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Aug
31

Flights to Bangkok-witness elephant rescue first hand

does this look comfortable?

does this look comfortable?

The good thing about getting on a flight to Bangkok and entering an exotic city and incredible countryside is that you are completely transported. The bad thing is you sometimes lose your common sense.

elephant treks for dollars

elephant treks for dollars

If you would have asked tourists ten years ago what was the highlight of their trip to Thailand, many would have answered elephant ride in Chang Mai. I, too, would have answered the same. In fact I have a picture on my desk of my mother and I on an elephant, she nearly puking her guts out, me, beaming.

What about the elephant show in Ayutthaya? Baby elephants doing tricks?  Show me a roll of film from a Thai trip and I’ll bet money there’s an elephant show or ride in there. Elephants are the symbol of Thailand, Thai kings had stables of them, but the time has come  (actually it came long ago) to realize, to know, that elephants are wild animals and do not exist for our amusement.

breaking a baby elephant

breaking a baby elephant

No matter how it looks on the outside, elephant tourism is ugly.  Making old, or even young, elephants carry up to six people on their back in a seat made of heavy wood that can never really fit the elephant’s back, because elephants backs are curved, because unlike horses they were never meant to be saddled, causes horrible deformation and pain. There are elephant parks springing up all over Thailand full of these poor elephants.

street elephant

street elephant

When I was in Chang Mai the hotel directed us to an elephant trekking company. There were may fat American tourists just like us, some were on their honeymoons, some were on tours and they were lines of them just waiting to board these beautiful creatures who seemed so docile. The Thai people told us that it was the custom here in northern Thailand for boys to take care of their elephant as a mother would a child. To bathe it, play with it, care for it and that the relationship was a beautiful thing.

Elephant Trek

Elephant Trek

I was young and fell for it hook, line and sinker. I wanted to believe it. But the reality is that these elephants are being used as slaves. They are a huge tourist attraction for a poor country with uneducated people.

But let me educate you:

elephant cruelty

elephant cruelty

If you see an elephant in Thailand and it looks okay, don’t be fooled. Domesticated elephants go through abusive training called phajan when they are young; the training makes them docile enough to be close to people and it’s called “breaking their spirit.” The elephants are often malnourished and don’t get enough water or shade. Elephants begging on the streets are often drugged to keep them going for long hours.

behind the scenes

behind the scenes

The longer we line up for treks, rides, shows, the longer elephants will be broken to do this kind of work.  But for many, elephants are symbolic of a trip here, and the good news is, that the new way to have the elephant experience is so much better than the old.

Take the Elephant Nature Park

nature preserve

nature preserve

The park’s objectives are rehabilitating elephants, restoring natural habitat, educating and involving the local community, educating visitors, and helping make changes to improve the treatment of elephants.

happy elephant

happy elephant

A day trip is  $80, and a week long volunteer stay is nearly $400. Lonely Planet lists it as the #2 thing to do in Thailand, but this is more than just a vacation, this is an experience that will change you, and everyone you tell about it. This is elephant awareness 101.

rehabilitation

rehabilitation

Here you will learn the sad trajectory of an elephant’s life here. Traditionally they were used as work animals for logging and clearing land for development. But after logging was abolished in the 80s, most elephants were unneeded, and the population declined rapidly. Nowadays, elephants are considered “nuisances” wandering into private land for food and mainly seen as big sources of income in tourist areas. Said to make around $25/day, it’s big money for a poor farmer.

slave labor

slave labor

Elephants’ keen senses and intelligence make them poor subjects for all this abuse. Many elephants at the Elephant Nature Park suffer from anxiety, scars and deformed spines. Traditionally, elephants spent days in a holding pen called a crusher undergoing unthinkable treatment to make them subservient and learn commands. Elephants are also often underfed, which is easy to imagine, as Asian elephants are meant to eat 330-600 pounds of fresh food and drink 150 liters of water a day!

A True Elephant Sanctuary
Luckily, this is where the Elephant Nature Park comes in, and it feels like there is no such thing as a city, or cars and pollution. It’s a place where elephants roam with their adopted families after being abused or mistreated. Some elephants were abandoned, but many were bought from owners in order to save their lives. It’s founded by a Thai woman, Lek, the granddaughter of a hill tribe shaman.

Unfortunately, visitors coming to Thailand may be tempted by elephant trips starting as low as $5 to ride and watch them do tricks, so reserves like this one have a lot of competition. But seeing the chains put on the animals at other tourist spots, and knowing that most of those animals are abused to get results, hopefully will soon change the way tourists think.

see this!

see this!

Places to see and interact with freed elephants:

Elephant Nature Park: Volunteer for a day and see elephants being elephants. You get to feed and bathe the amazing creatures and witness them in a natural environment. Located just outside Chiang Mai. A great alternative to trekking.

hopefully happy elephants

hopefully happy elephants

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary: The sanctuary was started by a woman from London after becoming involved in the story of a baby elephant called Boon Lott. Stay here in a hut and see elephants for breakfast as they walk past.

looking for scraps

looking for scraps

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand: Although they only have six elephants at the moment, there are a lot of other animals at the WFFT. Go for a visit or even better spend a week volunteering with the elephants and get to know the amazing personalities of these animals.

wildlife friends foundation

wildlife friends foundation

A trip to Thailand can be a huge eye-opening, life-expanding experience if you allow it to be.

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