Before starting our trip, we decided on one of the most expensive activities we would go through: Volunteering at an elephant conservation project. With that decision came the research, as we wanted to make sure the money would go to a place whose ideals we supported. So we read a lot of information on different organizations in various countries. We finally chose Elephant Nature Park due to the overwhelming positive feedback and the next week would only reinforce the fact we had made the right decision.
About the park: An amazing woman called Lek (Thai for small, because she is quite short even for Asian standards) grew up in a village and saw how this holy animals were treated and decided to make a difference. She started small, rescuing injured and sick elephants that mostly came from the logging industry. They used to use the elephants to move cut trees across vast extensions of land, with little time to stop for water, food or to let them care for their infants. A lot of the injuries then happened to baby elephants, which were chained to their mothers while they pulled the logs and unable to move when an accident happened. There are many horror stories to be told, for example an elephant that stepped on a landmine that blew almost her whole foot and was still forced to walk about 8 hours to get out of the forest. Others were just overworked, hit by cars/trucks, used by beggars in the big cities, underfed, etc., etc. The project kept growing with more and more elephants being rescued and expanded to house water buffaloes, cats and dogs as well. The complex is very big, with a shallow river running along it and plenty of room for all the animals to lead happy and healthy lives.
Monday morning started with a visit to their office, were we signed in and got given a water bottle on a pretty pouch and a colourful shirt. After a few groups were ready, we were sorted into vans that would take us to the camp. During the ride we were shown a few movies that covered basic security rules on how to behave around elephants and an introduction to the park and its history. We took a break during which I met Ollie, a cool young English gentleman that -alongside his beautiful partner Emily -would be one of our closest acquaintances during our stay.
When we arrived we were taken for a tour around the place, where they first showed us the installations and then took us to meet a few of the elephants. The first we met was Kabu, a poor beast that had had a logging accident that had crushed her foot and made moving around quite a chore. Elephants normally live in herds, but she is one of the loners. Her mahout (the person that takes care of her) is an amazing Burmese man that seems to live in a world apart, where only he and she exist. For all intends and purposes he might have a bit of a lose screw, but he is one of the most loving carers I have seen in the sanctuary. He sets a little picnic blanket in which he arranges her favourite food and pets her lovingly. They have a very strong bond that is hard to miss. I was not very sure about petting her, but the mahout beckoned me forward and pushed my face to hers. It was my first time putting my hands on an elephant and I could not contain my happiness.
We had our first meal an hour or so later, and it was the start of the best (and most) food we would eat in our whole trip. True to its principles, the buffet meals served are 100% vegetarian, with countless options of fried veggies, curries, salads, etc. We piled up as much as possible in our plates and were delighted with all the different flavours. I found it wonderful not only for vegetarians, but for meat eaters to get an idea on how many cool nutritious dishes can be made without killing animals…
A while later our rooms were ready for us to move into them. We were really happy with ours, even if it was the furthest away from everything, it was one of the best rooms we have had the pleasure to sleep in. I met an amazing tom cat with a grey body and a black face that we proceeded to name Smokey, and that responded to the name after a few days. He would wait outside the door for us to open it so we could let him in. Then he would inspect all our stuff and choose a spot to lie down. I was not sure about letting him inside at the start, but he was very chilled and sweet natured, so I put a towel on my night table and he would just hang out on the spot I chose for him. I fell in love with him and still miss him to date… There was a second cat that lived close to our dorms, a female that I named Buttercup. My first instinct was to call her Squash, but Tim pointed out it was an ominous name and that it would be best to avoid it…
We joined up with Ollie and Emily to visit the dog shelter. We caused a bit of havoc by checking out the dogs in their kennels and making them all bark like crazy. There is only one pack that is left free to roam around the place, and the elephants don’t seem to like the dogs all that much, so the rest is confined and only come out for walks a few times a day. The walking times are fixed so we had to settle with visiting one of the enclosures where some friendly dogs welcomed our cuddles. One white one seemed to have claimed me and spent the rest of the visit licking as much of my body as I would let her…
The next day we were divided into four different groups and the work started. The tasks are divided into morning and afternoon, and are as follows.
Elephant poop: You go around the enclosures where elephants sleep with shovels and rakes and move the poop into tractors. This is then dumped into a ditch and the water buffalo eat some of the left overs… Our wonderful group B was very hard working so we went through this job pretty fast. Needless is to say, we spent the whole morning cracking poop jokes and had a wonderful time.
Elephant food: Trucks full of fruit arrive pretty much daily, and they have to be unloaded, the fruit scrubbed and either put back in the shelves or into individual baskets for the different elephants. Each of them has its own dietary requirements based on its health and age (some barely have some teeth left). For the senior members, rice is prepared and mashed with bananas, tamarind, sugar and salt and made into little balls. Of course, not all creatures like the same food, and some get picky and won’t eat what you are offering them. Moving the fruit is quite fun as you build a human train and throw and catch until done. Once all tasks are completed you go around the park and hand feed some of the elephants.
Corn (or grass) cutting: You are taken with trucks to a field, given a sickle and off you go. You make little piles of cut corn, and then go around to tie them up and load them into the truck. Wearing long sleeves is a good idea as it cuts your skin and many are full of ants and other plants that make your skin itch. I was lucky a beautiful and kind American girl, Shelly, lent me a shirt for this purpose. There is also the grass variant that we were lucky not to have experienced, as it seems much harder and inflicted more cuts and rashes on the people that did have to go through with it. Again, our team excelled on this task and went through the plantations like a blitzkrieg…
As a reward for the hard work, the people involved in this task are free from afternoon chores and get to go tubing on the river instead. They transport you upstream, give you a big tube and wish you good luck. The river does not flow too fast in the dry season so its a very relaxing activity. As you approach the park you can see elephants by the river, drinking water, taking a bath, etc. There was also a naked man that hung out by the shore, kept playing with his wee wee and looking at the volunteers float by – quite creepy.
Elephant walk: A stroll around the compound where the coordinator introduces you to the different herds and you spend a long time standing around and observing this amazing creatures interact. We were lucky to see some move into the water with a two year old and watch him play. They have a jungle gym type contraption and another lady was bouncing a tyre around happily. Most families seem to really enjoy their life here.. The males have been separated because they don’t want inter breeding so two of them live together and the last one alone, as he is quite aggressive. Regardless, their enclosures are very big, with their own ponds and everything.
Park maintenance: Go around the place picking up rubbish. As simple as it sounds, volunteers help keep the park nice and clean. Tim and I took the cabin area where volunteers sleep and had no trouble filling two bags up. Afterwards we were taken for a walk through an old crumbling bridge and into some newly acquired land where a few elephants had been moved to. It is a lot wilder than the current place, so elephants can actually eat some of the plants that grow there naturally. An old phajaan enclosure left standing is a reminder of what these people fight against..
Elephant bathing: Walk this beautiful creatures to the river and through some water in their backs using buckets. It is quite fun and rather useless (they have no problem bathing themselves) but it is interesting nonetheless.
Between jobs, there is plenty of free time in which to enjoy the park. These are the things that occupied our time:
Massages: ENP allows local women to use an area on top of the dining hall to give cheap massages to anybody that wants them. And they are well worth the 5USD for an hour massage you pay for them…
Cat Kingdom: Dozens of cats live here, taking naps in the different baskets and carriers, playing with each other, seeking love from a passer-by, scratching something. These are the happiest cats I have ever seen, and most are super friendly and always welcome cuddles. They let you pick them up, turn them around, take them different places without so much as flinching. They jump on your lap, and one even used my shoulders to have a nap (and looked quite comfortable doing so). For a cat lover like myself, it was paradise.
Sitting 0n the viewing platform looking at the elephants. Always a pleasure to just look at these majestic creatures while they go around and interact with each other. Volunteers are not meant to walk around without supervision as not all creatures are docile and could hurt you badly…
Playing card games: Mostly a night time activity, we would cluster with like minded people and played games. We tried poker, but only Ollie had some experience. Besides, not betting money makes it rather pointless. We mostly played “Bullshit” and a few similar fun and easy to learn games. We laughed lots and sometimes had a bit of trouble following all the accents: British (from different provinces and therefore a wide variety of accents), American, Kiwi, Belgian, etc. The mix of cultures just made it all more interesting, as we learned about each other. We made a lot of friends that we hope to visit later in our trip 🙂
The weekdays went past all too quickly with all these activities and more, and Friday rolled around with a special plan. We were packed into vans and taken to a local school a few minutes away. The children welcomed us with opened arms and showed us parts of their daily lives and the skills they were learning at school. They had a different room in which specific expertise were being developed: music, massage, hospitality, math, language, etc. We roamed around visiting the different rooms and stayed a while colouring and solving a word search (sopa de letras – que aburrido es el ingles, a veces)
Apart from the activities, we had the chance to meet a few of the people that have dedicated their lives to animal conservation and learn a lot about the current issues elephants face. Listening to Lek, the founder give her speech got me crying and moved my soul deeply. She showed us some heart breaking videos and photos of a ritual still practised everywhere in Asia until today, called phajaan, or ‘spirit breaking’. When an elephant is about 2-3 years old, they are separated from their mothers and put in these tiny wooden enclosures. They spend 4-5 days in there until they stop fighting back. During this time, they hit them, poke them, keep them on their feet without letting them sleep and just giving them enough food and water to survive – and very many do die in the process. Seeing this cruel practice was really hard for my stomach and filled me with a mixture of rage and compassion. Any elephant still used for tourism (such as the ones people ride) have gone through this, which is why tourists should refuse to participate in this activity. If you are in a position to influence anyone visiting Asia, please let them know what you now do so that together we can put an end to this horrible practice.
Aside from the elephants, Lek gave a voice to lot of other animals that are tortured daily around Asia and other parts of the world. One example are the fish spa that exist everywhere. In case you have never seen them, tourist put their feet in a tank and the fish swarm to them to eat the dead skin. Why are the fish so eager? Because they don’t get food otherwise, so they are literally starving. Besides, the water is rarely changed or cleaned, so if the person before you had fungus you are very likely to catch the disease as well.
As I said before, seeing this woman’s passion made me feel like helping and doing more. I only wish there were more people so selfless and ready to make a difference. Not everyone can do as much as she does, but at least be one to spread the word and do your bit for a better, fairer world for humans and animals alike 🙂