Surely I wasn’t the only one that was thinking it would be fun to go for a ride on the back of one of these massive Elephants. At the Elephant Nature Park, an hours drive from Chang Mai such thoughts can never be spoken. The park differs wildly from the other Elephant Tourist attractions in the neighbourhood, of which there are many, in that it is a retirement home for Elephants that have been used in the logging trade. Here the Elephants come first, and the visitors willingly take second place.
The focus is less about entertainment and more about how elephants, an animal that features on the Thai National Emblem, are treated in Thailand. Not well it turns out. Illegal loggers dope them with amphetamine, and work them to the point of injury, blindness, and in some cases literally til their bones break. Others are used as street entertainment, under fed and separated from their families. Traditional methods of training involve trapping young elephants in a wooden cage and torturing them into submission over a period of days, with metal hooks. It’s disturbing to watch, and it’s inevitably part of the process that makes an elephant rideable. As I learn all this, the desire to jump on their backs wanes.
Lek, the founder of the park, has a mouse like stature but an elephantine presence. She came from a family that worked elephants. Disturbed from an early age by the way they were treated, she embarked on a different path to provide a haven for the animals, which resulted in her being ostracised, beaten, receiving death threats, but eventually recognised, supported and now lauded. She is almost a household name in Thailand and the mention of the Elephant Nature Park brings nods of approval throughout the country. She’s developed a working relationships with loggers in Thailand and in Burma where poverty drives the dependence on animals and the problem of animal cruelty more acute and more violent. Instead of confronting she co-opted them into changing their behaviour. It’s a mammoth task but where she has been able to make inroads they have been impactful.
Just a few hours watching a herd coalesced around their youngest offspring is enough to convince that these animals are familial, affectionate and need to be in company. All the elephants introduced into the park have paired up, not as mating couples (only 3 of the 32 adults are males) but as spinster friends, promenading freely like retired sisters in their 50s majestically taking in the air. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise their outward demeanour, but their need for camaraderie is unmistakeable.
It’s impossible to know the exact age an elephant, often paperwork the previous owners provide is faked, or they have been rung like a second hand car after their predecessor meets an untimely end, but these trunked cut-and-shuts look like they’ve had a pretty hard life. One hobbles on an impossibly arduous broken hip, rocking up then down with each step, another’s eye is scratched out, and one limps on the stub of its leg blown off by a mine.
Their keepers (Kwan, in Thai) escort the elephants around the park, using only their body language and a bag of bananas to encourage the elephants. There are no hooked sticks here, the usual tool of the Kwan in Thailand. But there’s a hint that the Kwan are wrestling with this non-traditional approach. They aren’t the only ones. The idea of letting the elephants make the rules has to be balanced with the resources of the park, and the management of a herd of 34. In the evening they are penned, and the males are chained when they are in Musk to prevent the old boys doing themselves and injury. These animals have lived all their lives as domesticated animals. While the intention is to give them back their freedom, the elephants aren’t fully able to deal with it. It took one elephant two weeks to get used to not carrying a chain around its foot and had to be slowly weaned off it.
Lek is aware of this, and her goal is to provide a totally wild environment where human visitors don’t even get the chance to come second, and aren’t allowed at all. No habituation. It’s a model pioneered by Carol Buckley who is coincidentally also visiting the park while we are there. Carol bought an enormous plot of land in Tennessee, where the climate is similar to the subtropical environments that is a home for elephants in Asia and Africa, and then set free a load of rescue elephants from zoos and circus's in it. People, however, are not welcome.
It’s an uncompromising attitude that hasn’t won her many friends. In fact it’s probably at the heart of a spat with the directors of the Elephant Sanctuary charity she co-founded, which have now sacked her. The dismissal is an emotionally devastating wrench and she’s coy to discuss it, in part because it’s the subject of legal proceedings and maybe in part she’s a little indignant about her removal from her own project after a lifetime spent on it, despite her outward stoicism.
As a result of Carol’s Elephants-first approach, the charity received more donations than it could imagine spending and not allowing visitors became a position that was harder to justify. Being in such a unique position to fund an education programme through a visitors centre, it could be seen as remiss not to use those funds to create an infrastructure where visitors can learn about elephants in a “wild” environment. But the remit has always been about the elephants, and allowing people in removes the very wildness that makes the Elephant Sanctuary unique. Ironically as the pioneering site in Tennessee is being held up in Thailand as the gold standard, it may be on the verge of performing an about face.
Carol’s story is as fascinating and serpentine as Lek’s, the Elephant Nature Park and of the all the elephants that inhabit it. She bought an elephant from a tire store in California, the 1970’s when you could have an elephant in the parking lot just to get customers’ attention. For over a decade she toured with the circus and even developed an act where Tarra became the world’s only roller-skating elephant, something she is adamant Tarra loved to do.
There might have been an epiphany or perhaps just a seven-year-itch that made Carol want to hang up Tamara’s roller skates and leave the performing life. She talks animatedly about the whole story, but that part is a little vaguer than the rest. Nonetheless she has no shame about her circus days. As long as an elephant has room to roam, compatible friends and enough live vegetation Carol says it’s happy, even if it’s performing.
Her life has been tied to Tarra for over 30 years. At the start Tarra was her livelihood, but then as she looked for a suitable place to retire the elephant in 1996, she sank all her savings into a plot of land, which through her force of character and persistence with the neighbours grew to 2700 acres, big enough for the 14 elephants that now live there to roam and with a buffer big enough to keep visitors out.
Carol is touring Asia, funded by donations through paypal on her personal website (www.carolbuckley.com), visiting elephant conservation projects like the Elephant Nature Park, training the staff in elephant pedicures and the new born elephants with a positive reinforcement techniques, a rival to the savage caging method, which takes only a few minutes a day and doesn’t leave the elephant’s spirit crushed. The elephant is rewarded with treats when it lifts its leg or flaps its ears on command. The purpose is to teach elephants moves that vets will need them to perform during examinations.
Carol also wafts into new-age extremes, and hints at be able to communicate with Tarra through a kind of meditative telepathy. Yet she's so grounded in the reality of elephant care that none of this comes across as at all strange. In fact it would be odd if spending almost 40 years in the presence of an elephant didn't build bond of the senses.
There are two new born elephants in the park, and I’m confused why they encourage breeding when the little ones take up the resources which could be used to rescue another adult. Offspring draw the herd together, and several females will adopt the role of motherhood, not just the natural parent, but the real answer is less considered. Spading an elephant is a big impractical operation and keeping the males in check when driven by six tonnes of darwinian urges is an endless battle that the Kwan don't always win. On our final day at the Elephant Nature Park, a male that is segregated while he’s on Musk breaks his chain and rampages over to the females, sticking his trunk where a gentleman never would. On this occasion the Kwan manoeuvre the giants apart with deft skills without call to sticks or hooks, and this time the ladies honour is preserved.
Every animal, including humans has to work for a living, even elephants in the wild, and in the search for a fair way to treat elephants, Carol and Lek provide a master-class in managing the compromises that we all face in search for our utopias.