*chang: elephant (Thai)
Officially classified as endangered, the elephant is one of Thailand’s national icons, a symbol of fortune, strength and loyalty. To me, these graceful creatures also represent hope and healing. There is something about being surrounded by them that is so awe-inspiring yet calming and humbling at the same time. I often find myself drawn to their eyes; kind, wise eyes that convey such depth of emotion, eyes that brim with stories, eyes that laugh, feel and understand.
THE PLIGHT OF THE THAI ELEPHANT
In Thailand, most captive elephants are trapped in the traditional elephant begging, trekking and tourism camp industry. In order for them to have been domesticated, almost all of them would already have gone through the phajaan, a barbaric ritual of torture performed on baby elephants to “crush” their spirit by establishing their owners’ domination over them. These baby elephants are separated from their mothers, tied down and prodded continuously with sharp metal spikes and heated iron. (Link for more information)
Once they have learnt to accept people on their backs and obey commands, these elephants join the tourist trade which is fueled by the popularity of elephant rides among travelers to Thailand.
THE ELEPHANT NATURE PARK
The Elephant Nature Park is home to dozens of elephants rescued from abuse and overwork and aims to save the Asian elephant from impending extinction by preserving its natural habitat and raising awareness of the inhumane methods of training for domesticated elephants. Everyday, the Park welcomes visitors who are keen to have a more genuine interaction with elephants instead of riding them or watching them perform tricks. The Park also offers volunteers the opportunity to stay for a longer period of time to help with maintenance and daily chores while learning more about the elephants.
Hope is a mischievous young orphan with whom Lek spent a lot of time in order to earn his trust. Hope has been trained using positive reinforcement to perform simple tricks. Lek aims to slowly introduce positive reinforcement to elephant owners as an alternative to the traditional violent phajaan.