I wasn’t sure how to explain it all back then, I was so exhilarated, angry, happy, deeply sad, and unsure if I could join education, activism, hope and joy into a single post.
Last December, I had an experience that changed my outlook. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you do something you hadn’t planned, and it turns out to be so much more than you could have imagined. When people ask, and they always do, “what was your favorite thing/place?” This experience stands so far above everything else, it’s not even in the category.
Going to the Elephant Nature Park was Brent’s idea. Sure, elephants are cool, okay, and I do love the critters in general. It was more that I wanted to spend on any one thing, but he arranged everything, and I was up for whatever he wanted to do, and he felt strongly about this. My expectations were low, because there are plenty of bullshit tourist traps everywhere.
Instead, I met an amazing person. Her name is Lek Chailert, and she’s both the softest (hearted), and the most determined human I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet, and see what her grit and love have created. Here she is:
She has taken on local tribes, loggers that use and abuse elephants, tourist riding camps (that abuse elephants). Here’s what riding does to an elephants spine. Jaronee was a riding elephant for years- you can still see the mark of the seat on her broken back.
Lek and her husband Derrick went to Bangkok during the floods and personally rescued hundreds of dogs and cats and built sanctuaries for them at the park. She lobbies tirelessly for ellies, and teaches people that you don’t have to abuse them to encourage tourism. Her park is the example, elephants free to make their own friends, family groups, and are free to be loners if they want. This girl below isn’t social, so she hangs out with her mahout during the day- it’s probably lonely for him too.
And then there are girls like Medo. This beauty had her leg broken in a logging camp, so they decided to use her for forced breeding. The male was in full-on musth, and broke her back. When she had no economic value, Lek was able to rescue her, and she’s an absolute sweetheart. I don’t think I was the only person that completely fell in love with her.
And there are others, there is Mae Perm and her blind (blinded on purpose so she wouldn’t react to street and car lights) friend Jokia. Here’s Mae Perm giving Brent a trunk hug in appreciation for a nice face scratch, the dapper gent alongside is our guide Sakchai, also known as Sunshine.
And then, there are the babies. Babies that will never be subjected to the “crush”, also known as Phajaan, which is meant to literally crush the animals sprit through torture and deprivation, google it if you want, but it’s awful. What’s worse, it’s unnecessary. Elephants are much like dogs- smart and eager to please.
Here’s (I think) Faa Mai sneaking up on Katie, gentle as you please
We met Katie and her mum Jennifer at ENP. They are Scots that live in France and were traveling and home-schooling (dad and 2 brothers were on a different thai adventure for these days). We later all got together again in Budapest, but that’s another story. We were all shocked to discover that “stomping about like elephants” is a misnomer- they are silent when they walk, due to very soft feet.
And I can’t close without a picture of the charmer himself, little Navaan. This little rascal is so interested in people, and has an entourage of his own. Older elephants become “nannies” to the young ones, so it’s common to see a baby with three or four caretakers, including the mom. Navaan’s mom had a very serious land mine injury that the vets at ENP treated. It’s fascinating to see how these family groups form. Here’s Navaan and Katie
I didn’t get a picture of this, but every afternoon when the vans leave to take the people back to Chiang Mai, Navaan is there at the gate waving goodbye with his little trunk- he does this on his own, but his nannies are close behind.
When you travel, please choose supporting kindness over torture. The experience we had taught us so much about elephant tourism, and Lek showed us how you can change an industry with dedication, determinism and love.
Here’s a parting shot of the girls coming down to the river for their bath, they know it’s time, and the people are waiting, not to ride, but to engage.
Learn more at http://www.saveelephant.org
Navaan will thank you.