I know I already spoke a little about Elephant Nature Park in my last post, but I want to talk a little bit more about the sanctuary and what a day in the life of an Elephant Nature Park volunteer is like.
Day in and day out Lek and the crew work hard to make sure all of their beautiful elephants have a good home after a life of abuse.
The woman who started it all
The name Lek Chailert has become common amongst most animal lovers. I was recently at an animal welfare conference, and her name was mentioned multiple times. Seriously! I even got into a conversation about her and ENP while waiting in line for the restroom. The work this woman has done is incredible!
Lek has always had a love for elephants. She was raised in a small village in northern Thailand where her family had their own elephant. She soon felt a strong bond with her pachyderm pal and has been standing up for the species ever since.
She started the sanctuary back in the 90s. While I was at the park we had a couple of talks where Lek told us about all the obstacles she has overcome to keep the park up and running. Many would give up, but not Lek. Her love runs deep, and she has given her heart and soul into saving as many elephants as she can.
Now Lek has appeared in multiple documentaries and has been given numerous awards for her fight to save these beautiful creatures.
Elephant Nature Park has also expanded beyond the sanctuary near Chiang Mai. Now they have a handful of programs throughout Thailand and Cambodia. And they are ALL on my list of places to volunteer in the near future.
The sanctuary is about an hour and a half bus ride from Chiang Mai. The city itself is beautiful, but once you get a little outside of it, the landscape opens up to beautiful mountains thick with forest. A river runs alongside the sanctuary which has become the bathing/play area for the elephants, and thousands of acres open up for them to roam.
They have a large common area built up for the volunteers and daily visitors to view the grounds and take in the beauty of these wonderful animals. I spent probably half my time sitting in that open area just watching the herd wandering about with their different cliches.
Almost daily we would hear a tiny trumpet bellow out across the grounds and then see little Chiang Yim running through the sanctuary with his mahout trying to keep up after him.
The weekly volunteers were housed in dorm style rooms near a couple of the enclosures. Each person was paired with another volunteer, and ENP tries to match up ages and nationalities as best they can. My roommate and I clicked instantly. She was a woman in her late 20s just like me. Backpacking through Thailand. Looking for adventures and trying to help a threatened species. We spent a lot of our time chatting about our different homes, where we were in our lives at that moment, and where we hoped to be in the future.
As the week went on we became friends with more and more of the volunteers. There were people there from all age groups and all walks of life. And everyone is soooooo friendly. I mean how could you not be when you’re surrounded by all the happy elephants.
And did I mention there was a river running alongside the park? This river just so happens to be perfect for tubing, and ENP just so happened to have a supply of tubes to float down the river with. Thank goodness for the 10 year old kid who remembered them telling us we could go tubing at some point during the week. I was so mesmerized by the elephants I had forgotten. They drove a group of us up stream and dropped us off. We jumped in the river and floated all the way back to the sanctuary. If you do find yourself at ENP, I recommend doing this. It was so much fun!
A Day in the Life of an Elephant Nature Park volunteer
To be honest, our chores never really felt like chores. We were learning so much while we were working that it felt more like a fun interactive education.
Local farms would donate food for the elephants, so we would chop it up and separate it. I got to use a machete to chop pumpkins and watermelons….ummmm….that was awesome! Each elephant had specifications of what they would and would not eat. Even if you tried to sneak something in there, they knew. I think they are probably almost as picky if not more picky about their food than humans.
At least once a week our group would go out and chop either corn stalks or tall grass for ele snacks too. Let me tell ya… elephants can eat! It’s amazing how much goes into feeding the herd for just one day.
Other chores consisted of gathering supplies and building short stone pillars for the elephants to use as scratching posts, making sandbags for the rainy season, tending to the mud pit (which I think should always end up in a mud fight), and cleaning poo.
Yes that’s right elephant poo. Just like they eat a lot, they also produce a lot of waste. If you’ve ever been in a barn, it’s just like that only a bigger quantity. It’s mainly grassy material, so it’s not very gross. I won’t lie….it can get a little stinky. But all that poo becomes something very useful. We would load the dung up into a cart that would be taken into town and turned into paper. The forests are being cut down at a rapid rate, and making dung paper is a great way to save some trees.
My favorite chore was walking the grounds with the main vet and learning how he treats all the elephants. Again it was more of an educational chore, but we helped keep the elephants happy by feeding them bananas while they were being treated.
All of the elephants rescued have been abused one way or another. Some of their stories are heartbreaking. Starvation and brutal training tactics. Spinal injures from elephant riding. Limbs gone from land mines they stepped on while working as a logging elephant. Babies taken from their mothers so young. It’s hard to believe humans are capable of being so cruel to such gentle and beautiful creatures.
The veterinary team worked hard to keep all the elephants in good health. An elephant’s hide is thick, and it takes a long time to heal. One of the bulls had been getting treatment for an infected tusk for over a year. Could you imagine having a toothache (a tusk has nerves just like our teeth) for over a year!? No thank you!! That poor guy was strong though. He took his treatment without any kind of fight, and then went about his day.
While we were treating a couple of the land mine victims, I experienced one of the most incredible moments of my life.
The day I connected with an elephant
There were 3 elephants getting treated for land mine wounds. One girl had the base of her hind leg blown clean off. She didn’t seem to slow down though. An elephant only stands on 3 legs at a time to give each foot a rest naturally. They tried giving her a prosthetic leg, but she didn’t care much for it. The other 2 were suffering from partial limb loss. They were lucky enough to keep their legs and still be able to use them.
Everyday these 3 girls had to get treatment on their wounds so as not to get an infection. While the vet was giving his treatments, we were able to interact with the elephants. They didn’t seem to mind us being there as long as we kept giving them bananas.
I was standing near an elephant named Sri Prae. She was a calm gal, and seemed happy getting some extra attention. The elephants enjoy having their trunks and cheeks scratched, so that’s what I did. I gave her a nice hardy scratch on her cheek with my nails hoping she would like it.
That’s when I noticed it…….I looked up into her eye and actually saw her focus right on me. She noticed me! Sri Prae noticed me! I felt very humbled to be noticed by an animal so majestic and regal. If you have never peered into the eyes of an elephant, I strongly suggest you put that on your bucket list (but please no elephant shows or riding to try and get close to one).
The knowledge and understanding in those eyes runs deep. I could feel Sri Prae looking deep down inside my soul. I wish I could have only heard what she might have been thinking at that moment. What I did know was she was focused on me just as I was on her. I loved our little moment between us.
The way I felt when she looked at me will carry on with me for the rest of my life.
The other animals
ENP is not only home to elephants. As I mentioned in my last post, the sanctuary is home to a herd of water buffalo that was abandoned, a sun bear rescued from bile extracting, and a couple hundred dogs.
I was in Thailand not long after the Bangkok floods. It was a devastating time for thousands of people, and many had to abandon their pets. Household dogs left to fend for themselves were found along with the already high number of strays looking for food and shelter. Lek and her team rallied together, rounded up some boats, and went to Bangkok to rescue as many dogs as they could.
While I was at the park, they were in the process of building kennels for all the dogs. The goal was to rehabilitate as many as they could and adopted them out. We were all welcome to go help out at anytime.
Now the program has grown, and ENP is offering volunteer opportunities to work only at the dog rescue. You still get to stay near the grounds, but your chores won’t be for the elephants.
The old lady I have pictured above was the first four-legged friend to greet me at the park. After we arrived and unloaded our luggage, I was walking with the group along the feeding platform when I felt a tug on my pants. I look down and see that pretty golden face smiling up at me. As soon as I glanced down at her, she started bouncing around in circles wanting to play. That must have been a dream for her being around all those people all the time. I made a point to find her and give her some lovin’ every day.
They referred to her as the Grandmother because she had been at the park for so long. Even before all the rescues came from the floods, ENP was home to 80 dogs. What can I say…they love animals!
I cannot stress enough how much I love Elephant Nature Park. If you ever find yourself planning a trip to Thailand, think about heading north to Chiang Mai and going to ENP. Even if you don’t have a week to spare, you can still help. Day trips are offered every day of the week. In 1 day, you get to meet, bath, and feed the herd….AND they cook one of the tastiest spreads of traditional Thai food I’ve ever had.
Don’t feel like traveling so far, but still want to help? Check out ENP’s website where you can make donations for food and supplies or even sponsor your own elephant.
Have you ever had a touching moment while you were traveling? Please share it with us in the comments below.