An Elephant Heaven on Earth
Approximately 35 miles from northern Thailand's city of Chiang Mai, in a lush green valley surrounded by steep mountains, is a magical place called the Elephant Nature Park. Established in 1995 by Sangduen "Lek" Cailert, the park is a sanctuary for abused, neglected, and orphaned elephants from all over Thailand. When I first arrived there, I was overwhelmed with feelings of peace and hope that remained with me throughout my stay.
The soulful eyes of an elephant can tell many life stories. Unfortunately, for the Asian elephants of Thailand, these tales often contain a great deal of pain and misery. Whether it be Mae Dta Keow, once a logging and trekking elephant who was repeatedly chained, deprived of food and water and severely beaten to be made more submissive; Boon Khum, the former working elephant who almost died from an infection left in the holes where his tusks had been removed with a chainsaw; or Jokia, who was blinded after her mahout (elephant handler) shot rocks at one of her eyes with a sling shot and her owner shot the other with a bow and arrow to get her to work harder, each elephant has a heartbreaking past.
Fortunately, however, Mae Dta Keow, Boon Khum, Jokia and others like them have been given a chance to live freely without fear of further neglect and abuse in the park's natural, tranquil environment. More than 30 elephants inhabit the sanctuary, ranging in all ages, from babies to elders. Most were rescued after having been purchased from private owners.
In Thailand, some individuals use elephants to beg for money on the hot, busy, and polluted city streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, causing the animals stress, dehydration and malnourishment. Others use elephants in trekking camps, where they are forced to carry people on their backs through dense jungles, paint pictures with their trunks, and perform circus-like tricks in shows. What tourists visiting such trekking camps do not know, however, is that they are paying to interact with elephants who were previously placed in wooden "crushing boxes," in which they are immobilized, beaten with sticks, and gouged with sharp nails for days on end in an effort to break their spirit and make them submissive to their mahouts. This ritualistic process known as the pajaan is just the beginning of what typically becomes a lifetime of suffering for these animals.
Due to many factors, including poaching and habitat reduction caused by Asia's fast-growing population, the number of elephants in Thailand has decreased dramatically from 100,000 a century ago to an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 today. Sanctuary owner Lek Cailert has dedicated her life to their plight. Her passion for these animals began at an early age, when she spent many hours with Tongkum, an elephant who was kept by her grandfather. Lek saw Tongkum as a member of the family, just as she sees all the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park today.
To rehabilitate the elephants at the park and create strong bonds with them, Lek showers the elephants with love, kindness and compassion. Positive reinforcement is the only teaching and training method she and her staff use with the animals-there are no bull hooks or other instruments of torture at the park. The only tools that can be found are the staff's hands and voices, plus the occasional treat, such as a piece of coconut or bread.
The work that Lek and her staff have done to rehabilitate some of the neglected and abused elephants of Thailand is truly awe-inspiring. Watching these majestic creatures interact so gently and in such a trusting way with humans gave me hope, not only for the rest of the working elephants in Thailand, but also for the performing circus elephants in the United States who regularly fall victim to human cruelty as they are beaten with bull hooks and chained for prolonged periods of time.
In the coming months, as we enter the final stages of preparation before going to trial against Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for cruel treatment of elephants under the Endangered Species Act, I will think about the elephant heaven on earth that I visited in Asia and be reminded of how critical it is for us to prevail in our case. Hopefully one day soon, the Ringling elephants can be spared additional suffering and live in a place like this, too.
-story and photo by Tracy Silverman