Stephan and I excitedly dedicated a week of our Thailand adventure to volunteering at Elephant Nature Park. While I anticipated a really unique and special experience, I was completely unprepared for the emotional journey I was about to be embarking on…
We departed Chiang Mai early Monday morning, and headed about an hour and a half north with a handful of other volunteers to the remote, forested, hillside sanctuary. As we neared the park, we noticed dozens of trees with orange fabric meticulously tied around their trunks. We learned that the saffron-hued sashes had been blessed at a local temple. Lek, ENP’s founder, along with the Buddhist monks who performed the consecration, then journeyed to the forest, securely knotting the robes around a number of trees encompassing the park boundary, thereby marking them as sacred. The sashes are meant to protect the forest from harm, such as illegal logging, as cutting down an ‘ordained’ tree is considered sacrilegious, and will plague the transgressor with a lifetime of misfortune.
Continuing around the bend, we pulled into the entrance of Elephant Nature Park, marked with a simple, unembellished sign. A warm feeling washed over me, and my heart raced with anticipation. As we crept slowly along the tree-lined dirt road, we passed expansive, grassy fields dotted with water buffalo, egrets, and elephants. Flamboyant trees exploded with flame-like blooms, and a peaceful river carved through the arid terrain. At the end of the road stood an expansive, wooden pavilion, which would serve as our dining and community space for the week. Off the back of the pavilion, a raised walkway covered with a thatched roof led out to a tranquil gazebo overlooking the picturesque property.
As soon as we stepped out of our transport van, we were whisked off to work, unloading a seemingly bottomless truckload of watermelons that had just pulled up to the ‘elephant kitchen.’ We quickly formed an assembly line and stacked fruit after fruit after fruit into a tall, metal cage until every square inch of shelf was buried under a sea of melons (a quantity we learned would last only about one day at ENP). After completing our first chore, we were shown to our room for the week. The rustic bungalows had concrete walls and corrugated metal roofs. Each room was quite basic, outfitted with a bed draped in mosquito netting, a small cabinet, and a lone photograph of elephants hanging on the wall; a shared, open-air bathroom stood just off the bedroom. We plopped our sweaty packs down on the floor, elated to free ourselves of our 40-pound loads in the 105-degree heat. As we took a moment to catch our breath, Stephan stepped over to the adjacent wall to straighten our one piece of wall-hanging décor (yup, we are that compulsive). As he tilted the frame to the left, a dinosaur-sized gecko unexpectedly came flying out from behind the print, chirping loudly and racing up the wall, clearly unhappy that his afternoon nap was interrupted by a couple of neurotic houseguests.
Not wanting to disturb any of our other potentially-hidden cohabitants, we headed to the gathering space to meet our fellow volunteers for the week, and to collect our group and chore assignments. The first task delegated to our group of 15 for the following morning was poop duty. A few of the volunteers looked around uneasily, and some even bemoaned their very first job. I, for one, was delighted – probably the only one in the group who was genuinely thrilled to get a good shoveling workout first thing in the morning. Having been on the road for nearly four months without working, I couldn’t wait to do some manual labor. Eager about the experience that lay ahead of us, we spent the rest of the afternoon getting to know our teammates, before enjoying a traditional welcome ceremony and a truly exceptional dinner. During the sacred Thai ritual, we received sai sin, a piece of white, cotton thread that was blessed and looped around our wrists to bring each of us protection and good health throughout our week of service.
Our seven days at Elephant Nature Park were unequivocally magical. Even though we spent the majority of our time moving immense quantities of fresh fruit or towering piles of elephant excrement, it felt like we were moving mountains. Each morning, hundreds of cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins had to be washed before they were fed to the elephants. Because the fresh produce is purchased from a number of local hillside tribe farmers, some who use pesticides on their crops, each piece of fruit had to be scrubbed, as the chemicals have been known to make even elephants ill. Additionally, corn cobs had to be shucked and fruit trucks unloaded. A small group of volunteers was also assigned to making rice balls, a mixture of white rice, tamarind, and banana that is a favorite treat of many of the elephants. With 69 elephants on-site, each eating 10% of their body weight in food daily, shoveling waste and prepping food were, understandably, the two paramount tasks at the sanctuary.
Our afternoon chores varied from day to day, from cleaning the grounds of the property (shoveling more manure and raking masses of chewed and discarded grass stalks), to building a dam in the river to create a deeper swimming hole for the elephants. Because it was the peak of the hot season, and as this April was one of the hottest and driest on record, the small river in which the elephants bathe was nearly two meters below normal levels. Thus, we spent one afternoon toiling away in the river, shoveling massive amounts of wet silt into dozens of Tyvek grain sacks to dam up the parched waterway.
Later each afternoon, after the day’s chores were complete, we’d head to the stream to help bathe the elephants. Each of the large friends would stand ankle-deep in the warm current, relaxing with a tasty basket of fruit, as we poured buckets of water over their enormous frames to try to remove any bugs from their skin.
While we clearly kept fairly busy caring for the elephants over the course of the week, we did have a few hours of free time each day. Stephan and I chose to dedicate this time to the dog rescue that was also located at the sanctuary. In addition to the rescued elephants, ENP is also home to some 450 dogs and 150 cats. While a separate program has been established for the dogs, it sees far fewer volunteers than that involving the elephants. Eager to help out at the understaffed dog facility, we spent many hours socializing with the dogs, trying to give attention and love to as many as we could, sitting with some of the sick dogs as they came out of surgery, taking a number of the furry friends for a good, long walk, and helping to give the clinic a good cleaning. The dogs were all so sweet, and just so excited to get a bit of activity and affection. We had just as much fun with them as we did with the elephants… although it was incredibly tear-jerking to see just how many were in need of a good home.
Near the midpoint of our stay, on Wednesday, April 27th, we awoke to an unexpected announcement on our small message board – the park had welcomed a new baby elephant! The bundle of joy was a total surprise to everyone at the park; not a single person realized the female was pregnant. With a lengthy, 18- to 22-month gestation period, elephants don’t typically start to show until the very end of term. Even Lek was shocked when she got the phone call informing her of the newborn. “What? Who had a baby?!” she gasped incredulously. Elephant Nature Park is strictly a rescue facility, and does not encourage breeding between the animals; the bull elephants are even kept apart from the females. Nature, nonetheless, found its way, and at 4:37 a.m. Dok Ngern gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Dok Rak (‘flower of love’), who topped the scale at an impressive 120 kg (265 pounds).
After that morning of food prep, we headed out to the grounds to hand-feed some of the older elephants. Some are missing teeth and some have difficulty with digestion, and therefore need to have their baskets of small, finger bananas peeled prior to eating. As we made our way around to the old ladies of the herd, we were able to stop briefly and catch a glimpse of little Dok Rak. At only about six hours old, his small frame was blanketed with a coating of fine, black, baby hairs, and he kept close to mom and his nannies, occasionally peeking out from his secure shelter under Dok Ngern’s midsection.
Later in the week, towards the end of our stay at the sanctuary, a small group of us had the opportunity to work for a day at Elephant Kingdom, a second piece of land recently purchased by ENP that is essentially undeveloped and closed to the public. Because it was going to be a full, nine-hour day, virtually none of the 60 or so volunteers seemed eager to sign up for task. An enthusiastic group of us, though, willingly scrawled our names on the chalkboard easel. On Friday morning, the seven of us crammed ourselves into the back of a pickup truck with a full load of supplies for the day, and hung on tightly for the hour-long journey up the mountainside, a 30-mile drive up winding rural roads to the west of ENP. We gasped at the sweeping panoramas as we slowly climbed up the rutted, coiled road that twisted through several small villages. Tiny huts were nestled amongst the dense foliage, and every person we passed along the side of the road grinned from ear to ear, zealously waving and shrieking, “Sawadee!” As we waved back joyfully I thought, ‘now this is the Thailand I imagined… this is The Land of a Thousand Smiles.’
After arriving at the site, we spent the morning building a swimming pool for some chickens, ducks, and geese that Lek has recently added to her menagerie of rescued animals. The hole for the pool had been dug previously, so we began by hauling wheelbarrows full of sand and rock to the site to make concrete, and by digging a trench and laying a drainage pipe at one corner of the pool. We then stirred up several large vats of cement, using 9 buckets each of crushed rock and sand per batch to try to stretch the trivial amount of concrete mix we had on hand. In a race to get the cement poured, we formed an unsophisticated bucket brigade, filling the gaping foundation floor small pail by small pail. It was definitely not the epitome of efficiency, and I’m quite certain we probably looked like an improvised skit from a satirical comedy routine. While the triple-digit heat was ridiculously intense, leaving us all drenched with sweat from the blistering midday sun, and our rudimentary bucket system left us splattered from head to toe with concrete, we had an absolute blast working together.
After a morning of hard work, we enjoyed lunch at the site’s one small pavilion, and were treated to an unexpected surprise when Lek and her husband Darrick came up to join us. While Lek was giving a talk to our entire group back at ENP the following day, it was such an honor to be able to sit with the two of them, and hear even more about their unique story and their undying passion for elephant rescue.
Before heading back to work, Lek directed us to the back of a truck loaded with bunches of bananas and directed us to go feed the three elephants that made their home on the property. While the three females had formed a tight relationship with one another, all carried significant emotional wounds, and preferred to spend their time away from both untrustworthy humans and other elephants. Thus, Lek created their own oasis of solitude at Elephant Kingdom. As the three lovely ladies happily gorged themselves on all the bananas and banana tree stalks we could give them, a strong storm rapidly blew in. Instead of continuing our pool construction, we were forced to seek shelter under the small hut full of bananas and pumpkins that was set up near the elephant enclosure. As we stood for nearly a couple of hours in the driving rain, the three elephants wallowed in the fresh mud, often stared intently at us, begging for more treats. We happily complied with their silent request, as they quickly let us know the penalty for ignoring them – a thorough drenching with a trunkful of wet mud. Even though we didn’t get as much accomplished as we’d hoped, it was such an incredible day. It may have been filled with sweat, mud, and drenching rain, but it was one of our favorite memories from the park.
As our seven-day journey neared the end, we all got together on our penultimate afternoon to snap a group photo, to listen to a talk from Lek, and to enjoy an evening performance of local dancing and music. As we began gathering together for our quick photo shoot, we felt the wind pick up, and sky abruptly turned as dark as night. Thinking we could get one picture in before the looming storm unleashed its wrath, we all lined up under the small, wooden gazebo at the back of the pavilion. Just as the first flashbulb flickered, the sky opened up – rain fell torrentially from the sky, blowing sideways from the howling wind. As we sprinted toward the pavilion, hail began to fall and lightning flashed around us. Drenched and taken completely by surprise, we huddled under what little cover we could find as the storm – now the second of the drought-riddled month of April – passed. Almost as quickly as it rolled in, the squall moved out, leaving in its wake a number of large, downed trees and a major power outage. While a generator at the main pavilion allowed us to enjoy our last evening at ENP, the last 24 hours in our little bungalow was spent in total darkness.
Throughout the week, when we weren’t walking dogs, shoveling elephant poop, prepping food, hauling fruit, or constructing dams and pools, we were having quite a bit of fun getting to know the elephants. Each of the majestic animals has its own unique set of scars and its own poignant story to share. After arriving at the sanctuary, the elephants undergo individualized rehabilitation programs, and each requires a different amount of time to recover from years of heartbreak and abuse. Some feel a sense of freedom in a matter of days, others take weeks, and some may not find relief for many months or even years. But when they do, their personalities shine brightly. Some are incredibly playful, frolicking with the innocence and joy of a young child; some have a fierce independent streak, and clearly enjoy testing boundaries; some are especially nurturing, and thrive as “nannies,” devotedly caring for the younger members of the group. Regardless of their painful pasts, none of which will soon be forgotten, each animal clearly has the extraordinary ability to find a sense of forgiveness, friendship, fun, and fierce loyalty within the caring confines of Elephant Nature Park.
Before venturing to Elephant Nature Park, it was easy for me to read facts and figures about the heart-rending dilemma of the endangered Asian elephant: That horrific abuse was used to transform the wild creatures into domestic servants. That at the start of the 20th century, the number of wild elephants in Thailand was around 100,000, while today’s total hovers around 3,000 individuals (estimated). That habitat loss and poaching are rapidly leading to the animal’s demise. But to see each animal in person… to look into their expressive eyes… to see each scar the animal has had to bear… to learn each story of sorrow and survival… it’s more powerful and inspiring than words can ever describe.
In summary, our week at ENP was spent in unremitting 100°F heat with no air-conditioning and with a fan that refused to oscillate; we were lacking hot-water showers, and each night we were woken repeatedly by a chorus of trumpeting elephants, barking dogs, or singing geckos. We were perpetually caked in a thick layer of sunscreen, insect repellant, mud, and sweat. In spite of the ostensibly imperfect conditions, I never felt even a hint of lethargy… and, for some peculiar reason, it was actually about the most comfortable I’ve ever been. In truth, I am pretty sure I could have stayed there forever, caked in grime and wearing the same dirty outfit for days on end. I guess it’s true that when you truly love what you are doing, you can find sincere happiness anywhere.
While this narrative paints a basic picture of our week of volunteer work at Elephant Nature Park, it seems massively superficial. It was a tremendously eye-opening experience for me, and I can’t even begin to describe my emotions during my time at the sanctuary. I felt such sadness that any animal could ever be treated in such a frighteningly inhumane capacity. Likewise, I felt incredible anger that any human being could ever do such horrifying things to another living creature. I felt an immense, indescribable empathy and love for the amazing animals, who have such strength and spirit to endure, and to find new joy after a life of unspeakable hardship. And, although I’ve always been passionate about conservation and wildlife welfare, I felt a yearning to be able to do more – to commit myself more fully to working and raising awareness for wildlife protection, and to encourage people to educate themselves, rather than turn a blind shoulder to a critical yet escapable problem.
My time at Elephant Nature Park was nothing short of inspiring, and I found myself moved to tears just about every day I was there – when we first passed under the unadorned entrance gate; when I was introduced to Porn Sawang, a female elephant who suffered a horrific landmine injury that resulted in four years of convalescence; when I saw Dok Rok for the first time, only hours after he’d been born; when I watched Lek, ENP’s founder, calm the outwardly overwrought Faa Sai with a single firm, but loving, gaze; when I had to leave Liverpool’s side, a dog whose hind legs were recently crushed when he was hit by a car, leaving him partially paralyzed; when I had to leave a dog named Sanchez, who spent our entire socialization time with her body burrowed so lovingly in my lap; when Lek told us her story over lunch, and again when she delivered a presentation to the volunteers; and finally, when we pulled out of the sanctuary on our final afternoon, and I watched out the van window as the park that changed my life slowly disappeared from sight.
This week was such a special time for me, and I will forever hold dearly my time at Elephant Nature Park. I feel incredibly privileged and honored to have been a part of this volunteer experience, and I hope, regardless of how small a contribution, that all of the shoveling, fruit hauling, dam building, and concrete laying made a difference to the lives of some unbelievably well-deserving animals.