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Elephants and their mahouts head towards the river at Elephant Nature Park. Bathing helps the elephants to stay cool in the Thai heat.



I tentatively stretch out a hand full of raw pumpkin chunks, and in seconds the hyperactive snout has pounced on them. It curls itself around the pumpkin, its slimy sandpaper grip brushing my hand, and in an instant, the fruit is gone and the snout is demanding more.

Elephants spend 18 hours a day eating, but only sleep for four.


uckily, there’s plenty more to come. Hope, the elephant attached to this insistent trunk, still has several kilos of pumpkin, bananas and watermelon waiting in his basket, and in the nearby elephant kitchen, shelves are piled high with fruit. A single elephant can eat up to 250 kilos per day, and Elephant Nature Park, where Hope lives, is home to 34 elephants. Other visitors hold out pieces of fruit to Hope, and each time, he gobbles them greedily and waves his trunk around, searching for more. I am fascinated by the way he flops his trunk out onto the cement platform where we are standing, by the way his trunk is constantly searching and roaming and sniffing, by the way he uses the tip of his trunk like fingers to pick up smaller pieces of fruit. Although there are many places in Southeast Asia to interact with elephants, Elephant Nature Park’s philosophy is unique. This is a sanctuary and rescue centre for Thai elephants, who are allowed to roam free in this beautiful mountain valley near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

This baby elephant, who was born at the park, frequently stands on concrete or logs to look taller.

Unlike other Thai elephants, these elephants do not perform shows or give visitors rides. Here, visitors pay to help feed and bathe the elephants, and to watch them in their semi-wild habitat. The elephants still have elephant keepers, or mahouts, to take care of them, but these mahouts do not use sharp rods to force the elephants into submission. Instead, they gain the elephants’ trust — my tour guide explains that it is the elephant who chooses the mahout, not the other way around — and the two work together. For Hope, being at the sanctuary has meant the difference between life and death. Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park, met Hope when she and her team were called to a village to treat an elephant who had just miscarried. When they arrived during the night, they found another elephant as well — an orphaned baby under a year old, riddled with parasites, clearly depressed and afraid, and so skinny Lek was not sure he would survive. The next morning, Lek spoke with the elephant’s owner, who told her that his family could not afford to feed the elephant. Lek

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negotiated with him and the team brought the elephant back to the sanctuary to care for him. Hope was so sick that he required around-the-clock care, but he was also so scared of humans that for days he would not sleep or accept milk from her. Slowly, she gained his trust, and he recovered. Now, Hope is a headstrong, mischievous adult elephant, and an integral member of the herd. After Hope has been fed, we follow the winding wooden pathways to the raised viewing platform on the other side of the building. Here, we meet several other of the sanctuary’s elephants, and are able to observe them from above before heading down to ground level. It is amazing being able to stand next to creatures who tower a metre above me at the shoulder and weigh at least 50 times what I do — and to feel so safe doing so.

In the elephant kitchen, fruit gets cut and portioned out for each elephant. As much as possible, fruit is sourced from local farmers.

After lunch, it’s bath time for the elephants. The guides give us buckets, and we tromp down to the river to throw water on the elephants’ backs, and, inadvertently, on each other. One of the elephants at the park is pregnant, and the guide reports that she’s due any day now. She is large enough that she might be carrying twins, though twin births are almost unheard of in the elephant world. We spend time with the elephants until lunch, an astonishing rainbow of Thai and Western options. While we eat, we watch elephants out in the field also munching away. Elephants spend 18 hours a day eating, yet their movements are slow and heavy, as though they are trying to conserve energy. By contrast, they only sleep for four hours a day. After lunch, it’s bath time for the elephants. The guides give us buckets, and we tromp down to the river to throw water on the elephants’ backs, and, inadvertently, on each other. The afternoon unfolds much the same way as the morning. As dirty as I am from patting and getting slobbered on by the elephants — one gives kisses on the cheek — I become more and more enthralled by them the longer I am here. In late afternoon, most visitors leave the park, but I am staying overnight in a standalone hut in the forest, as is one other couple. We’re here during the rainy season, so the park is relatively quiet. Compared to most of the elephants at the sanctuary, Hope has been lucky. Asian elephants fall into two categories, domesticated, like Hope, and wild, who are rarely seen and can be extremely dangerous to humans. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were over 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Today, largely due to destruction of their habitat, only 3,000 to 4,000 Thai elephants remain, about half domesticated and half wild. Tragically, though, despite this sharp decline in numbers, only wild elephants are protected as an endangered species under Thai law. Domesticated elephants are considered livestock and are thus given the same protection as livestock — virtually none.

Many of the elephants who come to Elephant Nature Park have worked in illegal logging. Many have worked as street beggars. Many have been part of forced breeding programs. All have gone through a brutal breaking ritual that involves depriving them of food and water for days, burning them, and poking them with sharp sticks until they bleed. Traditional Thai mahouts believe this ritual is necessary to turn an elephant into a submissive worker who can earn its owner money. This park aims to prove the opposite, and Lek and the team hope it will be used as a model for other elephant ecotourism parks. We wake up early and after breakfast help a worker, a woman from Melbourne who has been here for seven years, to scrub pumpkins and watermelons for the elephants. It is clear that the typical elephanthuman relationship has been reversed here: We work for them. After all that these elephants have gone through, it seems only fair. Afterwards, we go on a walk to the more secluded areas of the park, where the elephant habitats are. Here, we see some of the elephants who are still too uncomfortable around humans to come down to the river during the day, and we hear stories about their lives and their social relationships. We stop at an elephant shelter where three animals are standing around eating. Apparently, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. The guide tells us that the male in this group has been recently introduced to the herd. One of the females, whom everyone at the sanctuary refers to as a “drama queen,” has fallen for the male, and now spends her time doting on him rather than with her best female friend. The friend, who is badly crippled from a logging accident, has become a third wheel, the guide explains. But the plot thickens. The male is in must, but he is also weak from recent abuse. He’s not strong enough to mount his drama queen girlfriend, so he goes after her handicapped friend instead. The friend, however, has in the past been brutally attacked by a male during

The author makes a futile attempt to avoid slobber while feeding an elephant.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were over 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Today, largely due to destruction of their habitat, only 3,000 to 4,000 Thai elephants remain, about half domesticated and half wild. a forced breeding program, so she is not interested in this male’s advances. It sounds like the plot of a soap opera, but it’s just another day in the life of elephants at the nature park. We move on. The day before, Lek found an orphaned bear cub, and it is currently residing in a little shack in the woods here until Lek is able to nurse it to health and release it back into the wild. We watch another group of three elephants wander around, and eventually they come to the shack. They can’t see inside, but it is clear they know there’s something in there. The three are lined up in a row outside the shack, and they make sounds that I never would have guessed elephants could make, including whining and squawking and thumping their trunks on the ground to produce a surprising hollow sound. They are clearly agitated. At one point, one of them trumpets. Their trunks are moving wildly, sniffing the shack, sniffing the ground, investigating everything. For as much noise as they’re making, our guide tells us that most of their communication takes place at frequencies too low for the human ear to pick up. Eventually, the mahouts guide the elephants away from the shack, and the poor bear cub is allowed some rest. But more drama quickly unfolds. Back near the first shelter, the love triangle has turned sour. The male has tried to mount the handicapped female, and she runs away, the male in close pursuit and the drama queen following. All three trumpet loudly and pound the earth beneath their huge feet. We quickly move over to watch the chase, our guide cheering on the handicapped female. I am so engrossed in taking a video of the action that I don’t pay any attention to the elephants behind us, the ones who were sniffing out the bear cub, until I hear the guide’s panicked cry: “Watch out!” I run, but it is a false alarm. The elephants behind us looked for a moment like they were planning on joining the stampede, but now

all six have calmed down. It is a good reminder that although these animals are domesticated and friendly, they are powerful. Watching elephants in their natural environment is like spending time inside a nature programme, and I am grateful that this park exists, both to protect these individuals from abuse, and to protect the species from extinction. In the van on the way back to Chiang Mai, we see a mahout riding his elephant. The elephant looks thin, and as we pass I notice scars on the elephant’s side and legs — some are souvenirs from the elephant’s breaking ritual, and some appear more recent. There are so many elephants in Thailand who are still being mistreated, and I wonder whether Lek’s reach will ever be great enough. But there are so many people who believe in her project, and if the growth Elephant Nature Park has seen in the last few years continues, it’s possible that one day her vision could spread throughout Thailand. A week after I leave the park, the pregnant elephant gives birth — to twins. They become one of only three known pairs of twin elephants in all of Thailand. These baby elephants are some of the lucky few in the country who have never known abuse. With help from Lek and everyone else at Elephant Nature Park, they never will. If you go … Tours leave daily from Chiang Mai. Day tours cost 2,500 Baht per adult ($85 AUD at time of printing) or 1,675 Baht for children under 12 ($57 AUD), and include lunch. Overnight tours cost 5,800 Baht for adults ($197 AUD) and 3,900 Baht for children under 12 ($132 AUD), and include all meals. Longer stays and volunteering positions are also available. Visit for more information.

Where there is hope  

Travel essay about visiting Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Published in the December/January 2010 issue of Tasmanian Life mag...

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