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They say an elephant never forgets and that may be true, but I’ve experienced firsthand that they do forgive. When I initially started researching things to do for my trip to Thailand in April 2018, so many people recommended taking an elephant ride or visiting a elephant trekking camp. I was skeptical about riding elephants because I knew that, at least in the circus, they are abused and mistreated. So, I started researching to find out more about elephants in Thailand and how they are treated. I quickly realized that I didn’t want to participate in anything that would harm animals, so I started looking for organizations that helped them instead. I found Elephant Nature Park mentioned several times as being one of the best sanctuaries to visit. After reading about the park and learning about how they operate, I booked an overnight visit. I didn’t realize at the time just how much that would one night would impact and inspire me.
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant sanctuary about 40 miles outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand but feels worlds away from civilization. It’s located deep in the jungle, on a flat piece of land surrounded by hills with a river running right through the park. When you first get there and see not only the beauty of the land, but elephants roaming free, able to do whatever they want, you realize it is literally is paradise on earth. The sanctuary was co-founded by Sangdeaun “Lek” Chailert, a tiny Thai lady with a huge heart and a fiery passion for animals, especially elephants. ENP houses and cares for over 35 elephants along with herds of water buffalo, oodles of cats and dogs, and just about any other species that might find its way there. The elephants have all been rescued from illegal logging camps, from people using them in performances, or the tourist trade of elephant riding.
Most of them are sold when they aren’t financially viable to the owner any longer. The elephants range in age from just a few years old to their oldest elephant, Yai Bua, who is nearing 100 years old. The average lifespan of a wild elephant is 60- 70 years (San Diego Zoo). Elephants are the national animal of Thailand and you’ll find statues and paintings of them in almost every Buddhist temple. However, they’re also captured from the wild and used for illegal logging, trained to interact with humans, and other nefarious means. Asian elephants are an endangered species and their habitat is being destroyed through logging and deforestation. According to a study done by World Animal Protection, in 2016 there are an estimated 2,500 – 3,200 wild elephants in Thailand and 4,400 in captivity (Schmidt-Burbach).
Sanctuaries like ENP are important to help the elephants that have been abused and are no longer of value to the owner have a safe place to call home. When researching sanctuaries, you have to decide if the place you are considering going is a true sanctuary, meaning there is no elephant riding, painting, or performances. A lot of trekking camps have been popping up in Thailand and unfortunately, instead of saving elephants that have already been in captivity, they are breeding or buying elephants that were poached from the wild. In the past 20 years, as logging has been banned, elephants have been targets of the tourist trade. “The captive elephant population has been increasing as tourism in Thailand has increased. In a 2016 study by World Animal Protection, they found that 40% of surveyed tourists in the top 10 nationalities claimed they had been on an elephant ride or were planning on doing it (Schmidt-Burbach).”
Riding elephants is very controversial. Many people have no issue with it, saying it’s no different than riding a horse, however the way that you break in a horse to be ridden is significantly different than breaking an elephant. “In order to “tame” an elephant, mahouts (or elephant handlers), will perform “phaajaan” or elephant crushing. This involves trapping a baby elephant in a small enclosure, being tied up and unable to move, deprived of sleep and food, until they accept chains or harnesses without a struggle and respond to rewards.” (Murdoch) This also often involves using nails, bullhooks, or other extreme measures to ensure compliance. The inhumane ways that elephants have been treated by humans are on full display at ENP. Several elephants had severely damaged limbs from stepping on landmines while they helped clear forests. A lot of them have torn ears from hooks and scars on their foreheads from being hit with boards with nails on them. They even have one elephant, Jokia, who is permanently blind due to torture from previous owners.
This is what elephants endure so that a tourist can ride on them or get a picture. When I first stepped out of the van after arriving at ENP, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Just feet from where I was standing, there was a small herd of elephants playing in the dark orange mud, throwing it on themselves to keep cool. Another elephant was scratching up against a tree, looking like a contented cat with its eyes half closed. It was magical getting to see these exquisite animals just being themselves and not locked in a small cage or chained up. The dogs and cats wander around freely and will come up to get petted and loved on. They are all healthy and well taken care of, which is amazing to see in Thailand.
We were assigned a guide for the day, who took us on our first adventure for the day, feeding fruit to elephants! There are covered observation platforms spanning out from the main building in the park. Elephants are incredibly smart and know when it’s snack time, so as soon as we got the buckets of bananas and melons, we were descended upon. Suddenly, there were massive trunks all around us, impatiently trying to snatch the fruit straight from our hands. Elephants use their trunks like a hand to curl around the fruit and then pop it into their mouths. We were told to put it in their trunk, not directly in their mouth as they can accidentally mistake a finger for a treat. It’s surprising just how strong an elephant’s trunk is, as they would also grab your hand sometimes instead of the fruit and surprising how slobbery you get when they do grab you! An adult elephant can eat over 300 lbs of food a day, so keeping them all well fed is a full time job. (San Diego Zoo)After feeding the elephants, our guide took us around the park to meet the rest of the herds.
Elephants are herd animals with each herd being made up of female elephants and young males, with the oldest female elephant, the matriarch, leading them. Male elephants only stay in the herd until they reach puberty, after that, they are pushed out of the herd and will go find other “bachelor” elephants in which to continue to learn about being an adult male elephant. The elephants that have been saved by Lek and live at ENP are mostly older females with a few male elephants. Juvenile male elephants are allowed to stay with their family until adulthood. Adult male elephants are kept separately from the herd as they can become aggressive. Elephant herds that are in the wild are made up of related family members, however, since the elephants at ENP are rescued from all over the country, it is unknown if any are related. They are allowed to slowly socialize with each other and end up creating their own family groups. That evening, we were in for a special treat.
Each group that visits gets to see a video about the beginnings of the sanctuary and what they hope to do moving forward. We however, were lucky enough to be there at the same time as the founder, Lek. Lek was named Time Magazine’s 2005 Hero of Asia for her work in conservation. (Source?)She came in to talk to us about starting ENP and what it’s like to rescue elephants. I have heard a lot of great speakers, but I have never heard someone with so much passion for their work and what they do in life. She started out by helping heal injured elephants with her grandfather, who was a tribal shaman. Soon she realized that rescuing them from dire situations was her true calling.
Lek, with the help of friends, was able to purchase the land that the sanctuary sits on now and co-founded the park. Hearing her speak about what’s she’s gone through to save elephants was incredible. She’s had her life and livelihood threatened many times, yet she still continues. She tries to give back as much as she can to the community around her like helping build a bridge for the children to cross the river so they could easily get to school, or helping farmers grow coffee that she in turn buys back from them to sell to visitors. Here in front of me stood this courageous, passionate, brave woman who has done the near impossible and I was in awe. Not only does she help run Elephant Nature Park, but they have branched out and started several other sanctuaries throughout Thailand and Cambodia and help many local tribes care for their elephants. She is currently touring the United States showing the documentary, “Love and Bananas”, that is about her daring rescue of Noi Na, a 70-year old partially blind trekking elephant to bring her to freedom. (Source?)My last day at the park couldn’t have been better.
We were there during Songkran, which is the Thai New Year holiday. The park was closed to daily visitors, so it was just our small group and the elephants. We started off by jumping on a passing pickup truck full of baskets of fruit. Riding around, dropping off fruit to the waiting herds with dawn breaking over the mountains was surreal. We walked to the river and fed bananas to the few elephants who were playing in the river and had worked up an appetite. Seeing their joy at splashing each other, shooting water from their trunks, and rolling around was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
The final moments of the day were spent with Lek and a small group of elephants, including a baby ele. Lek has a tricycle that she rides around and hands out fruit as she goes. We quickly had a few water buffalo who thought we were the best thing since sliced bread. Since they’re a little unpredictable, we decided the best course was to throw a big basket of fruit in the opposite direction and take off! We met the herd by the river and you could see in that moment, just how much impact Lek has had on these elephants. You know how happy a dog gets when their owner comes home? It was like that, but instead of one dog, it was seven excited, six thousand pounds each, elephants barreling towards her. In an instant, Lek was surrounded by her elephants, who all took turns smelling her and caressing her. In that moment, I saw just how human elephants can be. All of her hard work and long hours has culminated in this, pure love and forgiveness.
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