The Elephant Nature Park
When Global Grad first mentioned volunteering with Elephants for a week at the meet up in October; I was immediately intrigued. I am so glad that I did, because it was an incredible experience and I feel the right amount of time for me to experience, although I wouldn’t discourage anyone from staying longer.
Now Chiang Mai, and the rest of Thailand for that matter, is full of elephant attractions and experiences. But with so many questions over animal rights and the ethics of keeping animals in captivity, I was slightly apprehensive about the park in general.
However, I’m pleased to say my mind was instantly put at ease after walking around the park, seeing the before and after photos of rescued elephants and meeting the founder, Lek, who works closely with the Save the Elephant foundation. Lek founded the park as a rehabilitation, rescue and educational centre, a place where elephants and other animals could receive proper care and medical attention (many having experienced previous physical and mental wounds from their previous lives) and live as close to a normal life as possible being outside the wild. The park is currently home to 84 elephants (most of whom were rescued from the logging industry, circus performance, street begging, forced breeding and trekking) and has additionally rescued 600 dogs (mostly from the Thai flood in 2011 and the dog meat trade), water buffalo, cats and other animals.
You simply need to look at the animals and see their bonds with long term volunteers and Lek to understand the positive impact this park is having for animals. Indeed, we were blessed to witness an extraordinary site on the third day, when Lek came out to see the elephants, a group of four elephants ran and enclosed her in their trunks, giving her a big embrace.
I asked long term volunteer, Alain de Preter what makes this park different from other elephant places in Thailand and he expressed the park’s importance in not only rehabilitating animals, but in educating and spreading awareness about animal abuse across South East Asia and how we as visitors have a social responsibility in how we interact with animals and to spread this message further. Most importantly, he emphasised that everything is done on the elephants terms- they wander around openly in large grassy spaces, mahouts (elephant trainers) do not use physical actions to instruct them - the relationship is built on trust and they interact with people on their terms.
What can you expect from week long volunteering with elephants?
A warm and cooperative environment, fantastic vegan/vegetarian food three times a day and free time to observe the elephants, in addition to the obvious physical work!
During my week we did a variety of activities. On the first day, we were immediately welcomed and checked into our accommodation before being shown an educational video about how to safely interact with animals in the park, what to do and what not to do (such as touching the elephant’s trunk without food). In the afternoon, we also had a welcoming ceremony, in which we were given a blessing and an unexpected but delightful surprise of a number of freebies- a bracelet, water pouch and a T-Shirt!
The rest of the week consisted of morning and afternoon tasks 2-3 hours in length beginning at 8am each day. This included creating a fire break, preparing elephant food and feeding them (mostly bananas, watermelon and cucumber); visiting a local school, building a dam (which was rather humorously subsequently knocked down by a cheeky 4-year old elephant), cleaning elephant food holes and cleaning elephant dung (of which there was a lot - we later found out – elephants eat for 16 hours a day, so unsurprisingly this was a consistent activity!)
Naturally, you are moving about a considerable amount during these activities and by the end of the day, we did feel tired. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how easily we worked through each task as a team and how quickly the time went.
These tasks were broken up by informative talks and trips around the park to see individual elephants- hearing their stories and the struggles and the effort the park exerts in rescuing the elephants. For example, we met a female elephant called Thaikoon, who our guide explained had worked in the logging industry, because of which she sustained a severe foot industry from stepping on a landmine in Cambodia. The park onsite medical centre treats this industry three times a day and although her injury will never fully heal, she is now able to walk around again.
Additionally, there was the opportunity each day to assist with the dogs- walking both able and disabled dogs to give them exercise and playing with them in their pens. The dogs get exercise and attention and we got to make some fluffy friends, so it was a win-win situation for all!
Each evening there was also an optional experience for volunteers, including a Thai culture lesson, hot pot making (which my group failed at spectacularly), Akha traditional dance and a film showing of ‘Love and Bananas’- a film about the Park’s rescue of elephants and the difficulties they face within this. On the Thursday, we were also given a talk from Lek herself and an opportunity to ask her questions, about how the park operates and her work in government to fight for animal rights. It was a very moving speech and other than seeing the elephants in a natural setting for myself, I would class this as my favourite experience at the park, because it was so eye-opening.
Needless to say, I would more than recommend this experience. It’s no wonder so many volunteers such as Alain keep coming back to the park time and time again.
About the author
Madeleine Clark is one of Global Grad’s January 2020 students. She graduated from university with 1st class honours in Ancient History, but after working for two years, she decided that she wanted to pursue her dreams of travelling without compromising her career. Global grad offered the perfect opportunity for this. Since January she has been working towards her CIPD Level 3 whilst travelling around Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Other than her passion for travel, Madeleine’s main occupations consist of baking and daydreaming about her next adventure.