Five years ago I visited an elephant rehabilitation centre, The Elephant Nature Park in Thailand’s Chiang Mai. I’ve never forgotten this sobering and moving experience so have decided to share it with you as it’s one of my most heart wrenching travel experiences.
The rehabilitation centre has about 30 elephants, many of them roaming around but it didn’t take much to find out their lives had not always been this happy.
Most of these elephants were primarily used in the logging industry hauling logs for long distances, much of it illegal.
Elephants were used in the teak forests which once covered much of Northern Thailand around Chiang Mai to drag the felled trees out of the forest for processing. The growing demand for teak and land for agriculture saw three-quarters of the Thai forests milled between the 1945 and 1986.
Then in the 1990’s the government banned logging altogether and many of the elephants and their handler (mahouts) were out of work. For mahouts to find 150 kg of food a day to feed their elephant they had few options. They could either sell their elephant to a trekking company or take them to beg in the congested, dirty streets of Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
Lek Chailert who loved elephants and had grown up in a nearby hill tribe became involved in helping place the unemployed elephants. However, she encountered elephants that were struggling without enough food or proper veterinary care and many who were worn down after a lifetime of gruelling work.
She started a field clinic for treating sick and injured elephants but it became clear some needed ongoing medical care and somewhere they could rest and heal, so opened The Elephant Nature Park in 1996.
My most vivid memory was Mae Jokia, (meaning ‘Eye from heaven”). She was born around 1960 and rescued in 1999 from illegal logging after extreme abuse. While pulling a log up a hill she suffered a miscarriage and was not allowed to stop and check to see if her calf was dead or alive. This caused Jokia much physical and emotional trauma and she refused to work. As a result, she was deliberately blinded by her mahout.
Now rescued and living in The Elephant Nature Park she has a far happier home with her best friend, Mae Perm who protects her. Mae Perm also had a sad and abusive history in the logging industry and was later sold to a wealthy Thai family who kept her as a pet, but she developed digestive problems due an unhealthy diet.
Elephants are highly intelligent mammals with the biggest brain in the animal kingdom. They cry, laugh, play and have incredible memories.
Females spend their entire lives in tight family groups made up of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and daughters with the eldest female leading the group so it is highly unnatural for them to be removed from their families.
If you are interested in learning more about these rescued elephants, take a look at their website. The Elephant Nature Park. All the elephants have their incredible stories documented and there are so many ways you can help as well as visting the centre and volunteering your time.