Traditionally, elephants have been used for manual labor and logging. Once logging became illegal, many tribes, like the Karen people in the hills of Chiang Mai, began renting their elephants to Elephant Camps where they perform and carry over half a ton on their back to allow people to ride them. In order to get them to follow orders, these incredibly intelligent, emotional animals are broken through a process called phajaan where they’re made to fear humans, especially their mahout.
Like humans, elephants have unique personalities, will mourn the death (or forceful separation) of family and friends, show empathy and comfort other elephants who are suffering, and can learn new things rapidly and pass that knowledge onto other elephants. They also have remarkable recall and emotional intelligence – there have even been reports of elephants recognizing each other after more than 20 years of separation!
Now, working as a mahout was once a highly honorable position in traditional Asian societies, but today it’s a very different story. Many of the mahouts who work at elephant camps or for private owners in northern Thailand are refugees from neighboring Myanmar who were left with little choice but to take the jobs that most Thai citizens avoid. Today, nearly all mahouts in this region are disadvantaged and receive little respect from the larger society. They’re the “invisible man” in the elephant tourism industry, and even though their job year can be very dangerous – wrangling pachyderms and acting as a barrier between the 3-5 ton creatures and the thousands of tourists who filter through the camps every year – there aren’t really any training standards. As a result, it’s fairly common for a mahout to get seriously injured or die on the job, and most injuries and deaths go unreported.
Elephant Nature Park purchases elephants out of performing camps, logging ventures, and street begging, and begins the process of rehabilitating them, one-by-one. They also work to provide a safe environment for their staff, and locally source their agricultural products to further assist the villagers in the area.
Today, Elephant Nature Park has around 75 elephants thriving under their care.
We spent the day with 4 elephants in the Karen village, showing them love, learning about their lives, and experiencing the beautiful relationship that elephants have with each other and the people who love them. Elephants eat about 300 pounds of food per day on average, so we fed them… a lot. We went on a walk through the jungle to a different location where the elephants like to eat. To cool off, we played in the mud then walked down to a nearby river to wash all that mud off – definitely the most fun way to take a mud bath!
The day ended all too soon, and I’m forever grateful for organizations like Elephant Nature Park that are working to protect and rehabilitate these beautiful animals, and to make changes to the elephant tourism industry.
Even though the Asian elephant is endangered, with less than 30,000 remaining today, poachers continue to search out families with baby elephants, tranquilize the parents, and steal the baby out of the wild. I’d urge you to learn more.