When Elephants Dream of Freedom

I came to Thailand to buy an elephant. Not to own one as a pet so I can tie it up in my backyard and impress the neighbors — but to buy freedom for a working elephant. This has been my goal for quite a while. Six years ago I came here and worked as a volunteer at an elephant sanctuary called Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. At the risk of sounding like a cliche, I will say that the experience changed my life.

Bathing elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

Bathing elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

The future of elephants in Thailand looks pretty bleak right now, but there is definitely a ray of hope. An entire book could be written about the plight of the Asian elephant, but here is a very quick summary of the situation. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first (and I’m not going to show pictures of the bad stuff. We all see way too many gory photos. I want this to be a story about hope and optimism). A hundred years ago there were approximately 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Now there are an estimated 5,000 remaining, only half of those still living in the wild. In Thailand domestic elephants have the same legal status as livestock. They have no more rights than a cow or a pig or a chicken. Elephants work hard, many hauling heavy logs in remote, mountainous areas — even though the government banned logging in 1989.

Happiness is hanging out under a fig tree. Elephant Nature Park.

Happiness is hanging out under a fig tree. Elephant Nature Park.

Other elephants work on the streets of busy cities like Bangkok or Chiang Mai, begging tourists for money. The elephants earn a lot of money for their owners this way, but you can imagine how stressful it is for an elephant to live in a crowded, noisy city, dodging cars, buses and motorbikes, breathing in exhaust fumes night and day.

Many elephants work in the tourist industry, giving tourists rides on their backs along jungle trails, or even painting pictures. Elephants are quite talented. And though this kind of work seems harmless enough, it’s tough on the elephants. They lose their families and are taken from their mothers at a very young age. Just as horses are “broken”, elephants must also lose their wild spirits to become submissive to their human masters. The intensity of this “breaking” literally kills many. And though there are many good, responsible tourist camps, there are some very bad ones. Elephants are sometimes chained up in stables for long periods of time, underfed and neglected. It’s a sad situation for such a gentle, intelligent, beautiful animal.

For me, it's more fun to walk WITH the elephants than ON them.

For me, it’s more fun to walk WITH the elephants than ON them.

But like I said, there’s a ray of hope. A Thai woman named Lek Chailert, has devoted her entire life to improving the situation for the Asian elephant. You could call Lek an “elephant whisperer”. She can look into their eyes and communicate with them. Twelve years ago she created a sanctuary in a remote valley in northern Thailand and named it Elephant Nature Park. The park is now home to forty-four very happy elephants, which are now in “retirement”. I’ve just spent the past four incredible days there and I’ve never seen so many happy elephants. And cats and dogs and water buffalo and ducks and cows. It’s like Old MacDonald’s Farm. Elephant Nature Park takes in any animal who needs rescuing — even animals that jumped off the truck heading to the slaughterhouse!

Lek Chailert believes that elephants can be trained using positive reinforcement rather than the traditional system of beating the animal into submission. There have been elephants born at the Park, and she is able to show live proof that her system can work. She also believes that with education, the next generation of Thais will take better care of the environment and will understand that ecotourism can make just as much money as traditional elephant trekking.

Elephant Nature Park offers ecotourism programs. You can spend a whole day walking with elephants, feeding them, interacting with them, having fun with them. But you don’t ride them. Trust me, it’s wonderful. You can stay overnight at the Park and spend even more time with the elephants, including bathing them in the river which runs through the Park. Even celebrities like this place. Two that come to mind that have visited are Meg Ryan and Owen Wilson.

Spending a day with elephants without riding them. Ecotourism.

Spending a day with elephants without riding them. Ecotourism.

There are several different volunteer programs, including a dog volunteer program for those who love dogs. As you can imagine, it costs a huge amount of money to feed forty-four elephants and hundreds of other animals as well. Every dog, every cat and every elephant I saw has a round belly, and everyone receives excellent veterinary care. Ecotourism, voluntourism and donations pay the bills. The success of Elephant Nature Park has not gone unnoticed. Trekking camps have begun to take an interest in ecotourism as well. Personally, I think that walking beside an elephant is much more fun than sitting on top in a saddle. At one point during our walk, an elephant wrapped her trunk around my waist, hoping to find bananas in the fruit bag we were each given at the start of the day.

On the "Pamper a Pachyderm" program...

On the “Pamper a Pachyderm” program…

Lunch surrounded by elephants on the "Sunshine for Elephants" program at Elephant Nature Park

Lunch surrounded by elephants on the “Sunshine for Elephants” program at Elephant Nature Park

There are many young, healthy elephants in the Park, but many are elderly and have various handicaps. Here are some of the elephants whose stories will touch your heart. They are all living very happily now, with nothing to do but eat, sleep and play — and heal. They are treated with love, respect and kindness.

This is a young male wild elephant whose leg was caught in a snare. He was brought to the Park for veterinary care and his foot is slowly healing, though it will never be normal again.

Healing from being caught in a snare in the jungle. Care provided by Elephant Nature Park.

Healing from being caught in a snare in the jungle. Care provided by Elephant Nature Park.

The wound is much better than when he first arrived.

The wound is much better than when he first arrived.

This is a land mine victim, but she lives happily with her adopted family.

A lot of logging elephants have stepped on land mines.

A lot of logging elephants have stepped on land mines.

This is Jokia, who is 54 years old and completely blind in both eyes. Jokia was pregnant when she started a new job in a logging camp. She gave birth while pulling a heavy log up a hill. The newborn rolled down the hill and died, still in the placenta. Jokia was not allowed to go to her baby and responded by refusing to work. Her mahout hit her eye with a slingshot, blinding it. Later, she swung at the mahout with her trunk, injuring him. He blinded her second eye. Lek bought Jokia for $2000 and brought her to the park in 2001 where she became best friends with Mae Perm, on the left. The two elephants are inseparable, Mae Perm leading Jokia around, understanding that Jokia cannot see.

Blind Jokia in the foreground with her best friend, Mae Perm, and their mahout.

Blind Jokia in the foreground with her best friend, Mae Perm, and their mahout.

This is Medo, who is 39 years old and has been at the Park since 2006. It’s heartbreaking to watch Medo walk, but she is free now and no longer forced to drag logs all day long. She has friends and is a happy elephant.

Photo by Elephant Nature Park. Medo's hip and back injuries were never treated.

Photo by Elephant Nature Park. Medo’s hip and back injuries were never treated by her previous owners.

Medo loves her life at the Park and manages to get around without too much difficulty.

Medo loves her life at the Park and manages to get around without too much difficulty.

This is Sook Sai, 51 years old. She only recently arrived at the Park, in January of this year. Sook Sai broke her ankle carrying tourists and when it healed, she limped. Many tourists complained about the bumpy ride they got from riding on Sook Sai, so she was sent out to beg in the streets. More tourists complained that it was cruel for this limping elephant to be walking on busy streets so her owners put Sook Sai into a forced breeding program. Not much is known about this period of her life. But when Sook Sai came to Lek’s attention, she was chained up and left to stand in her feces, often going without food and water. Now she has retired!

Sook Sai is still adjusting to being free.

Sook Sai is still adjusting to being free.

It’s funny how we can go somewhere hoping to do one thing and yet something completely unexpected may happen. I went to Elephant Nature Park thinking that I could help an elephant. But of course, the elephants helped me. I laughed and I played and felt completely alive. Their incredible spirits are an inspiration for us all. This is a place to come for healing, especially if you volunteer and can spend at least a week among these special animals.

I know how it feels to be “unfree” and I know how good it feels to lose those chains. So yes, I will donate money to rescue another elephant for the Park when the opportunity arises. I can’t think of a more worthy purpose in life.

For those of you who are interested in visiting this magical place, you can find more details at http://www.elephantnaturepark.org.


(all photo credits – India Harris except the ones with me in them!)

43 Comments on “When Elephants Dream of Freedom

  1. What a journey your life is leading you on. Your photo essay has left my head reeling. Sympathy for the broken and battered ones, happy that there was someone to care and others to support their effort, thoughts about how you and the elephants give much to one another, wondering what it would feel like to truly connect with an elephant. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Thank you, Phyllis! Yes, I’m really quite surprised by my the strange twists of my life’s journey. And I must say that I rarely make decisions based on what my “brain” says to me, anymore. I almost always listen to and follow my heart. It has never led me wrong…

      • Hi India, I want to buy an elephant as a goal too! How much does it cost nowadays? I know you said 2000 dollars around 2001. You spent the whole there as a volunteer or did the pamper a pachyderm program every day? Thank you , Spencer

      • Hi Spencer! Wow, I’m so happy to hear that you’d like to help rescue an elephant. There’s a young boy named Jack who has raised money through his school to rescue TWO elephants already. That’s so inspiring. The price of an elephant depends on his or her age and condition AND most importantly, whether the elephant is making much money for the owner. So yes, it’s probably still possible to pay as little as $2000 for an elephant that can’t work anymore and but still costs the owner money to feed her. I think the average price is between $20,000 and $25,000 for the typical rescue. I volunteered six years ago but when I came back last month I tried out the new programs: Pamper a Pachyderm for the first day, Sunshine for Elephants on the second , and then the Overnight Visit — which gave me two days at the Park. You can use the link in my post to learn more about the park and how to make donations. I think it’s wonderful that you’re interested in saving elephants!!! Best wishes to you…

  2. Hi
    I have missed it in your blog but did you ‘buy’ a particular elephants freedom? I would love to raise money to free another elephant and think it would be more successful if i had a name and picture of an elephant we were trying to free. I have been to the park myself and it is amazing. Lek is the most wonderful kind person and the elephants! Oh the elephants. Just the most gorgeous creatures to walk on this earth

    • Thank you, Natarsha! I totally agree that Lek is the most incredible, inspirational person. She is full of love for all living beings. I have not yet freed an elephant. From what I understand, this is not the ideal time to transport elephants over long distances. It is extremely hot in Thailand and heat causes big stress to elephants, not to mention the trauma of being placed in a truck and driven hundreds of miles. So I will wait. I agree that knowing the name and the story of a needy elephant (and photos) will be very helpful in raising money. I was told that the Elephant Nature Park Facebook page will let people know when they have found a potential rescue and are looking for donations. Keep following and hopefully you will also participate in a rescue…

  3. What a great story. I am looking forward to my visit to ENP in May 2015 so much. I have been a Lek follower since I saw a documentary last year on her work with the elephants

    • Thank you, Francis! I’m sure that you will love meeting the elephants when you visit ENP next month and you will feel all the love that has gone into the creation of this special sanctuary…

  4. Love this! It takes me right back to the place I left my heart

    Thank you ❤

  5. tourists need more eye-opening write-ups by traveller like you. what lacking now is the ignorance from tourists, but any sane human would not enjoy exploiting animals again if they are aware of the ugly truth. i enjoyed walking and having lunch with the pachyderms too! thank you India!

    • Thank you Mei Fhong! I agree that we tourists often just don’t know. I admit that I have ridden elephants in the past (in Nepal and India), but I will never do it again. I think that most tourists care about the animals — it’s just a lack of information and education…

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have been a keen supporter of ENP for many years although have not been able to get up there yet, but it will happen. It is so sad to see these beautiful creatures treated with such cruelty. Lek is such a wonderful lady for doing what she does and an inspiration to so many. Thank you for sharing and hopefully encouraging more people to donate to this fantastic cause.

    • Thank you Sharon! And thank you for your donations to ENP. One of the things that really struck me on this return visit was the expansion of the Park. There are so many additional animals being cared for — and they are cared for so well. All the details that have gone into the many new cat shelters: the comfy and immaculately clean bedding, all the water and food bowls, etc. etc. It takes not only work (a LOT of work) but a huge amount of money to keep it all going. I watched a truck arrive filled with watermelons for the elephants. More money… So I will regularly donate as well. It’s such a worthy cause.

    • Thank you Anu! What I love about Lek is that she doesn’t give up and say it’s hopeless. She keeps trying — and her efforts mean so much for all the animals who live in her sanctuary.

  7. What a wonderful human being you are! Incredible story, inspiring one. Thank you!

    • Thank you Aga! That’s very nice of you to say. I think there are many of us around the world who love animals. Together we can make a difference AND inspire one another…

  8. What can I say ?? O just cried. So sad to see people being so cruel.

    • Thank you for your comment Marlene! Yes, it’s definitely sad what has happened to animals all over the world. But I hope that you will keep doing your best to care for and love the animals in your life. Lek is a huge believer in love. It’s the most powerful emotion — stronger than anger and hate and fear. So let’s all try to add more love to the world. It matters…

  9. Wonderful article on the amazing Lek & her very lucky elephants. Thank you for this! I am volunteering for a week in June & so look forward to helping her with all her rescues. The days of riding elephants or watching them beg, paint, massage etc. can end if we continue to educate travel agents, tourists and people in general. It must!

    • Thank you Patty!! Wow, you are going to LOVE volunteering!! You are absolutely right about educating people. Most people do care about elephants. We just need to be better informed. It’s very special to walk alongside an elephant — I hope that travel agents become more responsible and promote ecotourism. I do believe it will happen…

    • Thank you for your question Debra. They range in price. The completely blind Jokia cost US $2,000. Most elephants over the age of 50 who have had injuries are around $20,000 – $25,000. A young healthy elephant will be much more expensive. A lot depends on whether the elephant is still working and bringing in money for their owner. If she cannot work and is just chained up and requires food, then I think the price will be relatively low.

  10. I love you so much@I wish at 64 (soon),I could do the same thing.I am in u.s.northwest; wash.state and would do anything To help .s.security income doesn’t allow it.God Bless You!

    • Thank you so much, Shelley!! Keep your heart open and love those elephants. Even if you’re not with them in person, the more love there is in the world, the better for all of us!!

  11. Very moving and important. Like other commenters, I am left wondering if you have been able to “buy” an elephant and give him/her freedom. Please continue your story when you can. Thank you.

    • Thank you CP! Yes, I will do a follow up when a rescue happens. This really was the first step in the process — going to ENP and letting Lek know that I want to do this. This is the worst season for a rescue because of the extreme heat in Thailand right now. Heat stresses elephants, as does being placed in a truck and driven hundreds of miles. ENP did several rescues in January of this year, when it is cool. But we’ll make it happen and I’ll definitely write about it. It really warms my heart to think of a hard-working elephant somewhere out there who will find retirement in Lek’s beautiful sanctuary.

  12. Hi India … you have taken me right back to Elephant Nature Park and my old friends Medo, Mae Perm, and the others. I will never forget my time there, and totally get it when you say it is a life-altering experience to visit ENP. I hope to return some day myself. Thank you for reminding me about this special place.

    • Thank you for writing, Kathleen! There is something unforgettable about Elephant Nature Park, isn’t there? I’m surprised how fast the years have gone by — I hadn’t realized that it was SIX years since I volunteered. I’ll make sure that I visit much more regularly. Who can resist Medo and Mae Perm and some of the young rascals that are keeping their mothers and nannies so busy these days?!! I hope you find yourself on a plane to Chiang Mai sometime soon as well, Kathleen…

  13. My dream is to visit the park. To be that close to an elephant….I can’t even imagine. I’ll burst into tears lol. Lek is my hero.

    • Lek is my hero too, Jill!! I hope that you have a chance to visit the park and experience that close interaction with the elephants. You’ll come away with love in your heart…

  14. I love people that care and we both know the elephants are grateful and love you too.

    • Thank you, Jayne!! One of the many amazing things about elephants is their ability to forgive — they don’t hold it against us for what has been done to them. Elephants are very special. Thanks for writing…

  15. Thank you for this eye opening essay . I am horrified by the way animals are abused . Not just elephants . As humans we need to stop the bad guys from profiting while hurting the source their income . Penalties must equal or even mimic the pain and suffering perpetrated on innocent creatures . There are billions of humans and only thousands of elephants . Why should a human have more rights than an elephant ? I say its time to stop allowing mistreatment by enforcing an eye for an eye system of justice . Educating elephant handlers in methods that do not involve abuse . Elephants are so intelligent that they have opinions . If the work is hard the rewards must make that work worth doing . I am saddened and maddened by the way so many suffer in the hands of ignorance . Best of luck to you in your fight to save these beautiful elephants . I will try in my way to help . Sincerely Bob B.

    • Thank you so much, Bob!! It’s certainly upsetting to see what damage we have inflicted on our planet and its animals in such an incredibly short time. I don’t know where it’s all going to end but hopefully there are enough animal lovers out there, such as yourself, who can help turn things around. Thank you for caring and writing…

    • Thank you! I do hope that you manage to visit. You will love the time that you spend with the elephants — they’re so special…

  16. How wonderful! Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful and insightful post, and for all your noble and inspiring efforts to help these gorgeous gentle giants

    • Thank you for writing! Sorry for my slow response, life is hectic right now. Lek is such a hero and she works so hard to better the lives of these working elephants. I’m happy to do whatever I can, including letting people know that there is a problem. Most of us just don’t know…

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