*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.

The Elephant Nature Park is nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains, far away from the bustling city

Raised platforms allow day visitors to observe the elephants from a comfortable distance for both parties

Volunteers interact with rescued elephants from a respectful distance

Jungle Boy is a handsome young tusker

Chang Yim is one of the few lucky babies to have been born in the park

Medo suffered a broken hip when her owners tried to make her breed by forcing a large, strong bull on her

Elephant begging in the city is something the Park voices out against. Although it has already been prohibited by law, it is still a fairly common sight to see baby elephants brought out to beg on the streets by their owners. The loud sounds of traffic cause agitation and nervousness in these young elephants.

Elephant begging in the city is something the Park voices out against. Although it has already been prohibited by law, it is still a fairly common sight to see baby elephants brought out to beg on the streets by their owners. The loud sounds of traffic cause agitation and nervousness in these young elephants.

One of the most inspirational people I have ever met, Sangduen "Lek" Chailert is the founder of the Park. She was named one of Asia's Heroes by Time magazine and has received many accolades for her efforts in saving the Asian elephants.

Finding Hope

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.

One of the tricks Hope has learnt is giving wet kisses with his trunk.

A volunteer plays with Faa Mai, another baby born at the park

There are few things elephants love more than a mud bath

Best buddies Faa Mai and Chang Yim have a good time together

The mahouts in the Park tend to become very attached to the elephants under their care. They often carve figurines of their individual charges and sell them to raise funds for the Park.

The mahouts in the Park tend to become very attached to the elephants under their care. They often carve figurines of their individual charges and sell them to raise funds for the Park.

More than a sanctuary for elephants, the Park also rescues stray dogs (as well as cats, buffalo, pigs, a pony, etc)

Elephants are known to be incredibly social and can be very playful

Every week, the volunteers bring a group of elephants to a rustic retreat in the mountains, called Elephant Haven. Here, the elephants are free to roam the jungle and forage for food on their own.

En route, the elephants stop for a bath in the river

My brother, Rifqi, accompanied me on my second trip to the Park


Features:

  • Berita Harian i3, 27 September 2010

Contact:

Please contact Nadia for more information on this project and for permission to reproduce any material on this page.