For our second day with the Elephant Nature Park‘s Journey to Freedom, we got to follow the elephants and their mahouts for the day. The elephants lead and the mahouts just basically follow them around all day. A big part of the mahout’s job is making sure they don’t get into farmers’ fields. When they want to, elephants can move pretty quickly. Not only that, elephants eat an ungodly amount of food: 150-200 kilos a day. That’s 330-440 pounds! The mahouts are responsible for the elephants actions. One time an elephant got away from his mahout for a couple of hours, and by the time they found him, he had done 30,000 baht worth of damage to a field! That’s a lot of money in Thailand, especially considering a mahout only gets paid 300 baht ($8.25) a day! At night, the mahouts chain them down so they don’t wander while the mahouts get a few hours of sleep. Elephants only sleep about 4 hours a night, in two hour stretches but they chain them on long enough tethers that they have plenty to eat. Malnutrition is a big problem among working elephants, even when their owners have the best of intentions. In the wild, the elephants’ diet is really widely varied, and they’re smart enough to know what they need to eat to get proper nutrition. In trekking and logging camps, the elephants basically exist on watermelon and bananas because they’re easily purchased and transported. Plus, they work such long hours that the elephants don’t get enough time to eat. As we saw that day, elephants eat non-stop. I couldn’t believe how much went into them. And came out… Luckily elephant poop is mostly just fiber and doesn’t really have a smell.
But at the end, there were elephants!
The thing that really struck me, besides how much they ate, was the dexterity of their trunks. They could take vines and strip pieces off of them, using a combination of their trunks and mouths and feet. Their trunks move almost like snakes, or like an octopus’s tentacles. They were really incredible. I shot a video of it but it doesn’t seem like I can post it here. Maybe I can post it to YouTube or Facebook and add a link. They were also so incredibly choosy, eating certain plants but not others, and certain parts of even those particular plants. Mae Yoi couldn’t bend her ankles after having such a poor diet for so long in the trekking camp, she walked like a zombie elephant. After being back in the wild and seeking out the nutrition she needed to heal herself, and getting the nutrients she was missing, she has fully regained use of them, and walks naturally again.
After getting to hang out with the elephant children, that afternoon we went to the village to play with the human children. Farming and deforestation are the largest threats to elephants. A hundred years ago there were 400,000 elephants in Thailand. 50 years ago Thailand was 70% forest and there were 100,000 elephants. Between then and today Thailand’s forests have been halved. In that same time the elephant population has dropped by 95% to approximately 5,000 elephants, including those in captivity. Lek, the ENP’s founder is advocating for elephants in a number of ways. I don’t know how or when she sleeps. She believes that if the kids are exposed to more cultures and they become proficient in English that they’ll be able to find careers outside of farming. She herself was born and raised in a hill tribe.
We practiced colors and letters and numbers and played all sorts of games. I worked with the younger kids but was amazed at how well the older kids spoke English. They spoke well enough to tease people in our group.
At night we built a campfire and hung out for a while, sometimes singing, and just getting to know each other.
It was FREEZING in our tents at night. I think it was about 40* and even though I wore two pairs of pants, a t shirt, a long sleeve shirt and a (thin) hooded sweatshirt I was still a human popsicle. Plus the pads aren’t actually much padding so every time I tried to lay on my side my hip hurt. We joked that we were going to have bruises from rolling over but after the first couple of nights it seemed to warm up a bit.
If you’d like to visit, or donate, or get involved in any way with this incredible organization, this is the link to the Elephant Nature Park