At last, a time to rest and compose this blog post! We just completed our brief but edifying stay at Elephant Nature Park (ENP).
ENP was one of the main draws of the program for me personally. Animal welfare is a longtime passion of mine and I was very excited at the prospect of working with elephants. Naturally, I had some misgivings coming in: would all of our time be spent cleaning up excrement? Would someone be trampled? Would our work be meaningful? Ultimately, however, the takeaway was not so much the work itself that we did (surprisingly enough, our days were not very intense), but the increased awareness of, and sensitivity towards, elephant abuse that I gained.
Modern Thailand has a disturbing history of elephant mistreatment, especially surrounding the logging industry in which elephants are extremely useful. Logging was banned in 1989, putting most elephants in Thailand out of a job. The owners of the elephants (the mahouts), desperate for money, were forced to turn to more degrading jobs: elephants had to give tourists rides (which, by the way, their bodies are NOT equipped to do), perform in circuses, or beg for money in the cities. I will never forget the footage we were shown at ENP of how the elephants are "trained" - I won't go into detail, as it is not something you would want to remember. We saw the direct consequences of this in the elephants themselves, many of whom had crippling physical injuries such as feet blown up by landmines. Moreover, the elephants were mentally scarred after having their spirits broken in captivity. The ENP employees had to be extra careful that the elephants didn't snap and relapse into their previous feral.
Immediately after leaving the haven of ENP, I noticed even more how widespread of an issue elephant mistreatment really is in Thailand; just a few miles out of ENP, there were tourists riding them! Coming back to the city of Chiang Mai, I saw signs for elephant rides, elephant shows, and more. We've all been noticing this in the group and realizing how much we hadn't been paying attention to it before.
How many travelers have unwillingly harmed elephants physically and mentally? Too many. However, I don't fault them for this. From what I've seen, there's a lack of education surrounding elephants in the world (prior to coming to Thailand, I myself never would have known that riding them was so bad). We should aim to spread the word to those we know, which will force the mahouts to use their elephants for more humane activities as fewer and fewer tourists give them business (they certainly lost fourteen customers in our group!). The founder of ENP explained to us that it's a common activity to photograph oneself hanging on the tusk of an elephant after receiving a ride. Seeing this in her presentation underscored the maxim that a picture is truly worth a thousand words. I hope that those of us in the group can understand this idea and make a difference at home.