I had the opportunity to visit the Elephant Nature Park not too far outside Chiang Mai the other day and thought I’d share a little about these beloved animals many of us may not know much about; also you’ll realise something important if you are ever thinking of riding one.
From what we learned, there are two types of elephant – the Asian and the African. On average the Asian elephant can grow up to 4m and the African variety can tower up to 6m. I estimate that the rule of thumb is one tonne per metre height and they need to consume 10% body weight of fruit and vegetation per day to maintain their health. They were used for logging due to being powerful all-terrain loaders. When logging was banned in Thailand in 1989, their use diminished and their primary purpose has likely become tourist rides and street begging.
A Thai lady named Sangduen Chailert or Lek for short, started rescuing elephants in and around Thailand about 20 years ago as she was aware of the treatment they received in the logging and related industries and wanted to do something to help. The crux of the situation is that a tamed elephant is valuable in many ways, and a wild elephant is a veritable liability.
Consequently at age four elephants are traditionally put through a ‘breaking the spirit’ process called Pajaan, which involves confining them in a small cage, starvation, thirst, lack of sleep, standing the whole time as well as being poked with sharp sticks in sensitive areas around their ears (with nails on the end) and battered with clubs and other implements. This continues for a few days until it is believed the animal will do what it’s told, however it is likely the total duration of the process could be weeks both in and out of the cage.
This short clip shows what happens, but I warn you it is not pleasant viewing. Remember that these tribal people would have seen this and been taught it by their parents and so they wouldn’t know differently. The trouble is that often, it works; after this experience the elephants start to do what they’re told.
I’m sure that the harmony of this relationship could be so much healthier – but hey, I’ve never tried to train an elephant.
The Elephant Nature Park was great. I met a young American couple in the minibus on the way out who I chatted to. The guide also showed us a documentary about the elephants in Thailand which was great and had a youthful inquisitive energy about it.
The guide also told us things in English, with a strong Thai accent, all about the park and what it does. Some elephants need medical attention – can you imagine a behemoth hospital?! Humans take medicine in a mouthful, elephants need elephant proportions! Unfortunately a couple had stood on land mines which are designed to maim and kill people so you can imagine what that could do to one of her legs. Whilst having attention to her leg, this brave mother still managed to carry a baby inside her all this time and after about 22 months, gave birth to a healthy young playful baby elephant. Another elephant used to be fed massive amounts of amphetamines so it would work even harder in logging.
First we fed them and their menu for the day was bananas, pineapples, watermelon, pumpkin and sugar cane. The park provides half of the daily food intake for the elephants so the animals continue to use their skills for foraging. They need to consume 300-400kg of vegetation per day to keep up their good looks. Next we went down and hung out with them at their level. Although the rules they told us said not to feed elephants directly into their mouths, there were a few older ones who I think quite enjoyed it so under the watchful eye of the mahout, we joined in.
We watched another documentary and also spent time washing them by throwing buckets of water over them; afterwards they promptly reapplied sunscreen – dust and mud.
All in all the experience was highly educational and enjoyable. If you chose not to watch the video earlier, just realise that the treatment of elephants to break them is horrific and I know that I won’t be riding elephants again knowing now what they have to go through. Please consider this if you ever have the opportunity. By the way, there are humane ways of training and riding elephants, so it is still possible to do it if you’d like to – just do your research for the providers.