So I tried to get the last of my week with the elephants into just one post, but it didn’t fit. So here’s the second to last of the Journey to Freedom posts.
After working with the kids, we went to the Buddhist temple in the village. Yo, our leader explained a lot The high monk, who has been a monk for something like 50 years, gave us each a blessing, and tied a bracelet around each of our wrists that had been blessed by nine high monks. This monk is also responsible for tying blessed orange cloths around trees, making them blessed, so they can’t be cut down. He has plans to continue to do this so that more of the elephants’ habitat is protected.
The next morning, our last at the camp, the oldest man in the village came to give us a blessing to thank us for our help. He is 96, and is considered a village elder. He had us hold a “lucky cookie” which was sticky rice wrapped up in palm leaves, while he chanted a blessing and tied a blessed string around our wrists. He put the ends of the string on our heads, which to Buddhists, is the most sacred part of the body. Even the “heads” of things are sacred, the bows of boats, etc.
After our heartbreaking goodbye to the elephants and their mahouts, we headed to the Elephant Nature Park itself. We didn’t want to leave so they put us in cages and dragged us out. 🙂
We got to look around a bit before heading to a meeting with Lek herself. Besides being home to 66 elephants who are too old or ill to injured to live in the wild, she has also taken in water buffalo, cats, dogs, horses and even a pig, who needed sanctuary. (Maybe she’s a vampire or a robot so doesn’t need to sleep! But she obviously has such a huge heart, it’s a conundrum.)
While we were enjoying the view and meeting a few of the park’s elephants, there was a lot of trumpeting and elephants running. Yo, our guide, made us head to the sky walk for safety. What happened was that a baby elephant broke free of the trekking camp across the river, and ran to join one of the herds in the nature park. He was agitated from his mistreatment and conveyed this to the park elephants. The park elephants shielded him, surrounding him and trumpeting. Unfortunately, elephant refugees don’t follow the same policy as Cuban refugees. Even though he made it onto dry land, he still didn’t get to stay. Lek calmed her elephants down while the runaway’s mahout came to take him back to the trekking camp, and the punishment that awaited him there. It was really heartbreaking, even for us, just meeting the elephants for the first time. I can’t imagine how painful it must’ve been for Lek, whose entire life is dedicated to protecting elephants from harm, to have to hand a baby back over to the life, and punishment, she knew awaited him. It was amazing to see her interact with the elephants, they treated her as one of them. She literally disappeared into their midst, and when the baby started crying on the other side of the river, undoubtedly being punished for his escape, they herded her to the river bank, basically begging her to do something. The elephants were so worked up that had to be put into their enclosures for the rest of the night.
After all the excitement, we checked into our rooms, which we were ecstatic to see had real beds, and an ensuite bathroom. With hot water! That came right of the tap!
As if seeing a runaway baby elephant returned to it’s evil owners wasn’t enough, we learned about the treatment of elephants in trekking and logging camps. It was horrifying, and it puts me near tears thinking about it now. The short version is this, please please please don’t ride elephants, and be very conscious about buying teak. Even if they elephants don’t seem to be mistreated at the trekking camp, the process baby elephants go through in order for them to be trained is completely inhumane. They’re locked in crates and beaten for up to a week, until they break down, because afterwards, they’re more malleable. Elephants will put up a huge fight to protect their children, so often their mothers and nannies are killed in order to get the babies in the first place. And the teak logging camps are even worse. The conditions are often awful, and the elephants at the park have been taken in with broken backs, dislocated hips, feet blown up stepping on land mines. The after pictures are incredible, what Lek and the park can do for animals in pain is amazing, but there shouldn’t be so many befores.
Again, if you’d like to do something to help elephants, check out Elephant Nature Park.