You know that scene in Dumbo where the baby elephant is turned into a clown and forced to jump from a burning building at the circus? And remember when Dumbo's mum was chained up in a small carriage and Dumbo couldn't see her, only her trunk? God Dumbo used to make me cry, even though I knew that in the end he'd learn to fly and be reunited with his mum. The thing is, we've just been volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chaing Mai for a week and I've only just realised how horrifically realistic Dumbo is.
ENP is a refuge for old, misused or disabled elephants. Labelled 'Elephant Heaven' by Lek (the remarkable lady who started the park) it feels like the train that Dumbo flies to at the end of the movie. Whilst Dumbo is flying towards his mum, the elephants here have already landed, in a beautiful green place full of people dedicated to giving them a happier life.
Hey, what about that scene in Dumbo where he's forcefully removed from his mum, detained in a tiny wooden box for a month whilst being repeatedly abused by humans with slingshots, knifes and metal picks?
Oh wait. That wasn't Dumbo, that was the documentary we watched at ENP. In Thailand this is called the Pajan. It's a method of training baby elephants to become submissive to humans in order to be able to work. The method works by literally breaking down the baby elephants spirit and brain until it's too disturbed to fight back. In many cases the elephants don't even recognise their own mothers anymore. Despite the Asian elephants population demise, this practice is still completely legal in Thailand. In fact, there are no enforced laws on how elephants should be treated here.
An elephant's life in Thailand can range from being walked around the streets of Bangkok every night to beg for money, being forced to do tricks in a elephant show or living undernourished in an elephant tourist attraction. It was horrible to see.
It's hard to think of the elephants at ENP as the lucky ones though. The parks most famous elephants (largely because they're the 'poster elephants' for the park) are Jokia and Mae do. Jokia has been blinded in both eyes by previous Mahoots and Mae do has severely damaged hips from forced mating. They've both, along with so many of the other elephants in the park, had terrible, heartbreaking pasts.
What's amazing though is that both of these elephants have been 'adopted' by other elephants in the park. Jokia has Mae Perm with her everywhere she goes now, Mae Perm acts as Jokia's eyes. And as for Mae Do, she now hangs around with an elephant who's been blinded in one eye. It's clear that they look out for one another and that they care for each other.
And this leads to something that I found fascinating. ENP is the first place where elephants, long distanced from their natural families, have created new families between themselves. They've formed herds and have proved that as a species they look after each other regardless of blood relation. They're basically humans.
Just before we were about to leave ENP we heard the sound of a trumpet. We turned around and saw three elephants charging towards the river with their Mahoots running after them. Jokia looked distressed for about a second before Mae Perm saw her panic and started touching her with her trunk to let her know everything was alright. It was beautiful - it showed how much love elephants have to give, how much like humans they really are, and how much they deserve our respect.
ENP taught me that Dumbo was more worth crying over than I could have possibly imagined. In Thailand there are elephants being forced to join the circus, being kept in tiny cages and being taken away from their mothers, just like Dumbo. But unlike Dumbo, these elephants aren't cartoon and they can't fly away. They can just hope to end up in Lek's 'Elephant Heaven' to join in with Jokia, Mae Do and all the other lucky ones.
Before we left ENP Lek asked us all to write a letter to guidebooks such as Lonely Planet asking them to leave out animal tourist attractions (not sancturies and conservation centres) because if they get enough letters/emails from travellers they'll do it. They seem to have already cut back on them, but if you get a minute, write them a note. It might just help.
Oh... And if you want to see elephants in Thailand, make sure you go to ENP. If you can't afford it, don't go to any.
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