Long before they became one of the chief lures to draw foreign visitors, elephants were already a deeply embedded part of Thailand’s image. The kingdom was known to outsiders as the Land of Elephants, for both the animals themselves and the symbols and statues of them that seemed to be everywhere. The biggest animals ever tamed by man, elephants were striking symbols of power. They were part of royal processions and the ceremonies of princes and great lords, who also rode them into battle to deal with the rulers of the enemy, who were likewise on elephants.
Perhaps because only the rich and powerful could afford to keep elephants, these animals became symbols of good luck and prosperity. Statues of elephants are frequently part of temple compound decorations. Devotees bring small wooden carvings of elephants and leave them as votive offerings. Some adorn their domestic spirit houses with a carved elephant. Where elephants were part of the rural environment, the villagers believed that if a pregnant woman passed beneath an elephant’s belly she would have an easy childbirth.
Economically speaking, elephants helped build the nation. Without these pachyderms to haul the heavy teak logs out of the deep forests, the logging business would have required at least ten times the manpower. Elephants in the thousands worked in the teak business, for this was the hardwood of choice for government bungalows and offices, the merchants’ shop-houses and the homes and elegant furniture of the rich and successful.
With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that the industrious elephants worked their way out of a job and ended up endangering the species’ very existence. As one patch of forest after another fell to the loggers, the wild elephants lost their stomping grounds and began to die off. Not until logging was banned in 1989 and the last of the shrinking forests marked for preservation did the decline in wild elephants halt. But by then there were less than a thousand of them left.
Then it was the turn of the domesticated elephants. Bereft of their regular employment, too expensive to keep otherwise, they began to die off, too. When the logging ban went into effect 20,000 elephants still lived in Thailand. A decade later the number was down to 4000, and that even included the last of the wild elephants.
Yet for travelers from abroad, Thailand is still the Land of Elephants, a place where they can not only see them but also have their own personal encounter with them. They can even feed them bananas right on the streets of downtown Bangkok. They flock to Surin every November to see the great Elephant Round-up re-enactment. In Chiang Mai they attend the elephant shows at Mae Rim or one of several jungle venues in the northern hills and line up for a short, leisurely ride through the forest on elephant back.
However commercialized they might judge the whole affair, however uncomfortable it might be sitting in the howdah on the elephant’s back as it lumbers along the trail, no one leaves disappointed. For people who grew up in countries that don’t have elephants the fascination is natural. To them the elephant is a living, moving symbol of Asian exotica. And here in Thailand you can touch it, feed it, even ride it, to the envy of your friends when you talk about it back home.
Moreover, you can learn how strong they are by watching the mahouts demonstrate how the elephants used to push and pull logs. You can judge for yourselves whether blues bands should take notice of the tunes elephants play on their harmonicas, if the splash of paint strokes on a canvas they make holding a brush in the trunk represents some hidden elephant sense of artistic expression, or whether the music industry should send cameramen to capture their choreography for use in a rock and roll video.
As an encounter with Asian exotica the experience comes out positive. Most people think there is no other way to have an elephant experience, other than go to live in one of the remote villages where elephants are still kept. As for the wild ones, you might spot them from a distance while in one of the wildlife sanctuaries, but you certainly can’t walk up to one with a smile on your face and a bunch of bananas in your hand.
But there is one place in the North where anyone whose fascination with elephants goes beyond the possibilities offered by the tourist shows will find much to slake their thirst for elephant lore. This place is Elephant Nature Park, in a remote part of Mae Taeng district, beyond the Ban Tammian ferry, owned and managed by a dedicated elephant enthusiast, a woman named Lek. Her elephants are not trained to do anything, so there’s no show to watch. Instead visitors can learn how to take care of elephants, feed them fruit and help them bathe in the river. But these are very special elephants that you won’t find at the tourist shows. These elephants are the wounded, the injured, the sick and even the blind. Lek doesn’t run an ordinary elephant camp. It’s more like an elephant nursing home or sanctuary.
It was certainly time to have such a place. Working elephants, just like working people, get sick sometimes, have accidents, infections, diseases. But as animals they don’t rate the same kind of attention as humans. The animals still go to work when they are sick, their wounds fester and their ailments worsen. Anyway, they are not as economically useful as in the past, so they often don’t bring in enough money to pay for their own medicine. De-worming medicine costs 17,000 baht. Antibiotics cost 3000 baht a shot, with a minimum full week’s injections necessary. And it’s best to hire a specialist or a vet to make the injection. It’s more problematic giving a shot to an elephant than to a human. Wrong administration of the medicine could make the elephant worse or even, as one family in the area found out, drop dead in half an hour. An unemployed sick elephant thus puts a tremendous financial burden on its owner, one that many cannot bear.
Lek became acutely aware of such problems when she was working at a nearby elephant tourist camp in the early 90s. She took a job there to be near elephants, being intensely fond of the animals since her childhood. She grew up in a Khamu village, where her grandfather was one of the local shamans. When she was just five years old, one of her grandfather’s successfully cured patients presented him with an elephant, named Tong Kham, as payment. Lek took an instant liking to her—so big, yet so gentle. She became her close friend and ever since has maintained and deepened that affection for elephants such that by now they are the main focus of her life.
She got a good education, possessed a strong natural curiosity and sense of diligence, learned to read and write English, got into the tourist trade and eventually set up her own company Gem Travels. Blessed with an abundance of physical and intellectual energy she might have succeeded at anything she chose in life. But she wouldn’t have been happy with anything that took her far from her beloved elephants. The tourism industry at least kept her in touch with them. But her heart couldn’t bear it when she saw how the elephants suffered in places she worked or areas she visited.
Personally, she preferred that elephants not work at all, that they could all return to nature, free and unfettered. Knowing that’s only a dream, on the practical side someone had to take care of the sick and the wounded. So for that role she nominated herself. She started by selling her house and car to buy a small plot of riverside land to be used as an elephant refuge. And then she began taking in sick, wounded and crippled elephants and looking after them, first with just her assistant Pom and later with well-wishers from all over the world who answered the call on her website.
All this cost a lot more money than a village girl could raise on her own, even with a tour company’s assets. A fully-grown elephant costs 350,000 baht on average. Females in these post-logging days are worth more than males. Lek managed to find international sponsors to help with the purchases of many of the rescued elephants at Elephant Nature Park, where 37 elephants now reside. The youngest is just over two years old and the eldest is in her 70s.
Her greatest financial break came in 2003 when Bert Von Roemer, a fellow elephant-lover from Texas, donated enough money for her to purchase land in the Mae Taeng Valley. Here she has created her own private elephant preserve. Some of the elephants have fully recuperated from their various ailments, infections and injuries, but others need daily attention and medical treatment. The elephants wander freely, unchained, during the day, free to interact naturally and to form family groups and friendships.
Lek is at the park most days, though with her constant commuting back to her Chiang Mai office, most of the day-to-day care is handled by her staff, the mahouts, elephant fans from around the world on one or two-week volunteer programs and people hired from the local village. Visitors, whether they are the volunteers, day-trippers or those who stay overnight in one of the comfortable stilted houses around the lot, will get to know some of the elephants at the park.
Two of the most lovable elephants are Faa Mai, a girl, and Chang Yim, a boy, both born in the park in 2009, who are often seen playing together in the field, in the river or in the mud pit. Hope, a ten year-old male orphaned as a baby, is now of the most rambunctious and mischievous elephants in the park. Jokia, the elephant blinded by her irate former owner when she wouldn’t work to his commands, was a terribly distressed creature when she was rescued in 1999. Yet upon Jokia’s arrival in the camp another elephant, Mae Perm, began looking after her, steering her in the right direction when the elephants went out to bathe or feed. After ten years together these two elephants are now best friends and Mae Perm continues to watch over Jokia with constant devotion.
Elephants are very social animals, family-conscious, loyal to their kin, sleep only four hours a day and eat most of the rest of the time. All these facts visitors learn quickly after their arrival. They also learn that elephants communicate, that the trumpeting they hear is elephant conversation and that much of the talk is done with sounds they emit at a sub-sonic level that humans cannot hear. The front part of the skull between the eyes vibrates whatever sound they make when they talk, but only fellow big-eared elephants can catch all of it.
You can learn an intoxicating amount of facts about elephants at Lek’s park in just a day. But even the two-week volunteers feel that they’ve only scratched the surface in their time in the park, for there is always something new to understand about these impressive animals. Lek herself claims that in spite of her reading (she owns practically every book available on elephants in English or Thai) and her long years of experience with them, she is constantly discovering new things about them. She does admire one particular characteristic. “When an elephant loves you it is without conditions,” she says. “Humans have many conditions for their love. But not an elephant. An elephant’s love is unconditional. Pure.”
After nine years Lek expanded the park’s facilities to accommodate short-term tourist stays as well as more volunteers. Beyond helping to defray the costs of nursing elephants any profits she gets out of it she is likely to use for purchasing more land and rescuing more elephants. Her main objective is to offer a new kind of elephant experience. Until now people could only observe the tricks man has taught the elephant to perform. At her park people have the opportunity to gain real insight into elephants as they become more intimate with the animals, learn about them and observe their natural behavior patterns, their communication with each other, their emotions and social life. They and their favorite elephants will become mutually familiar and they will soon learn yet one more unexpected fact—that elephants, like people, all have different, distinctly individual personalities.
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Text by Jim Goodman © Jim Goodman – All Rights Reserved
Photo ‘Lek’ by Elephant Nature Park © Elephant Nature Park – All Rights Reserved
Photo ‘Mahout Leading’ by Kashfia Rahman © Kashfia Rahman – All Rights Reserved
All other photos by Jim Goodman © Jim Goodman – All Rights Reserved
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