Sunday, April 22, 2007

Elephants, Mud Pits and Dogs - Oh My!

I've just completed my week of volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, and even though I'm pretty sure I've never paid so much to do manual labour in my life, it was such an amazing experience, and I can't wait to go back again to spend another week (or two, or three, or four) hanging out with those gorgeous creatures.

[view from the dining room]

[view from Hannah and my room]

[I'm not sure who this is, but it's one of the older girls... it's amazing the way some of the people working at the park can automatically recognise each elephant!]

For those of you who didn't hear my vague ramblings about the Elephant Nature Park before I left, the basic story is that a woman named Lek has been saving injured, abused and neglected elephants from around Thailand for the past decade or so. She brings them to her park and allows them to recuperate and, for most of them, live happily ever after on a property that she has worked extremely hard to obtain. The place is booming - the woman who I shared a room with had come to the park three years ago when there were 17 elephants. There are now something like 37.

[Hannah and Adam feeding some eles]

[Max, possibly the biggest elephant in Thailand. At 3.3m, no one messes with Max!]

As a volunteer, each day was pretty well structured. Breakfast and chores before 8am (I tried to do a different chore each day so scooped cow poop, elephant poop, collected figs, washed out kitty litter, watered plants...). After chores all the volunteers were expected to help in various projects: mending roads, building fences (which took only a nudge by a playful elephant to destroy), peeling corn, and clearing out the mud pit. After the morning projects we had to feed the elephants (having unloaded, washed and chopped two to three ute-fulls of food), before having lunch ourselves. After lunch we would wander down to the river and bathe the elephants, and then at around 2:30 we would start another project. The elephants tended to toss dirt on themselves straight after their baths (something of a natural sunscreen), so we would have to wash them again before dinner. Though it was hard yakka at times (me? Build a fence? Ha!), it was well worth it.

[preparing lunch for the elephants]

I have to say, there were two expressions that popped into my head on various occasions, and I couldn't help but laugh. It turns out that Dad's sayings, repeated enough times, have actually stuck. Unloading the trucks, for instance, I couldn't help but think to myself "many hands make light work!" And when we were in the mud pit, digging around in the sludge, trying to heave buckets of soft, squishy mud out the sides of the soft, squishy pit, I kept thinking of the saying he had for if he and Mum ever broke up: "Your mother would have trouble finding another man, and I would be pushing shit up hill."

As well as the daily routine, there were a few out-of-the-ordinary events, such as visiting the Elephant Haven. On Thursday afternoon, we went for a bit of a walk with a few of the elephants, and a couple of the dogs (Copper, Number One and Number Two are three of the cutest dogs on the planet - and they're tough old things, too), and stayed the night in a cabin owned by the park in a public area of the jungle. It was a nice change of scenery, and lovely to hear stories about the park's history from Pom, Lek's go-to girl, and the toughest chick I've ever met. Those elephants definitely know who's boss when Pom's around!

[that's one good-looking butt]

[Elephant Haven]

[such good food - I think I gained about 3kg, just in Pad Thai]

[stories round the fire]

On our way back from the Haven, we were given saffron cloths to hang around the trees in the forest. Apparently it's a Buddhist tradition, and if someone cuts down a tree with one of these cloths on it, they will be plagued by bad luck forever.

[Ben saving a tree]

[cooling off after a long walk - and trying not to glare at the elephant trekkers passing us by]

On Thursday afternoon, we also had a bit of an adventure. About twenty of us piled into a truck (I felt like a cow, standing with my fingers holding onto the eight foot high grate that surrounded us all), and went up stream to buy bamboo. They buy bamboo in the form of a raft, and then, having paddled it back to the Nature Park, they demolish the raft and use the bamboo to build new huts (and re-build fences destroyed by boisterous young elephants)! We had to drive the rafts a little down stream, which was an experience in itself. The rafts are so long, they had to be placed practically on top of the aforementioned grate, so we were all sitting on these bloody great rafts, about three metres in the air. The rafting itself was a lot of fun. We saw lots of people washing their dishes and bathing in the river, and laughed ourselves silly at Craig and Richard, two English volunteers, as they tried to catch up to the raft having refused to board it at the beginning of our trip. I think Richard was running after that thing for a good 40 minutes!

Which brings me to the people I met. Richard is a great guy. He's originally from England, but has moved to Wales and seems to be a part of the Welsh Tourist Authority. He has insisted that I visit Cardiff when I'm over there. I think he might hunt me down if I don't. Brooke from California reminded me a lot of Mel - bizarrely so at times! Janna, a Canadian girl who will be at the park for three months as a Volunteer Coordinator was a lot of fun, too. She and I were big advocates of the "my clothes are going to get so dirty, I may as well just wear the same thing for a week" policy. Adam from Canada (seemingly from all over the country at one time or other) was good value. He also looked as if he wanted to adopt every single dog at that park at one point (except Nip Noy - the psycho little thing). And then there was Ben and Joanna from Boston, who, though sounding just like every other American at the park, did very, very good Boston accents when encouraged. Ben worked with autistic children before travelling abroad, and pointed out that "artistic" and "autistic" sound pretty similar with a broad Bostonian drawl, which apparently led to some awkward conversations for him... They've insisted I come and visit them in Boston when I'm over there, and I definitely plan to do so.

[Jo, admiring the view]

[Copper, ignoring the view]

And now for the shameless plug for the Elephant Nature Park. I didn't really realise why this park was so special until I got there. I'd had conversations with people about elephant training, and not really understood how it worked. So here's the short-and-sweet version:

  • Elephant trekking is a terrible industry. Elephants are not designed to carry baskets and two grown adults on their spines, not to mention the amount of energy they expend while going for long walks day in day out, with very little food to sustain them. They are undernourished and overworked, but elephants are such a big part of Thai tourism, it will be very difficult to change this.

  • Regardless of what they do - be it trekking, painting, kicking soccer balls - traditionally, the Thai people believe that the only way to tame an elephant is to break its spirit and cause the elephant to be so terrified of its trainer, it will do what it is told. This means that, oftentimes, an elephant will be trapped in a small cage for days, or even weeks, while Mahouts (Thai elephant handlers) prod, poke and beat them into submission.

The Elephant Nature Park is trying to spread the word that using elephants for our own entertainment is causing them great harm, and that Positive Reinforcement could become a viable alternative to the horrendous beatings these elephants receive. Unfortunately, Positive Reinforcement is not believed by the traditional Thai Mahouts to work, and Lek is David up against Goliath, because, like I said before, Thai tourism depends so heavily on elephants.

So, while I climb off my soap box, what I'm really trying to say is that if you go to Thailand, visit the Nature Park, spend some time with some gorgeous elephants who spend their days just being elephants, rather than spending 30 minutes on the back of an overworked, exhausted animal who is being beaten by its trainer.

And if words aren't enough to convince you, then here is a photo of Ora - one of three baby elephants at the park. Two of the three babies, including Ora, are strictly on lease to the park (Lek agrees to save the lives of these animals - and even pays to do so - while their owners refuse to sell them to her because they will be financially better off in the long run to slowly kill their elephants at trekking camps). This means that Ora - this beautiful little girl - will one day be tortured in order for her owners to control her, and then live a life of servitude.

[Mary feeding Ora]

And on that delightful note, I must leave it there. I'm exhausted, having arrived in Dubai only a few hours ago and having slept only a few hours on the plane, but have to go out and explore!


Mike Race said...

Ah Tami I'm so glad you had a great time at the elephant park. It's always hard when you recommend a place that you love to someone, then you sort of feel responsible that they have a good time there too!

Anyway it was fantastic to see your awesome photos and read your stories about the place - just makes me want to go back! It really is a special place. Well have a great time in Dubai and I'll keep an eye on your blog for the next installment.

caz said...

your photos are fantastic!

although if anyone ties a saffron ribbon around the dead palms in our backyard i'd live with the bad luck

dubai is the ptw's wonderland, apologies, but have fun and keep safe

Gemma said...

Gorgeous photos: I love the first one specially.

Mike is right - if someone recommends something you hate, you kind of have to pretend you like it so they don't feel bad. And then they pretend they don't know you're pretending. And then you usually end up recommending the place to someone else when your friend's in earshot... And that's why so many people visit Canberra.