Before I travelled to Thailand I, like my friends, thought an elephant’s back sounded like a great vantage point to take in the Thai jungle, but when I looked into it my ideas radically changed. To partake in an ‘elephant trek’ is to support to wrongful treatment of these majestic animals by their mahouts in abhorrent conditions. I believe one of the most important pillars of travelling is the mindfulness of personal ethical footprint. A degree of ethical responsibility must be undertaken no matter where in the world you are. Ignorance is not bliss and education really is everything. We learnt a lot about elephants and their background in Thailand at the Elephant Nature Park just outside Chiang Mai.
The Park was founded by Lek Chailert, who was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time magazine and the park has been featured in National Geographic magazine (among other international publications). The park endeavours to provide sanctuary for distressed elephants of Thailand and Burma. These elephants have been involved in illegal logging (still legal in Myanmar), circuses and tourism treks, and many bare witness to their past struggles with broken legs/backs, blinded/missing eyes, scars and foot deformities. After spending time with individual elephants and hearing their stories we felt sincere empathy for what the creatures had been through but the solace the park provides was remarkable.
We spent the two days at the park feeding and bathing the mountainous inhabitants. On both days we took a dip in the river with the elephants where we conducted water fights using the elephants as shields. Exfoliating an elephant’s armour with a bucketload of river water somersaulting towards you over its back in the Thai heat- I can’t describe it in words. We also went on two treks through the vast 250 acres of roaming ground encountering and learning about different elephants along the way. Over the two day experience our guide, who educated on just about everything elephant, became more of a friend than a guide.
The park’s ethos is sparked by a passion for spreading awareness of trekking trade realities. We were shown documentaries, some of which were very distressing causing some people to leave the theatre, laying bare the context of treks. The thing all elephants have in common is that they are trained by mahouts. At the inception of this training something truly barbaric occurs. The animal is dragged, trumpeting screams, into a wooden box like structure which is so tight around the perimeter of the elephant that it cannot move. Then, for a period of three days or more, the animal is subjected to continuous beating and torture with various weapons, the objective being that the animal’s ‘spirit is broken’ and it becomes obedient. A slave from then on incapable of individual thought and a mere extension of the mahouts’ will. There is something deeply disturbing about this, an inspiring creature, and one revered by the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, forever condemned to carry out torturous tasks for man’s mere enjoyment or utility. And so the elephant staggers from the cage bloody and defeated after a battle he was never destined to win to begin a life sentence.
As embellished as this account may seem it was not until I witnessed the video myself that my eyes were opened to the background noise no one wants you to see. Asides from the barbaric beginnings if you think that an elephant’s back is designed for human riding comfort, think again. I saw an elephant with a broken back that was excruciatingly obvious to the eye. An elephant should only ever have one human behind its ears, the point at which tourists are hoisted up on the animal’s back cannot cope with the weight. Then when the (often metal) chairs are taken into consideration as well as two or even three people, as the case often is, the elephant’s structure cannot and should not have to cope.
The two day experience in the park cost about one hundred pounds, which of course is a massive chunk of a backpacker budget but it was entirely worth it. Included in the cost was our accommodation (the most impressive accommodation we had for the whole trip), our food for the whole time we were there (breakfast, lunch and dinner and the grub is smashing) and all of the activities over the two days. We weren’t left to our own devices except in the evenings and the place is buzzing with young people, mostly american, as its a top place to spend a few weeks volunteering. We had the most memorable experience in the park. It was reminiscent of jurassic park, but with elephants and I hope to return.
Upon leaving the park we witnessed a moment of profound helplessness, as the realities involved in trekking were laid out before our eyes. Not even three minutes after we left we passed a group of tourists bobbing along happily on top of elephant’s backs- three to an elephant, with metal chairs. As we passed and saw the mahout kicking the elephant behind the ears and using a spear ended prod we felt slightly disheartened. However despite this, great fulfilment comes from witnessing how elephant’s like these have found a sprawling bamboo eden.
The moral is this; before taking part in an activity take a minute to think about the context of the situation and how exactly business is being done. Some things you’ll witness in SE Asia are unconscionable but are beyond the individual’s reach, however, I am a hopeful believer in progress and we should boycott injustices within the bounds of personal influence, failing to do so is simply tragic. Lek Chailert, founder of the Elephant Nature Park, is a fine example of the power of the individual.