When I first decided to travel to Thailand and volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) I knew that I was an animal lover. I knew that I wanted to help the park care for those amazing beings and that it was my chance to get an incredible insight into their life. What I didn't know is that my whole concept of being an animal lover and my perception of what that meant would change radically.
When people visit Thailand they quite often have two things on their 'to do' list that relate to the elephants. One is to ride an elephant and the other is to buy an elephant painting. However, what many people don't realise is that there is a dark side to elephant tourism.
I'm told that most elephants in Thailand now live in captivity. Since the logging industry was banned (which doesn't mean it doesn't exist anymore, it is just illegal now) a large number of them can be found either on the streets of Bangkok begging or being used to entertain tourists.
Most of an elephant's day is spent eating food. They get through 150-300kg (!!!) of food each day and drink a similar quantity of water. My primary role at ENP (apart from scooping poo) was preparing food every day, for hours and hours! There simply is no way that a private owner, street beggar or average Thai villager could afford the amount food needed to nourish an elephant and keep them sustained.
Elephants are not meant to beg or walk on concrete streets! Or do circus tricks. Or paint. Their feet are extremely sensitive so all the vibrations, noise, pollution, people and dogs makes them scared and confused. Added to that, they experience hunger, dehydration and the fear of being beaten. Their sensitive ears are easily damaged, especially when they are used to control the elephant. The food purchased from local sellers has often been treated with chemicals and can cause the elephants serious stomach problems.
So, how do you actually make a big and powerful animal such as an elephant so afraid of such a tiny human? No wild animal would let you ride them. In order to make a wild animal so submissive, you need to torture it as a baby to completely break its spirit. The process is called Phajaan, and is still being used in Thailand. It involves taking baby elephants away from their mothers and confining them in a very small space, like a cage or hole in the ground where they're unable to move. The baby elephants are then beaten into submission with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks and starved and deprived of sleep for many days. At the end of this process they become trekkers, loggers, street beggars, artists, or clowns.
ENP is not ideal. Lek (the founder) and all of the people who have worked there, including me, are aware of that. Lek views this place as a retirement home. A lot of the animals are old and have been used in the logging industry. Some have been beaten and tortured. Some of them have had their feet blown up by mines, or have been used for illegal/forced breeding. Lek's goal is to give them a space to live out the remainder of their lives in safety, peace and quiet. Of course, it's not the same as them being in the wild. Yes, they still have a Mahout walking close to them (although Lek forbids them to use any sharp object or cruel punishments). Finally, yes, this approach does create another problem as people try to sell their old elephants to ENP for a ridiculous amount of money.
One of the saddest moments I had during my stay at ENP was when I was just sitting and watching these guys in a semi-natural habitat was realising that their life was full of disappointments and loses. Would you have wished that life for anyone? I'd ask anyone thinking of travelling to Thailand to properly research elephant tourism before they travel and make informed decisions about the appropriateness of their plans.
Now, some more positive stuff.
Poo (really!). Babies can't digest cellulose so they get it from faeces. If you see a mother shovelling poo into their kid's mouth, don't panic! Interestingly, they are quite happy to eat it from a known bum, but they won't go near a random pile of poo;) It's also a good place to hide if you see a bunch of eles running your way.
Touch. Rescued elephants really don't like people touching them. It this reminds them of being beaten. They may let you touch them if you are holding a banana as an elephant will never refuse a good banana (an elephant is always hungry;) However, they don't like random strangers touching their trunk, would you have liked if someone started petting your nose? Between one another, they are incredibly affectionate.
Mosquito bites. An elephant's skin is unbelievably thick, but a mosquito bite can send them into a scratching hysteria!
Sleep. They do lie down sometimes. It's rare and hard to see as they only sleep a few hours a night, but serves as a really good alarm clock when your home is right next to where they stay!
They are extremely shy animals and are happiest in their own company. The bond between elephants can be extremely strong. They also communicate with each other in such a loving way! Imagine yourself cuddling with your partner - elephants like a good cuddle too! Who doesn't?