Park, a leafy compound in northern Thailand, tourists get a close-up encounter with elephants without the animal cruelty. Unlike many trekking tours in the area, this park doesn’t have elephant rides, circus tricks, training or chains. It’s a refuge for domestic-working Asian elephants, most of whom have been rescued from abuse.
“This is a place where elephants can just be elephants,” explains our tour guide as she feeds Babar another banana.
Watching them snack happily away, it’s hard to imagine these elephants have a dark past. Many survived mistreatment along the bustling streets of Bangkok; navigating the relentless traffic, bright lights and loud city sounds. Other elephants housed here fell victim to malnutrition and physical abuse. Many were blinded, hobbled and drugged by owners working in the trekking and logging industries.
When Lek, founder of the Elephant Nature Park, first became aware of how elephants were being treated in Thailand, she was compelled to do something. She spoke out against the training practices of the trekking industry. “I’m against cruelty in training,” she tells me. “There’s no need to beat or abuse the elephants.” The Jane Goodall of the elephant world continues her mission of rescue and rehabilitation. Today, her conservation project has a large staff of guides and international volunteers.
It’s time to bathe the elephants, so I follow the group down to the muddy waters of the Mae Taeng River. With a brush and a bucket, I douse Dumbo with water and give him a little scrub. I look to the mahout (a young man who tends the elephants) for permission to approach closer — an elephant’s trunk can break bones, so you don’t want to mess with his personal space. The mahout nods in approval and I inch closer for a look at Snuffleupagus’ wrinkly skin and long girly eyelashes.
Staring into the eye of an elephant, I consider the role us tourists play in supporting the often cruel and exploitative elephant trekking business. I admit that last time I was in Thailand, I booked a half-day jungle trek on elephant back. Did I check to see if the animals were being treated properly? No. I never really thought about the implications of my tour. It was just a cool thing for a backpacker to do.
After a visit to the Elephant Nature Park, I learn my lesson. Responsible travel is key.
The elephant trumpets. Water is splashed. Bath time is over.
| julia's tips |
- If you’re a traveller who’s interested in voluntourism; a die-hard conservationist; or someone who just likes elephants, Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park is a great place to volunteer. With gorgeous scenery, cool staff, a well-organized operation and 24/7 quality elephant time, it’s the place to be.
- For more information visit elephantnaturefoundation.org
This article was first published in Metro metronews.ca
For more columns by Julia Dimon visit thetraveljunkie.ca or juliadimon.com
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