In late November, one of my best friends and i headed up to Thailand (also known as 'The Land of Smiles' because Thailand recognises 13 different type of smiles? I thought it was interesting?).
We had ventured further north (after a brief stop in Bangkok) to Chiang Mai to volunteer our time with some rescue elephants at a place called 'The Elephant Nature Park'. I don't think we were entirely sure what we were in for, but the prospect of working with elephants up close was something we had been looking forward to all year.
The bus ride there proved a slight wake up call, as we were shown documentaries of how Thailand treats its elephants, and also exactly why they were being rescued at this hidden place in the rainforest. The park has 71 elephants (and climbing), across a few different locations and all of them had been abused from their time working. Jobs for elephants range from circuses, illegal logging, street begging and elephant trekking. Many of the elephants had serious injuries such as broken backs or legs, large tumours, limbs blown off from landmines, or were blind - i was interested to learn that since Thailand is mostly Buddhist, they don't believe in euthanasia. So most of these elephants are just kept as comfortable as possible by vets.
The park is also home to 460+ dogs (many rescued from the Bangkok floods in 2011, and were unwanted or never claimed), as well as hundreds of cats, water buffalo, horses and monkeys.
In Thailand, elephants are considered livestock rather than endangered animals and there are no serious penalties for their mistreatment (or rather, police virtually never pursue any instances of it). They undergo a very disturbing process in order to be broken in, which involves being separated from their mothers at an early age and beaten into submission. (Most of us had to look away when shown the documentaries on this - beyond disturbing).
As we spent more time around the elephants, we found that they are very social, gentle, family orientated animals. It is distressing to learn that they endure such horrific treatment at the hands of local people who are doing it only because they know tourists will pay for any experience with an elephant. Leaving the park, we all felt it was our duty to inform anybody else considering elephant trekking (or anything elephant related) that they should really avoid it.
Workers there explained though, annoyingly, that the issue is a bit of a double edged sword; Since these elephants have become domestic once broken in, if they can't make money, then their mahout will abandon them - and the elephant can't survive without them. The park is working to train mahouts on how to learn to work with elephants to treat them kindly, and no push them too hard - this is a programme that is starting to be well received by the locals. They also try to be present during the breaking in process, so that they can take a vet who can treat elephants for any injuries they acquire (sadly).
Our volunteering duties involved fun things like bathing the elephants in a river with a bucket, feeding them and watching them do elephant things. Less fun jobs where riding in the back of a cattle truck to a corn field where we cut corn storks down with a group of Thai men, cleaning their pens out and unloading trucks of watermelon and pumpkin (which arrived daily). But all rewarding knowing our efforts help the park to continue running.
Volunteer programs fill up super quick, and you can opt to volunteer for a week (or a few weeks), or just stay overnight to visit the park. (The park is completely vegetarian). The money you pay (very cheap) all goes back to the park as well - which is great because they get absolutely no government funding, so they are entirely reliant on donations and their volunteers.
Considering Thai elephants have as many rights as a cow, the government are still very strict on who can keep an elephant (they were even checkin them all while we were there, 1 by 1). They must be obtained legally (bought) and correct paperwork for them has to be presented upon enquiry, otherwise they can be confiscated. Strangely, the government will take elephants away if they feel they are being mistreated (but it's pretty unclear as to what exactly constitutes as abuse, apparently?)
The parks owner Lek, has been buying elephants who are usually older or injured (i think she said they can cost between 3 - 10K AUD). She hopes her park will provide visitors a more natural experience with the elephants in their own environment. Long term, she hopes to change the attitudes the Thai people have towards elephants, both wild and domestic. I highly recommend visiting the park, if elephants are of interest for you - and if you do volunteer for a week, be prepared to do some hard work! But i think it is all the more rewarding. www.elephantnaturepark.org
(And as an after note; Liv and I were quite stunned once we got to Phuket (Tourist central, unfortunately) how many elephant related activities were being sold to tourists - some baby elephants as old as 6 months were already doing circus acts... If you take nothing else from this post, please don't engage in such things when you go abroad...)