by Jim Goodman
|elephant sculptures at Chedi Luang|
|sculpted elephants in the old city|
Then it was the turn of the domesticated elephants. Bereft of their regular employment, too expensive to keep otherwise, they began to die off, too. When the logging ban went into effect 20,000 elephants still lived in Thailand. A decade later the number was down to 4000, and that even included the last of the wild elephants.
Yet for travelers from abroad, Thailand is still the Land of Elephants, a place where they can not only see them but also have their own personal encounter with them. They can even feed them bananas right on the streets of downtown Bangkok. They flock to Surin every November to see the great Elephant Round-up re-enactment. In Chiang Mai they attend the elephant shows at Mae Rim or one of several jungle venues in the northern hills and line up for a short, leisurely ride through the forest on elephant back.
|man's best friend (in Thailand)|
Moreover, you can learn how strong they are by watching the mahouts demonstrate how the elephants used to push and pull logs. You can judge for yourselves whether blues bands should take notice of the tunes elephants play on their harmonicas, if the splash of paint strokes on a canvas they make holding a brush in the trunk represents some hidden elephant sense of artistic expression, or whether the music industry should send cameramen to capture their choreography for use in a rock and roll video.
As an encounter with Asian exotica the experience comes out positive. Most people think there is no other way to have an elephant experience, other than go to live in one of the remote villages where elephants are still kept. As for the wild ones, you might spot them from a distance while in one of the wildlife sanctuaries, but you certainly can’t walk up to one with a smile on your face and a bunch of bananas in your hand.
It was certainly time to have such a place. Working elephants, just like working people, get sick sometimes, have accidents, infections, diseases. But as animals they don’t rate the same kind of attention as humans. The animals still go to work when they are sick, their wounds fester and their ailments worsen. Anyway, they are not as economically useful as in the past, so they often don’t bring in enough money to pay for their own medicine. De-worming medicine costs 17,000 baht. Antibiotics cost 3000 baht a shot, with a minimum full week’s injections necessary. And it’s best to hire a specialist or a vet to make the injection. It’s more problematic giving a shot to an elephant than to a human. Wrong administration of the medicine could make the elephant worse or even, as one family in the area found out, drop dead in half an hour. An unemployed sick elephant thus puts a tremendous financial burden on its owner, one that many cannot bear.
Lek became acutely aware of such problems when she was working at a nearby elephant tourist camp in the early 90s. She took a job there to be near elephants, being intensely fond of the animals since her childhood. She grew up in a Khamu village, where her grandfather was one of the local shamans. When she was just five years old, one of her grandfather’s successfully cured patients presented him with an elephant, named Tong Kham, as payment. Lek took an instant liking to her—so big, yet so gentle. She became her close friend and ever since has maintained and deepened that affection for elephants such that by now they are the main focus of her life.
|Mahouts ride without a howday at Lek's camp|
Personally, she preferred that elephants not work at all, that they could all return to nature, free and unfettered. Knowing that’s only a dream, on the practical side someone had to take care of the sick and the wounded. So for that role she nominated herself. She started by selling her house and car to buy a small plot of riverside land to be used as an elephant refuge. And then she began taking in sick, wounded and crippled elephants and looking after them, first with just her assistant Pom and later with well-wishers from all over the world who answered the call on her website (www.elephantnaturefoundation.org).
|Come, it's time to bathe|
Her greatest financial break came in 2003 when Bert Von Roemer, a fellow elephant-lover from Texas, donated enough money for her to purchase land in the Mae Taeng Valley. Here she has created her own private elephant preserve. Some of the elephants have fully recuperated from their various ailments, infections and injuries, but others need daily attention and medical treatment. The elephants wander freely, unchained, during the day, free to interact naturally and to form family groups and friendships.
Lek is at the park most days, though with her constant commuting back to her Chiang Mai office, most of the day-to-day care is handled by her staff, the mahouts, elephant fans from around the world on one or two-week volunteer programs and people hired from the local village. Visitors, whether they are the volunteers, day-trippers or those who stay overnight in one of the comfortable stilted houses around the lot, will get to know some of the elephants at the park.
Two of the most lovable elephants are Faa Mai, a girl, and Chang Yim, a boy, both born in the park in 2009, who are often seen playing together in the field, in the river or in the mud pit. Hope, a ten year-old male orphaned as a baby, is now of the most rambunctious and mischievous elephants in the park. Jokia, the elephant blinded by her irate former owner when she wouldn’t work to his commands, was a terribly distressed creature when she was rescued in 1999. Yet upon Jokia’s arrival in the camp another elephant, Mae Perm, began looking after her, steering her in the right direction when the elephants went out to bathe or feed. After ten years together these two elephants are now best friends and Mae Perm continues to watch over Jokia with constant devotion.
You can learn an intoxicating amount of facts about elephants at Lek’s park in just a day. But even the two-week volunteers feel that they’ve only scratched the surface in their time in the park, for there is always something new to understand about these impressive animals. Lek herself claims that in spite of her reading (she owns practically every book available on elephants in English or Thai) and her long years of experience with them, she is constantly discovering new things about them. She does admire one particular characteristic. “When an elephant loves you it is without conditions,” she says. “Humans have many conditions for their love. But not an elephant. An elephant’s love is unconditional. Pure.”
|the daily bath|