Waking up on the first morning of my first day, I was excited. You can’t describe the feeling of knowing what you are about to experience, an experience of a lifetime is what most people I have spoken to who have been to Elephant Nature Park say, others say it will change you, and I don’t doubt either statement, I know they will both be true. All volunteers have to fill out a form stating we know the risks involved in being around such big, heavy, and possibly unpredictable animals, these elephants are scarred, emotionally and some physically, their lives up until being rescued by Lek Chailert and her dedicated team were filled with horror and terrible and un-imaginal abuse. Although Lek is their savior and she can do anything around them, I am sure by talking with others, that the Elephants know, that us, the volunteers are their friends as well, that there is still a very real danger of these gentle giants knocking us flat unintentionally in a split second with their trunk or a whip of their tail, or even a full on charge if they feel their baby, or even their best friend is threatened or scared. Their scars run deep, and every one knows that an elephant never forgets, so maybe a sudden move by us that isn’t intentional to scare them, just might make them feel scared or upset, or even remind them of abuse past. They say an elephant will forgive, but never forget. They can move quickly if they need to and if we are in their way, we will suffer the consequences. But if these gentle giants didn’t know that they are in a good and safe place and Lek didn’t think that we would be safe, people from the outside world would not be permitted to enter the park. After all the paper work is filled in, we are boarded into mini buses for the ride to the park, about an hour and a half north of Chiang Mai City. On the ride in the bus we get to meet some of our fellow volunteers for the week, people from all walks of life and countries. Asking some of them where they heard of ENP some said they had never heard of it before and just did a google search of where they can volunteer with elephants in Thailand, some others had been before and some already knew about it, like myself, and it was on their bucket list.
DAY ONE….. Arriving at the park, you can hear some of the ele’s trumpeting to each other, but you can’t see them yet until you get into the park via the long driveway, you can feel the excitement building with everyone in the bus. We are assembled and taken into the park where we are to have a small introduction to the rules, of which there are 16…. anything from don’t stand directly in front of the elephants, don’t put your hand in their mouth, and don’t tease them, to, always be aware of your surroundings and never go into the park grounds without a guide or after they have been put to bed. All very reasonable and realistic rules for our own safety and the safety of the elephants too. We were then taken to see the newest arrival, Dok Mai who was born at the park on 6th April 2013 to Dok Ngern, who’s name means Silver Flower.
* Dok Ngern was rescued in January 2006. She had a traumatic childhood and was forced to learn demeaning circus style tricks. When she could take it no more, she attacked her mahout/trainer. After this they decided to sell her. Had she not been rescued she would have ended up a street begging elephant. Coming to stay at ENP has been very healing for her and she is now a member of the largest family group. *Taken from “The Elephants who’s who field guide, written by Jodi Thomas. 2011 edition”.
Finally getting to meet Dok Mai was a very special experience, especially when we sat close to her and her very large mummy, but obviously with bars in between us, as mother elephants are very protective of their young, but also because they have to be separated from the rest of the herd for a few months while the baby gets her strength and finds her feet. Dok Mai came close and put her trunk out towards me, as I held this little trunk I couldn’t help feeling very blessed to experience such a wonderful little life so new of such a gorgeous and precious girl. Knowing that this little girl is in the best hands possible, and will never experience hurt or horror in her life, unlike her mother, Dok Ngern, It was something I will never forget. All the volunteers then had to be sorted into our groups, and be given the keys to our rooms. Once settled and unpacked were to meet back at the Volunteer Desk for further instructions and directions. Once all the formalities were done, we were able to feed some of the elephants from the raised platforms. Here again is another rule for safety reasons, there is a big red line we are not allowed to go over when feeding the elephants here, as they can knock us over in their rush to get to the food we are offering, so as they have long trunks with which to reach us, we stand back, but the temptation to go forward and touch them is overwhelming. The food on offer is a mixure of fruit and vegetables, watermelon, corn cobs, banana’s (with skin on, and in bunches), and pumpkin, these ele’s are truly spoilt and they deserve it.
After lunch we got to bathe a few elephants, where we actually get in the river with them and throw buckets of water over their backs to cool them off, its fun for us and they love the water, plus they get treats while they stand there patiently. Being this close makes you feel very small indeed, the immense size of these gorgeous girls is overwhelming to an extent, but I personally wasn’t scared to be so close.
Then these 3 girls were taken up onto the concrete platform near the river and given some more treats, banana’s this time, and we could take some very up close and personal pictures and just be near them.
Everyone is totally in awe of these gentle giants, and to top it off, the one I was bathing is pregnant and I could see her baby moving, so I know he/she is enjoying it too. I was hoping that the baby would be born while I was there, but she may have up to 3 more months to go. Elephants carry their baby for around 2 years.
After bathing, we get some down time to clean up and just sit around and chat and talk with our new ele friends and have dinner. The elephants are put to bed at 5pm because their mahouts go home to their own families, and they return the next morning to clean up after their elephant and put it into a pile for us volunteers to collect. The elephants are always left in their same area every night, there are some solitary elephants who don’t have friends, which is a sad thing to see, but they are just like us, they get along with some and not others. Elephants in the wild stay in family groups but when the males/bulls get to a certain age, they are kicked out by the ladies. When a female has a baby, if there is more than 2 females in a group, they will all want to be the new baby’s auntie or grandmother, as in the case of little Dok Mai, her mother Dok Gnern is still to choose who will be auntie. When little Dok Mai was born, there was a congregation around the pen she is in, all vying for the title.
While sitting around on our first night, we can hear the elephants grumbling and sometimes trumpeting, sometimes when they grumble you could swear you are in the jungle with a lion it is so deep! By about 9pm, everyone wants to go to bed early to get a good night sleep ready for our first day in our volunteer positions.
When we were taken to watch a video of the plight of the asian elephants, and show us what ENP is all about. Some of us already know some of the story of ENP and how it came to be, but others had never heard of it until this trip. There are over 400 dogs at ENP as well, and there is one in particular who likes to join us in watching video’s we came to learn, he has obviously seen these video’s a few times because he knows when the part comes up where Lek is walking with some elephants and she has a dog with her, right then without warning, our companion video watching dog, jumps at the white screen and tries to attack the dog in the video, a very funny sight and every one of us not only screams with fright but also laughter!
Breakfast is at 7am, and we are to meet at 8am at the volunteer desk to get our assignment for the morning, my group was on Poo duty. We all get ourselves a spade and a wheelbarrow and off we go.
Not a smelly job, they actually smell the same as horses, but the heat can knock you out a bit, and with about 15 in a group it doesn’t take us long to gather it all and drop it on the pile in the paddock to be recycled into elephant poo paper, yes that’s what I said! It will be collected by a truck and cleaned, washed, drained and recycled into paper. It is also used as a fertilizer on the gardens sometimes. The pile is huge as you could imagine.
The perk of this job is we have to go near where the new little Dok Mai is with her mother, our guide is Aek, (pronounced Ek) and he said on this morning when he saw her being cute, “photo opportunity, less work, more photo”! He didn’t have to ask twice!
We spent about 15 minutes taking pictures of this gorgeous little girl and her mother Dok Gnern. Then “OK, enough picture, more work”, Aek would say, such a great guy! We also got to be close to some other elephants on our rounds, so there-for…. “less work, more photo”!!
Then it was back to clean the barrows and shovels and put them away…. then time to clean up and go for lunch, I’m not sure if it is the work or the heat, but it certainly makes you hungry!
The days duties vary for each group, there is group’s A, B and C. And there are 2 lots of duties per day per group, so each group is doing something different. There is of course, Poo Duty, and also, cutting corn in the fields, elephant kitchen duties which consists of washing watermelons and cucumbers, cutting corn kernals of the cobs for the old ladies who’s digestion isn’t very good anymore, then that is mixed with peeled banana’s and flour all squashed up and made into balls. Then there is cutting of pumpkins and washing of course, the washing is done in a huge long concrete tub with …….. in it. We also had to shift sand into the new enclosure that will be used for training the younger ele’s. Other duties can in clued anything that needs doing around the park, such as fixing fences, building fences, planting trees or collecting banana leaves and/or bamboo for the ele’s to eat. So every morning after breakfast is first duties for all 3 groups, then after lunch for the second, and by the time you are finished you are definitely hungry for dinner!
I really wanted to, and thought it would be possible to write this blog every night while at the park, but there is so much going on all the time, and by the time dinner is over, you just want to sit around with your new found ele family friends and get to know each other that there isn’t really much time or opportunity, and then when you retire to your room you think you might be able to write some then, but then you realise you are so tired you just want to go to bed. So all I can write from here on is personal experiences and show pictures……
More to come soon….