A Better Elephant Experience

by Andrew Stein

bw elephant

Jokia was born in 1960 along the Thai-Burmese border. When she was younger, Jokia worked in the logging trade to support her tribal family. However, after the 1989 logging ban in Thailand, Jokia found herself unemployed. Being no longer useful to her tribe, they sold her to an illegal logging camp, after which she soon became pregnant. Working through her entire pregnancy, she gave birth while pulling a large log uphill and wearing heavy chains. The baby rolled down the hill behind her and she was not allowed to tend to her newborn. From the death of her new baby, Jokia was understandably depressed and refused to work despite physical threats. One such physical threat included being hit by a sling-shotted rock blinding her in one eye. She started working for a brief time before she hit her owner, who afterwards, completely blinded her by shooting her remaining eye with a bow and arrow. Now, unable to see, Jokia was forced back to work. When Sangduen “Lek” Chailert rescued Jokia in 1999, Lek found Jokia full of infected cuts and scars along with tears coming from her blinded eye and empty socket.

two elephants

The story of this elephant is only one of the 36 currently being supported by the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The pasts of the others are equally tragic from being orphaned when only weeks old to stepping on forgotten land mines to being severely handicapped from being forced to mate when no longer useful. Lek Chailert, the Founder and Director of the Elephant Nature Park was born in the small hill tribe village of Baan Lao. She grew to love elephants when her grandfather received a baby one as payment for saving a man’s life, and now she has made it her life work to save as many of these sacred and revered animals that still remain.

elephant eye

Unfortunately, with these domesticated animals out of work and expensive to care for, their owners have started using them more and more in the tourism industry offering rides. My desire to go see Lek’s Elephant Nature Park came from my two-day trek when I saw how the elephants were treated. There were chains around their ankles and necks, their owners had hooks to stab them with, and many of their tusks were either missing or cut. In a country where no house, no restaurant, and no shop is complete without decorative elephants, I wanted a better elephant experience before leaving, and I found just that at the Elephant Nature Park. We fed the elephants, bathed the elephants, and learned about their complicated but rich history in Thailand.

elephant bath