Prior to venturing across the globe to Thailand, my 4 yr. old daughter and I had many discussions about what I was going to do while I was there. One of the highlights of our itinerary planning was going to be seeing elephants. Elephants in Thailand are revered in work as well as religion. The sad part is, much of their work is exploitative…giving rides to tourists and even walking the streets at night begging for tourists to “pay” their “mahout” (trainer) for a bag of food to feed them or to take a photo. I came to Thailand thinking I was going to be able to ride an elephant and wouldn’t that be so awesome?!?! What I didn’t realize is that “work” elephants, such as the ones that provide rides for tourists are considered “livestock” and there are no rules to protect them from abuse, neglect or even from being killed by their mahout. Wild elephants, on the other hand are protected, yet are still poached and hunted for their tusks. In the last 100 years, the World’s Asian elephant population as dropped 90% and their available habitat has shrunk 95%. Today, only about 25,000 Asian elephants remain wild and in the next 30 years, (that’s in our lifetime, mind you!) they could be extinct. That’s a pretty heavy thought to consider.
On Friday, we were privileged to visit the Elephant Nature Park, located in the jungle about an hour and a half North of Chiang Mai. The owner, a woman named “Lek”, which means “small one,” has dedicated her life to saving these magnificent creatures. Her facilities runs on volunteers that actually pay to spend weeks at a time there, taking care of the elephants. Many of these graceful giants have made the sanctuary their home because of illness, injury or abuse. Lek and her team have nursed them back to health and now provide an educational safe haven for them.
After being treated to a “jungle lunch”, it was “bath time” for the elephants. Boy, was that a sight! multiple elephants made their way down to the river where we were waiting. As the elephants entered the river, some stood, while others lounged in the water. We splashed them and rinsed the mud off their backs while some splashed us back. All of this dubious bathtime was a little in vain, because upon finishing, they just went back to their savannah and rolled in the dirt! This is their way of applying sunscreen…did I mention it is VERY hot here in Thailand?!?! About like South Carolina in August, but more sticky, if you can imagine!
After bathtime, we got to meet the baby girl. She is a 7 year old twin and LOVED to give kisses. Honestly, this ranks pretty darn high on my list of amazing life experiences! Actually, to describe this day as amazing truly isn’t strong enough.
Lastly, I want to share the story of Jokia. We heard about Jokia on the shuttle up to the sanctuary. Jokia was sold into logging, back in the 80’s before it was banned in 1989. She was pregnant at the time. When Jokia went into labor, she was working up high on a hill. When her baby was born, it rolled down the hill and fell to its death. Jokia was not allowed to tend to the baby and was forced to continue to work. It’s pretty wild to think of an elephant suffering from depression, but she did. She refused to work, whereas before, she had been compliant. In a bout of rage, Jokia’s mahout blinded her by stabbing her in the eye. To defend herself, Jokia injured the mahout by hitting him with her trunk and injuring him. In retaliation, the mahout blinded Jokia’s other eye. Upon arriving at the sanctuary, Jokia received her name. It means “tear of heaven’s eye.” Rightfully so. I know this story is depressing, but what you need to know is that, albeit blind, Jokia has made a complete recovery! Even better, when she arrived, another female elephant, Mae Perm, sensed that Jokia had special needs and took her under her wing. She spends every day with her and accompanies her wherever she goes, looking out for her and keeping her safe. This is a true story of resilience and the strength of sheer will. I know we all possess that deep within. We all have the courage, strenth and resilience that Jokia had. We just may not realize it until we actually need it. So, no matter what is coming your way, I encourage you to dig down deep and find your strength to push on. We all have everything we could ever need buried inside ourselves. Just sometimes, it takes a little digging before we find that treasure. I would encourage everyone to find that gem within before we actually need to. Explore it and get to know it when you don’t need it, so that when you finally do need it (and we all will!) you can access it easily and freely. Much elephant love and namaste’.
For more information on how you can help, please visit www.elephantnaturepark.org