Lumbering and clambering out of the river, the tour group tries to catch a photo of the splashing endeavor. A moment later, they scatter, realizing a moment too late that the animals are heading straight towards them. It's not an uncommon sight at the Elephant Nature Park, I must admit that I have been one of those tourists at times. But luckily, I was also able to spend hours shoveling poo and cutting corn stalks and unloading trucks full of watermelons.
As a week-long volunteer at ENP in the Chiang Mai province of Thailand I got a chance to be close to these magnificent creatures and live alongside them.
The hardest part of the week was not the sweaty and often smelly work, it was hearing about the treatment of elephants and other animals in Asia, especially for the purpose of tourism. Here, in developing and underdeveloped countries where tourism has recently struck it big, animals are seen merely as a source of income.
I will lay it out simply how the animals are abused, without photos for they are all over the internet if you don't believe me (search "elephant breaking in").
While traveling here, I have heard almost every backpacker or tourist express interest in riding, trekking, training, feeding, or touching an elephant. What they do not know is that any elephant that is considered safe enough to get that close to has been abused at some point in their lives. Wait. I know what you are going to say. I am a reactionist, full of exaggerations and bullshit.
However, in order to train an elephant for close contact with strangers or work in physical labor, the elephant was go through "the crush" or another form of breaking of the elephant's will. In Thailand, the universally-used practice separates the baby elephant from their mother at age three or four and places them in a contraption that literally crushes them, giving them as little room to move as possible. Then they are further secured with chains and ropes, tightly around legs, necks, bellies, tails, trunks, and heads. Next they are beaten, prodded with hooks, poked with nails, etc. This process includes starvation and dehydration and sleep deprivation. This goes on for three plus days, until the elephant starts responding to commands or a man can climb on his or her back without a struggle. Basically until the elephant's spirit and wildness are broken. Many do not survive this ordeal.
And there are other tragedies that happen to elephants. I met elephants with hips and legs broken from forced breeding programs, in which males physically stood on them. I saw adolescent elephants who had been street beggars as children (a trainer walks the baby elephant through city streets and people can pay to feed them), and were still recovering from malnutrition and abuse. I met too many blind elephants, as their trainers or mahouts jab at the eyes with metal hooks or use slingshots to cause the animal pain and create reliance on the mahout. A few elephants had major foot injuries that would never fully heal from stepping on land mines while working. Also there were elephants with broken backs due to being ridden with a bench or from working in logging.
It's incredible to visit the Elephant Nature Park, because Lek Chailert, the owner, has created a true elephant heaven. Here the formerly-trained elephants can roam free and the untrained elephants (three of the males) are in large enclosure with hope of being released into the wild in the future. The elephants get to do elephant things. And if they don't want a bath or they don't want to pose with tourists, then they don't.
It's awesome just to stand back and watch the elephants interact and be. Each has a different personality in the dynamic family and friend groups. You can watch them play and roll around in the mud, have conversations and sometimes confrontations. I was so lucky to spend time on the presence of such beautiful and rare creatures.
There are less than 6,000 elephants left in Thailand. About half of them are "domesticated." The numbers are rapidly dropping across Asia. And as I've told you, the elephants in captivity are mistreated and many die because of their abuse.
So what can you do?
Don't buy ivory, obviously this comes from killing the animal. Don't buy teak furniture (even at home) as the wood usually comes from logging operations that use elephant labor, illegally or legally. Don't ride elephants. This is a hard one as it is so tempting, something that's been on your bucket list. But even if the elephants are being treated well, not overworked or overheated or chained up or abused, they still were broken in and you are supporting this traditional training method.
Other animals are mistreated for the sake of tourism too. Use common sense and consider what the animal wants and their quality of life before you decide to feed or touch them.
There are many amazing creatures in Thailand and Asia, so I encourage you to do a little research and find that conservation park or rescue center instead of just signing up for the trek or tour that everyone else is taking. The elephants and other animals will thank you.