The truth is in the eyes. My time at the Elephant Nature Park and the reality of elephant tourism.

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A few years ago, on my first trip to India, on the very first day, I was strolling along the street when an elephant came walking towards me, accompanied by a man adorned with an orange robe and a long, grey beard. The man was a Sadhu, a holy man. I was overwhelmed with happiness, I adore all animals but there is something truly special about elephants. I had my picture taken with this beautiful creature, gave the Sadhu money and walked away, ecstatic. It never occurred to me that this elephant would have been mistreated in anyway, in my ignorance I didn’t question how an elephant could be walking down a street with a man so calmly, as if it was natural.

A few days later I came across a lake where an elephant was bathing, again this elephant had a human companion. The man told me that for a small fee I could have a wash off the elephant, I just had to sit on her back and she would spray water on me with her trunk. Once again I was delighted at my chance to interact with these majestic animals. However, when I looked into her eyes I was greeted by sadness, she was exhausted. The eyes are said to be the windows to the soul and I could see that this elephant’s soul had been destroyed. I turned around at the sound of chatter, during my brief time with this broken elephant a line of tourists had formed, ready for their turn to sit on this poor animals back. It was then that I stopped to think about what was happening. I knew that this was not right; my feeling of delight had quickly been replaced by shame and guilt. I didn’t realise it at the time, like most people back then I was ignorant to how elephants are treated in order to tame them for the tourist industry, but I had been a part of this shameful treatment. Through participating in this activity I had been a part of the demand, and as long as there is a demand there will be a supply.

When I returned to the UK I started to do my research. I was horrified. I discovered that elephants are taken from the wild and beaten in the most horrific ways, with weapons made from a piece of wood with a hook on the end they are repeatedly stabbed, until the point they are broken and obey the demands of their human torturers in fear of further cruel treatment. I had caused this, as long as people like me travel to these countries where people will do whatever it takes to earn a bit of money, this treatment will continue to happen. My guilt and shame reached a whole new level. The more I researched the more I realised that I had been causing animals, such as elephants, to be taken from their natural environment in order to entertain humans. Of course I am not solely responsible, but I accept full responsibility in the part that I have played and I will live with the guilt of that, every day. As a child the only place I ever wanted to visit was the zoo, because at the zoo lived all my favourite animals, at the zoo I could watch the orang-utans, with their big round stomachs and saggy cheeks swinging from rope-to-rope. At the zoo I could watch the chimpanzees chasing each other and listen to their noisy chatter, at the zoo I could watch the elephants doing what they do best, eating. I never stopped to think about how these animals came to be in the zoo, and as I child I suppose I can be forgiven for not questioning this; however as an adult there is no excuse.

I tell this story so that you, the reader, know that I am guilty of this, too. This post is not about judging people for their actions, if you have had a ride on the back of an elephant or if you have swam with dolphins I am not criticising you, my intention is to educate people, like I have been educated, in the hope that one day we can put an end to using animals for our entertainment and they can all live their lives in their natural habitat.

Earlier this year, on a grey and cold March evening, whilst scrolling through social media, I stumbled across a photo detailing information about a place called The Elephant Nature Park, in Thailand. A country I was set to visit as part of my round the world trip. The post stated that the elephants there are rescued from the tourist industry and brought to the park so they can live out the rest of their days free from abuse, free from pain. I started to do my research, in order to make sure that it was genuine, that it was ethical and it was what it described on its website. Once I was reassured I immediately signed up to be a volunteer. And it was here that my real education in how elephants are treated truly began. After I, and over forty other volunteers, had spent the week picking up elephant poo, chopping grass and collecting hay from the surrounding farms and land, and preparing food for the animals, Lek, the founder of the park, gathered us all together in the conference room to watch a presentation she had put together. This beautiful, brave, strong woman had travelled throughout Asia to gather evidence on elephant abuse in order to fight their corner and show us, and the world, what really happens to these creatures, exactly how they are transported from their natural environment, in the wild, to wandering down the streets of Thailand begging and carrying tourists on their backs in the jungle. The tears flowed until I had nothing left inside as I watched the images on screen of injuries the elephants, like those I had spent the week with, had received at the hands of humans. As I watched the videos of baby elephants tied up in a small cage where they are unable to move and are repeatedly stabbed, over and over again until their spirit is broken, a process known as pajaan. And it’s not just the touristy industry, the next time you buy that beautiful wooden table from a furniture store just stop to think about how that wood was collected. In countries such as Myanmar elephants are used during illegal logging to horde the chopped down trees through the jungle, they are worked till they collapse from exhaustion, ropes burning into their skin. One resident at the park is a beautiful elephant named Jokia, she is completely blind. She was stabbed in both eyes when she refused to work at one of these illegal logging sites after she gave birth trying to pull trees up a hill and her baby, whilst still in its sack, rolled down the hill and died. Like humans, elephants grieve, they have been known to return to the exact spot where one of their family members has died, staying there for a few days to mourn. Imagine the heartache of losing your baby, and then imagine the pain you would feel if someone shot and blinded you in both eyes, simply because you were grieving. Humans are allowed to grieve; we are expected to grieve when we lose someone we love. If we are allowed to mourn someone we love in peace, why can’t elephants?

This is just one heart breaking story of just one elephant, there are many more. Travelling through Thailand I came across many elephant camps, some have a new selling tactic; they do not offer elephant riding. However, they offer elephant bathing, and if a female adult elephant is lying down in a river on her side for a long period of time whilst tourists throw water on her, then that elephant has been through the pajaan process, too. An elephant will bathe in the river when it wants to, it will stand in the water and spray itself from its trunk and when it has had enough it will move on. This is its natural behaviour. Therefore when you travel to countries like Thailand and you visit one of these places claiming to be a sanctuary please be careful, they are mindful that less people are wanting to ride elephants because they have been made aware of how unethical it is, but elephant bathing is still the same thing dressed up in a different way. The elephants have still been tortured and abused and they are still forced to do something they do not want to do to provide entertainment to tourists and to earn money for their captors. I have spoken to many people throughout my time here in Thailand discussing this topic. One young man told me how he visited one of these camps, one that did not offer riding. He thought he was visiting a genuine place where he could see these beautiful animals he was so fond of, instead he found that the mahouts were pushing the elephants down into the water and forcing them to stay there so tourists could wash them, he realised that this was not right, it was not ethical and not what he wanted to be a part of. If you are in Thailand and you want to see elephants then please do your research and find a place where the elephants are treated correctly, not where you bathe them or watch them perform tricks or sit on their backs. Day visits to the Elephant Nature Park are possible; you can spend the day watching the elephants as they roam, you can even feed them, believe me this experience is magical enough. Feeling the strength of their powerful trunk as they curl it around the bananas you give to them and watching them place the fruit straight into their mouths is a far happier and more rewarding moment between human and elephant than sitting on their backs walking through the jungle. This is not interacting with an elephant, this is humans dominating them, this is humans being the superior species that we think we are, when really we have to question, how superior are we? Humans torture innocent animals to show their strength and power and yet these tortured animals, even after the treatment they have received from our species, will still gently take food from your hand when they could crush every single bone, quite easily, if they wanted to. Who’s the superior one now? The forgiveness, compassion and love these animals have is awe inspiring. All it takes is to be compassionate and loving towards them and they will return these feelings back to you, tenfold.

At the park the majority of the elephants are not from the same herd, they have been rescued from different countries in South East Asia and brought together through circumstance and yet they have created a family. One day as I was looking out at the landscape, watching the water buffalo grazing, and the dogs lying in the shade escaping the midday heat, a baby elephant came walking from the river accompanied by two adult females. A small truck carrying hay slowly started to drive in the same direction, the baby didn’t like the noise of the truck and started to become slightly agitated, the two females ran to protect her, trumpeting loudly to the truck to back off, out of nowhere another female elephant came running around the corner and joined the other protectors. They covered her from all sides until she wasn’t visible, the truck wasn’t visible by then either, aware of the fears of the baby it had slowly headed in the opposite direction. This is how elephants are, they are so maternal, so loving, none of these adults are related to this baby, none of them are related to each other. But they love and they protect. I watched in wonder, in that moment I was overwhelmed with admiration for these creatures, if only more humans had the same loving spirit. I am aware that there have been instances when elephants have killed or injured humans; however these elephants have been treated in the most inhumane ways that really I am surprised that there are not more instances of elephant retaliation.

If, after this lengthy post, I still have your attention then thank you for reading. But more importantly I would now like to ask you for your help. The only way we can stop this happening to elephants, and to other animals around the world, is to stop the demands from tourists. The only way we can stop the demand is by educating people on the reality of what is happening to these poor creatures. You may be sat there thinking that you are just one person, a powerless person who individually can’t put a stop to animal cruelty. But I am here to tell you that you are powerful, you can share this post on your social media, you can educate your friends and family, show them the video below, spread the message. Then we will grow from individuals to a collection of people and that collection of people is strong enough to make changes.

Please click on the link below to watch a short video which documents how elephants are treated in order to suit the purposes of man.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/dkc9x599pfsfsqn/elephants%20on%20the%20edge%204%3A3.mp4?dl=0

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