I took the opportunity last week to head up to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. And, like many others who visit the ancient city, got a chance to spend time at one of the many elephant parks.
I took a trip up to the mountains into a haven built by Lek Chailert - a woman who has dedicated her life to building the Elephant Nature Park. The grounds there are stunning! The sun bathes the area with light all day, with jungled mountains surrounding the whole park. A perfect backdrop for the elephants roaming around, many of which were rescued from poor working conditions or found with heart breaking injuries.
One of my favorite, Jokia, was rescued from a logging camp on the Thai-Burmese boarder. She lost sight in both of her eyes after working conditions caused a tragic accident. Forced to work during her pregnancy , Jokia was out logging when she went into labour. At the time of her baby's birth, Jokia was on a steep mountain slope and her baby fell down the side of the mountain. Mourning the death of her baby Jokia began refusing to work. While her defiance was understandable it put her at the wrath of the camp workers and her mahout. Jokia's mahout used a common technique of poking at or sling shoting the elephants in the eye to get her to work. (Elephants use their eyes for only about 10% of their sight relying on other senses like ground and sound vibrations, as well as feeling from their trunks, so their eyesight is treated with little respect from abusive owners). Jokia is now completely blind but living happily at Lek's Camp.
Jokia is only one of 40 elephants at the camp, all of which have bitter sweet stories. While many of them have experienced sad and difficult lives, their stories end happily. These elephants and those living at the few other humane camps in Thailand have a unique story.
The plight of elephants is an important part of tourism in Thailand, for locals, tourists and elephants a like.
As most of Thailand's elephants originate from logging camps -from which elephant working was banned in the 1980's- many have never truly experienced living in the jungle. That being said, finding solutions to providing quality lives for these beautiful animals requires that these tourist parks operate humanly and respect these animals.
Camps like Lek's teach visitors about elephants and why they are so much like us. Like humans elephants live to an average lifespan of 80 years and experience the same strong sense of family as well as similar mourning emotions surrounding death.
We had time to spend with each elephant helping them with their numerous feed times, daily baths and grooming. It was a day well spent with the majestic.
Let me end this post by saying anyone who travels to Thailand and plans to spend any time with elephants owes it to these animals to take the time to research their living conditions at each camp and choose responsibly what type of treatment you will support. It will make your experience with them all the more enjoyable.