Elephants were never my favourite animal as a child. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve always found them beautiful and majestic, I was just somewhat obsessed with kittens for a while. It was Mum who truly loved them, although I’m not actually sure why. There was just something about elephants she found particularly wonderful.
But Mum had a soft spot for all animals really. From a young age she taught us to be kind and respectful to them. The house that we grew up in backed on to a bush reserve, and so Mum was always pointing out the koalas and whistling to the native birds. She used to say that if she hadn’t been a teacher she would have liked to have been a park ranger. When she retired she wanted to volunteer with WIRES.
Sadly though, Mum never did get the chance to retire. She had been getting ready for work on the morning she died. I could tell you about my shock, my grief and how much I still miss her, but that’s a story for another time. Instead, I’m going to tell you about how she inspired me. About how I packed up and went to Thailand, and spent a month volunteering with those gentle giants Mum loved so much.
I arrived at the Elephant Nature Park in June 2012. It’s a 250 acre jungle-green sanctuary, complete with mist-topped mountains and a pretty, meandering river. At last count, thirty-five elephants call it home. Aside from those born at the park or saved as babies, all have been rescued from a life of horrendous abuse and neglect. They have come from decades of illegal logging, perilous forced breeding programs, and many are victims of the booming trekking tourism industry. There is a dark side to the popular elephant safaris of which few holiday makers are aware.
The woman behind the park is Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert. Lek, meaning ‘small’ in Thai, grew up in a hill tribe village in northern Thailand. When she was a child, her grandfather was given a baby elephant as payment for saving a man’s life. Lek spent many hours with her new friend, and a lifelong love and respect for elephants was born. She has since been named as one of Time Magazine’s ‘Heroes of Asia’, and has been honored by Hilary Clinton as a ‘Women Hero of Global Conservation’. Obviously Lek is also at the top of my own ‘All-time Greatest Heroes’ list. She was constantly at the park whilst I was there – cutting down bamboo shoots and singing lullabies to the baby elephant Faa Mai. Not only is she inspirational, humble and generous, but she’s also not afraid to get her hands dirty when required. Which, being an elephant park, is pretty much most of the time.
The first time I approached an elephant at the park, I felt a mixture of hesitation and awe. The elephant’s name was Jokia, and as I got closer I realised that she was blind. My volunteer coordinator explained that Jokia had been subjected to a lifetime of particularly extreme abuse. Jokia, who had been working in the illegal logging industry, suffered a miscarriage while pulling a log uphill. Her baby rolled down to the bottom, and Jokia was not allowed to stop working to check if it was dead or alive. Traumatised, Jokia refused to go back to work. In retaliation her owner blinded one of her eyes. A few months later, he blinded the other one. And then, completely blind, Jokia was forced to continue logging.
Thankfully though, Jokia is now safe. After over fifty years of unimaginable cruelty she is finally free. During the month I spent at Elephant Nature Park I got to know many of the elephants and their stories. I saw their physical and emotional scars. But I also saw some beautiful moments of friendship. Jokia herself has a best friend, an elephant named Mae Perm. They are inseparable, and Mae Perm acts as Jokia’s eyes, guiding her around the park. They are enjoying retirement together; eating pumpkins and watermelons, and engaging in daily mud baths. They are patient and gentle with eager volunteers, which is astonishing considering all they have been through at the hands of humankind. Life for them is how it should be, or at least as close as is now possible.
Before I left for Thailand, I did some research about elephant behaviour. I was surprised to discover how similar they are to us. Aristotle once described them as ‘the animal which surpasses all other in wit and mind’. Elephant family ties are so strong that only capture or death will separate them from each other. They are highly altruistic, often coming to the aid of other animals and humans in distress. And incredibly, elephants are the only other species to have clear rituals around the death of a family member. They will mourn, sometimes for weeks on end, and visit a grave for years to come. The loss of the family matriarch takes a particularly hard toll. I think I gasped out loud when I first read that. We really are so very alike.
So now if you ask me, I’ll tell you that elephants are my favourite animals. And although I never got the chance to ask her, it’s pretty clear to me why Mum loved them so much. As an Elephant Ambassador, I hope to do what I can to ensure these wonderful creatures live the life they deserve. Please think twice about engaging in elephant tourism overseas. Don’t go on an elephant trek, or to a show to watch elephants perform. Share this information with others. I know that you would agree that they are not here for our entertainment. If you love elephants, like I do, visit a sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park instead. I promise you won’t be disappointed. I’m already planning my next trip back.
For more information about volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park visit their website http://www.saveelephant.org/
You can find more information about the plight of the Asian elephant via my Elephant Ambassador page.