Today was a venture out to the Elephant Nature Park. It’s a facility run by a tiny woman, Lek, with a huge vision. It’s her desire to stop the domestication and use of elephants as loggers, street beggars and performers. She has 35 elephants on her 200+ acre reserve. There are no fences, chains, ropes. They are free to roam where they like. Over the last twenty years she has acquired these elephants by purchasing them from their abusive owners, rescuing orphans, and giving aid to the injured and distressed.
I am heading out to be part of the volunteer program in the Surin Province in a couple days and I wanted something that would give me a little preparation, insight to what I might see and do while I’m there. When we arrived at the nature park, we had an orientation of the facility, given knowledge about the Asian Elephant and it’s struggle, and we were introduced to the herd. Like humans, each elephant has its own personality, quirks, traits and as a result there is a mahout (person who works with elephants) assigned to every individual elephant. Someone who becomes expert in what that elephant likes, dislikes, their characteristics, moods…someone who understands the subtleties of that elephant. Someone that knows that elephant better than anyone else. They become best friends.
Its an amazing place. The herd is gentle. They have finally found a peaceful life. And although they come from all over Thailand and have different backgrounds and stories, they have a bond with one another. They are a family. Some of the elephants have created incredibly strong bonds. Jokia is blind. She was blinded by her logging owners because she refused to work after she lost her baby. She gave birth while working and the calf fell down the steep hill where she was being forced to move logs. The calf died and Jokia fell into a depression refusing to work. Her owners thought that beating and mutilating her would get her to work again. Mae Perm is her companion and her eyes here at the reserve. The two are inseparable. I don’t know that I’ve seen anything so moving.
I could go on about each elephant here, but I recommend visiting them for yourself. We fed them, visited the babies and their families, bathed them in the river, and generally had the opportunity to observe their lives. Some know tricks from their performing past. They touch their head with their trunk, they give a kiss. It’s something they know how to do and they still do these things, but they will never be forced to do them, or beaten for not doing them ever again.