When we booked a week as volunteers at the Elephant Nature Park, my 12-year-old daughter and I knew there would be poo-shovelling, feeding and bathing the elephants. But I had no idea how much it would rock my socks off.
An hour an a half out of Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, 50 volunteers arrive and are divided into groups of around a dozen for our daily morning and afternoon chores. Down at the broad river edging the property, we bucket water over the muddy hide of three elephants. The pachyderms chew contentedly, ankle deep in water, their constant companions the mahouts ready to pass another clutch of bananas, hunk of watermelon or raw pumpkin.
Love and bananas
Founded in 1995 by one exceptional Thai woman, ‘Lek’ Chailert, the traditional way of controlling elephants via a spiked staff is not permitted here. ‘I believe we can show that love, trust, and bananas are enough,’ she told us, beaming. It was a coup for her to achieve that principle alone with the mahouts; just one of the many obstacles Lek continues to confront in her efforts to change the traditional atrocities practised on these animals.
Splashes go astray and soon we are all wet and laughing, ice broken between strangers. The elephants wander off: the ponderous placement of one foot after the other, the strangeness of the baggy hide and prehensile trunk, the overwhelming size of this creature lulls each observer into a reverie.
The last one to leave the river has severe injuries – one rear leg seems to dangle uselessly then swings forward to take the weight of her body as the other collapses from a strange hip dislocation. Fifty pairs of eyes silently follow her progress. It’s a meditation on fragility, on humanity’s impact on animals, and on the tenacity of survival.
This place is a haven for around thirty abused and disabled elephants from the tourism and illegal logging industries. It’s also shelter to some 400 rescued dogs and over a hundred cats, and it’s not uncommon to see a dog jolly about undeterred by loss of limbs.
But what‘s profoundly affecting is how the visitors’ eating areas allow for the everyday activities of those mammoth animals to be observed. Their slow amble past to the river, feeding time, a mud shower nearby, or scratching-pole manoeuvres mesmerise and permeate my being. Inevitably I find myself slowing down to their regal pace.
The Save Elephant Foundation has completed over 100 affiliated projects at local villages and schools, reaching out into the local community by necessity as well as positive impulse. The elephants consume more than 200kg of food each a day, and the Foundation exchanges building and education programs for supply of bananas and corn stalk, staples of their domesticated diet.
One task is to shovel poo from the night pavilions. Or we cram into a truck and drive deeper into the mountains to cut fields of corn stalks with machetes, or wash and chop copious amounts of watermelons and pumpkin. After the sumptuous vegetarian buffet lunch I help unload a truck of the mini-watermelons destined to be elephant food and marvel at the sheer amount of effort involved in keeping thirty pachyderms fed on a daily basis.
It’s a busy environment with the myriad of projects and groups of vollies, plus day visitors and overnighters. But everything stops when Lek comes to visit two of her charges. The blind 50-year-old has bonded with the toothless 80-year-old, and they eagerly move to her call for some special treats. We learn that the blind one had her eyes stabbed by her mahout when she refused to work after miscarrying her baby during a logging gig.
It’s a place in which you could genuinely forget your selfish concerns; I feel I am a small cog in an enormous machine of compassion. Melded to the basic cause that unites all creatures – the simple need for food, safety and love.
Find out more about the Save Elephant Foundation at www.saveelephant.org.