WELCOME to Thailand! A country recognised for its warm weather, famous beaches, alluring cuisine, spiritual temples, and elephants. It was these qualities, coupled with my passion for contributing to animal protection and wildlife conservation that brought me here.
As a visiting veterinarian and volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) near Chiang Mai, I acquired a new perspective on large animal medicine, and understood the hardships facing Asian elephants today. This cultivated my new fondness for a gentle endangered species and special sanctuary for animals.
The Elephant Nature Foundation
The ENF is a non-profit organisation that advocates on behalf of Asian elephants in Thailand. It was created in 2005 by an inspiring woman named Sangduen “Lek” Chailert.
Its goals are: to increase awareness about the plight of the Asian elephant, to educate locals on humane care for their elephants, and offer a sanctuary for rescued animals at the ENP.
Elephant Haven is a jungle retreat offered by the project where visitors are taken, and allows elephants to relax in their natural environment. The Jumbo Express programme is another facet of the organisation that offers emergency medical care to injured elephants, while creating sustainable bonds with local populations.
A recent addition to ENF is its elephant project in the province of Surin. Here, ENF is working closely with the Surin government to promote responsible tourism as an alternative to street begging, circuses and elephant trekking.
With the financial support involved, elephant families in Surin are able to roam free in their natural habitat, while providing their mahouts (elephant keepers) with steady income. ENF promotes responsible tourism through education, which ultimately contributes to the survival of the Asian elephant.
Meet the elephants
Located in a mountainous valley 60km outside Chiang Mai, ENP is a sanctuary for over 30 elephants. Visitors to the park (day, overnight and weekly volunteers) provide financial support required to safely care for these animals.
These elephants share similar stories of deceitful lives and violent upbringing. Some were forced to paint pictures with their trunks or perform demeaning circus tricks, while others were subjected to arduous labour in the logging industry; and almost all were trained with weapons such as “the elephant hook”. They are all victims of Thailand’s hardships facing elephants.
As a visiting veterinarian I was brought to the sanctuary hospital, where I met two elephants requiring medical care. Ratee arrived that day on a 22-hour journey from the province of Surin.
Ratee, meaning “night time”, is 35 years old. Her previous owner used her solely for a breeding programme, causing her life-long injuries.
Our first assessment of Ratee revealed that she suffered nerve damage to her pelvic spinal cord, and her muscles were extremely weak. She was painful to walk and her hind feet dragged, causing her to fall over. Her skin had several wounds caused from previous abuse with elephant hooks.
The psychological effects of Ratee’s mistreatment were evident by her moaning, drooling, listless trunk and constant swaying. Despite her fear of humans at this time, however, she was foodmotivated, which allowed the staff veterinarian and me to treat her pain and wounds (Figure 1).
My first experience with elephant medicine did not stop there. Our next patient was Somboon. Somboon used to be a street-begging elephant. Exposure to traffic lights, noise and pollution had caused permanent damage to her eyesight and hearing. She was suffering from a painful bowel condition, similar to what horses experience in colic. Her body posture was suggestive of pain, and she had not eaten or produced faeces in three days.
Fortunately, our daily treatments consisting of analgesic medication, assisted-feeding, exercise and enemas were able to save her from this attack (Figure 2).
ENP provides necessary veterinary care required for all its resident rescued animals.
The remaining 32 elephants at ENP range in age from months to years. Malai Tong (Figure 3) was rescued from the logging industry, where she endured near life-threatening injuries, causing a permanent disfigurement to her right hind foot.
Jokia (Figure 4) was born in a small village near Burma and was used in logging. In 1989, anti-logging laws were passed by the government of Thailand, leaving Jokia jobless. Her family sold her to an enterprise that used harmful training practices, leaving her blind in both eyes. Financial support from special volunteers enabled Lek to rescue Jokia.
The elephants living at ENP all share similar stories of abuse prior to their rescue. Fortunately, their new life of semi-captivity at this sanctuary offers them a chance to roam, play, swim, share a family, and have as much or as little human interaction as they choose (Figure 5).
Elephants in Thailand
Elephants have played an important part in Thailand’s culture. In 1900 it was estimated that 100,000 elephants existed in the wild. Today that number is approximately 3,000, with half of them living in sanctuaries or national parks.
Historically, elephants were used in warfare, and later to carry timber in the logging industry. When the government of Thailand passed anti-logging laws due to deforestation concerns, many domesticated elephants were left jobless.
This, in addition to a food shortage concern, forced mahouts to render their elephants to careers in street-begging, circus entertainment, or riding camps for tourists, in order to provide a steady income for survival. Unfortunately,
tourists in Thailand continue to support these enterprises, while illegal poaching and logging remain threats affecting survival of wild elephant populations.
If the current rate of abuse and slaughter continues, many of Thailand’s elephants will disappear, along with the forest and culture of its indigenous people.
The ENF offers visitors an opportunity to learn about elephants, their environment and threats to their survival. I hope that my experience in Thailand will further global awareness toward this issue and ultimately help end illegal practices used on domesticated elephants today.
The elephants at ENP serve as an important reminder of the causes for the disappearance of Thailand’s wild elephants, while living their foreverchanged lives in “Elephant Heaven”.