Watching an elephant take a bath is a delight in itself, but bathing with, or washing an elephant is something close to experiencing paradise.
There can be few animals more closely associated with Thai culture than the elephant. From the battle-ready giants depicted in ancient temple murals to the twin elephants found on the logo of one of Thailand’s most popular brews, the elephant (‘Chang’ in Thai) is ubiquitous.
Despite an impressive heritage, numbers of wild elephants have decreased significantly in recent decades. Reports suggest there are fewer than 1,500 wild elephants remaining in Thailand.
Our relationship with the elephant has often been a little one-sided. A fully-grown Asian elephant might weigh up to four tonnes and reach more than three metres high but their impressive size hasn’t prevented us from bending elephants to our will. For centuries, elephants have been put to work, carrying soldiers into battle, transporting timber and performing tricks for our amusement. Until recently, we haven’t always treated the elephant with the dignity that it might deserve.
Fortunately, times and attitudes are changing. As awareness grows and tourists’ expectations become more sophisticated, the demand for more meaningful forms of interaction with these gentle giants is growing. These days, the educated traveller is less likely to settle for a quick but largely uninspiring ride on an elephant and more likely to seek out an educational and respectful elephant experience.
Leading the vanguard towards a more enlightened approach to our relationship with the elephant is conservationist and campaigner, Lek Chailert. Born into a hill tribe in northern Thailand, Lek has worked tirelessly to educate and inspire international leaders and influencers since she rescued her first elephant, appropriately named ‘Hope’, when she was just a teenager. Lek is now involved with several conservation projects, including the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, which she founded.
Lek’s passionate advocacy and full-time commitment has made her a leading authority on elephant conservation. She regularly speaks at international seminars and has met with many influential leaders, including Hilary Clinton. But she says that it is with the elephants she has helped to rehabilitate where she feels most at home.
Walking with Lek beside the river at the Elephant Nature Park, she introduces me to the elephants. “They come from illegal logging, from street begging and some are victims of land mines”, she explains. “Nobody rides elephants here. Even the mahouts do not ride and they do not use iron spikes. We work with the elephants, we do not control them”.
We sit on the river bank and watch a small herd of female elephants playing in the water on the far side of the river. “I love to watch the elephants”, Lek whispers. “But we must be quiet because when they hear my voice they will come running”.
Sitting beside Lek, sharing her sense of wonder and appreciation of the magnificent animals splashing in the river is a privilege. We might believe that we are familiar with elephants but only when you have seen them in a natural habitat, exhibiting typically social behaviour can you begin to fully understand how majestic they truly are.
After a meditative 20 minutes, Lek stands and calls out. In an instant, the elephants turn and begin to stride in our direction. When they reach our side of the river bank, they surround Lek and begin to embrace her with their trunks. Lek disappears behind a tangle of elephant trunks and legs, with only her laughter giving a clue to her whereabouts.
Elephants are amazingly tactile. They communicate by touch and smell as much as by sight and watching their delicately tender relationship with Lek provides an insight into how elephants respond when they are treated with love and respect.
When Lek eventually untangles herself, we continue our walk along the river with the elephants forming a protective shield around her. More elephants have gathered in the river for their daily bath. On average, one hundred visitors come to the park each day and, after an educational talk, are invited to help wash the elephants. It’s difficult to know whether the tourists or the elephants are having more fun. However, it is quite evident that being in such close proximity to elephants that are free to move naturally, without chains or the threat of an iron spike is thrilling for the visitors.
Lek is working hard to collaborate with other elephant parks in South-East Asia. “It’s all about education”, she explains. “We show that both visitors and elephants are happier when they can simply walk beside each other”. It’s fair to say that whilst riding on an elephant might be tempting, it doesn’t offer the opportunity to fully interact. Who would pass up the opportunity to really look an elephant in the eye?
If you're interested in learning more about the Elephant Nature Park, including details of volunteering opportunities, you can find all the information you need on the Elephant Nature Park website.
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