Water[melon] for Elephants - My Family Travels

The rough, wrinkly trunk wraps itself around the hunk of squash I hold in my outstretched hand…then promptly tosses it away, reaching out again expectantly for another snack. 

“She’s a naughty girl!” says our guide, Bee, with an exasperated grin. “You have to show her that there’s nothing else left.” Together, we hoist the tub into the air for Mintra’s inspection. After her wet, comically flexible nose gives its contents a thorough inspection, searching for more of the delicious chunks of watermelon we were just feeding her, she lets out a short puff of air that says: “Fine! I’ll eat the squash…” One minute later, the bucket is empty.



I am volunteering for a day at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with my family.  We began the day with a movie that introduced us to the plight of Thai elephants. Logging was banned in Thailand in 1989, which would seem to be both a victory for the environment and working elephants alike. However, this development left logging companies unable to provide for their “employees.” Many enterprising individuals use these use these helpless sentient beings for street begging, an inhumane practice banned in some parts of Thailand.  Logging is still perfectly legal in neighboring Burma, and the brutal disciplinary techniques used to control working elephants leave many of them with permanent physical handicaps. The mission of Elephant Nature Park is to rescue elephants in dire circumstances and provide them with a natural environment free from any sort of exploitation. After this simultaneously sobering and uplifting introduction, we were eager to lend a helping hand to this worthy cause. 

From an elevated walkway, I spot a group of elephants heading in our direction. As they draw closer, it becomes clear that they are escorting two very important residents: the babies. Bee leads the volunteers down to ground level for a closer look at these playful little guys. Their saggy skin covered with wiry bristles implies age, but their sparkling eyes betray their youth. These elephants, Chang Yim and Pha Mai, were born in the park and will never have to work or face the horrors that their parents endured. As they gallop around, occasionally stopping to scratch their rough bellies on a convenient post, I can feel the hearts of our group members melting. The pure joy radiating from Chang and Pha makes me hopeful for a future for Thai elephants that is free from hard labor. 
After a delicious vegetarian lunch for the volunteers, it is time to watch a documentary about the work of  Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the founder of the park. Bee warns us that the film is graphic and recommends that those with squeamish dispositions skip the film altogether. Her warning was justified. As we sit and watch in collective horror, we learn how young elephants are “trained” using an initiation ritual called kraal, the “training crush.” The footage of elephants being constrained, stabbed and beaten elicits dramatic responses from the audience; many cry out, and some dash even from the room. I am also appalled. It ought to have occurred to me that these powerful creatures would not simply submit to the will of puny humans; they would have to be broken first. However,  hope remains: though Lek is unable to put an end to this inhumane process outright, she travels to sites where the kraal is being performed, ready to tend to the wounds of the elephants and help them recover…physically, that is. The emotional scars remain forever.
As the afternoon sun beats down on Chiang Mai, it is time for the experience I have been looking forward to most eagerly: washing the elephants. We wade into the river that runs through the park, the volunteers armed with buckets and the elephants with their trunks, and the water fight begins. We pour buckets of water onto the elephants and scrub the dirt from their skin, and they retaliate against our splashes by spraying us with trunk-fulls of river water. In the midst of the happy chaos, I reflect on the day’s events; it has been a bit of a roller coaster. I learned just how much elephants are suffering at the hands of human beings, but also how they are being helped. Slowly but surely, Elephant Nature Park has been overcoming the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing Thai elephants, and a new generation is being introduced to a natural lifestyle. Sopping wet in the midst of a group of happy, smiling human beings and elephants, I feel incredibly optimistic. If if Lek Chailert has been capable of bringing people together to work towards making her dream a reality, what else might we as individuals be capable of? Why shouldn’t we change the world?

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