Back in the UK now, I'm loving pouring back over photos and memories of my time in Sri Lanka as I write up post after post about my experiences there. I always enjoy reliving every moment so much when I get home, getting to share everything with you guys is incredible because it means I get to experience the joy all over again. But sometimes, there are some memories of a place that make you shudder to recall them, those moments that hurt your heart when you think back to them. This was one of those days, but I must add, the only day I had like this while travelling in what was a truly amazing country. Read my guide here to everything you need to know before you travel to Sri Lanka. But what is important, as a travel blogger, I pride myself on my honesty and giving you guys information that is authentic and genuine so you can plan your own travels, and part of that is telling you about the bad experiences as well as the good ones. So what happened?A late afternoon safari which promised me the sight of 100 elephants, a dream come true for a gal like me who has always loved these beautiful, gentle creatures, turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. We'd been staying in the Cultural Triangle, deep in the centre of Sri Lanka, in a tiny town called Habarana, where I had been drawn to after reading about the amazing history, culture and natural wildlife. Our wonderful host recommended we go on safari to a nearby national park where we were told you could see over 300 elephants at one time - it was a once in a lifetime opportunity that we couldn't pass up. During the dry season (July to October) Minneriya Wildlife Sanctuary sees herds of hundreds of elephants gathering for what has been called the 6th greatest wildlife spectacle in the world by Lonely Planet. Arriving in November, we weren't sure if we would be lucky enough to witness such a spectacle but when we came to Habarana we were encouraged to go on the safari where several people claimed we would see at least 100 elephants. So we went, but we were not prepared for what we would see.
The magic and beauty of nature faded as the engines revved, each jeep vying for the best spot.
Driving around the national park was amazing to begin with, we had a great driver who really cared about the animals and could tell us so much about them and their habitat. Different to other national parks we had visited, this one offered vast open plains leading to huge lakes in the distance. As we drove the winding paths in our jeep, we could already see huge herds of elephants dotted across the plains, and our guide stopped so we could watch them from a safe distance. We spent three hours on safari in the park, watching various groups of elephants before they all came together to form one use herd as they made their way over to the lake. An absolutely majestic sight and one I won't forget in a hurry, but sadly for all the wrong reasons.Throughout the afternoon, it had not been a calm experience where we could all peacefully enjoy these creatures from a distance benefitting both us and the animals. Instead there had been countless jeeps racing, overtaking each other and generally terrorising the animals as they competed for the best spot. The groups of eager tourists in many of the other vans were noisy and had little respect for the animals as they cheered and shouted in the back of the jeeps. We even saw several cars which had been allowed to drive the muddy tracks despite not having four wheel drive and posing a danger to both the visitors and the animals. I was glad to see that our driver seemed not to be like the others and was keen to hang back and watch the animals from a distance rather than crowding them like the others.
However, one good driver doesn't make up for the rest.
As everyone was driving over to the lake, the elephants were getting more agitated about protecting one of the babies as they walked through a crowd of jeeps. It wasn't long before one adult became so stressed that she charged the jeeps who didn't seem to understand they should move out of the way! The elephants made it over to the lake and all the jeeps started to drive round to the other side, but then one of the 2WD cars got stuck in the mud, panic ensued as the elephants spotted it and became aggressive. You could see they were terrified and started to charge the vehicle to try and protect the herd - also terrifying for the group in the car. Other jeeps rallied round to protect the jeep while others pulled the vehicle out of the mud, but in the process the jeeps revved engines and blared horns to scare off the elephants. It was a downright disturbing experience, terrifying and stressful for the animals. Absolutely horrible for me to watch and to be a part of as an animal lover, and each second that went by it just got worse.Eventually the car was freed and the elephants were scared away, we told our driver we wanted to leave. We'd seen enough. I was dumbstruck by what had happened. As we drove out of the park our guide told us a bit of background to the park, he told us how these 2WD cars were allowed into the park - understandably the locals had to make a living even if they couldn't afford the right equipment - however this meant that what we had just witnessed was a regular occurrence. Almost on a daily basis these 2WD cars would get stuck and a similar event would happen with the elephants becoming stressed, agitated and frightened by tours. Even worse, our guide told us that within the last few years, one of the jeeps had actually reversed into a baby elephant and killed it which was the reason why the elephants had become so aggressive and nervous around the cars.It was a pretty traumatic experience, and I can't imagine what those poor elephants go through each day. They live in a national park and should be some of the lucky ones being protected from harm, but if you ask me, a lot more needs to be done to protect these animals. After volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, sanctuary founder Lek Chailert always said we all have the power to make a change by raising awareness so by writing this post, I hope it will inform each and every one of you to make a conscious decision to not support this kind of tourism unless you know the animals are being properly protected. I didn't know what to expect before I arrived, but by sharing my experiences I can hopefully help make a change by letting my readers know what happened.
Have you experienced a safari like this? How do you feel about the protection of elephants across Sri Lanka, and Asia? Would you be put off another safari?
I'm so happy to hear how much you guys have been enjoying my elephant-themed posts this week - it's been such a highlight of my trip to become a part of the work at Elephant Nature Park and I'm glad to know reading the posts have been a highlight for you. I really hope that by reading my posts on the background of elephants in the tourism trade has helped to teach you something, and that you enjoyed the interview with founder Lek Chailert. This post is something that has been requested over and over again by friends, readers and travellers met have met along the way - this one will focus on my time spent as a volunteer at the sanctuary. I spent a week volunteering at the centre in Chiang Mai back IIn the middle of March and to say it was life-changing would be an understatement. I know so many people who would love to have the same experience but worry it is not worth the money you have to pay to get there. Well I'm here to put any questions and worries to rest, to assure you that including a volunteering placement in your travels is one of the best decisions you could possible make.Along with around 70 other weekly volunteers, I was picked up from my hostel in the city and taken straight to the charity's office where we paid the balance of the placement, picked up our t-shirts and water bottles, and met some of the other volunteers. Once loaded on to the buses, we were shown a brief video giving us some background on the Park and the work that goes on there, along with a quick chat from the guide. When we arrived at the Elephant Nature Park, we were taken straight out on a tour of the property, given a talk on what work goes on there, the history and the plans for the future. We were given a talk on safety and good practice around the elephants, plus an outline of our jobs over the next few days. After a delicious and huge vegetarian buffet lunch, we were moved into our dorm rooms which held three people each and were right next to the elephant shelters where the creatures would sleep at night. To say we were all excited was an understatement. Later that afternoon we got to watch the elephants being bathed and fed, and spent some time unloading huge trucks full of melons - one of the funniest jobs as we ended up making up songs and turning it into a game/competition. That first night we were invited to a special welcome ceremony in which we were blessed by the local village elders and a priest who gave us blessing bracelets for good luck and safety. After a delicious dinner, we all headed to bed so we would be ready for our 7am start.The early start didn't agree with most but I actually had the best night's sleep I'd had in ages and woke up feeling refreshed and excited for what lay ahead. Surprising considering we had all been woken up at 5am by the elephants in the shelter behind our dorm when one had a bad dream and started trumpeting, but the others soon calmed her down. It was amazing to be sleeping so close to these stunning creatures, and even more amazing to have them walking around just metres from where we ate all of our meals. I've heard some volunteers complain about the lack of time spent with the elephants but I have no idea where they could have got that from, we're with them constantly from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep. After breakfast, Team C were taken off to the fields a bit further away from the sanctuary where we would spend the first morning on the hardest job of them all - corn cutting! We were given machetes and were told to cut down the corn, arrange it in piles and once it had been bundled, to carry it to the truck. It wasn't an easy job, but it wasn't as bad as we expected. Our group was amazing and we really worked together and put all of our energy into it, we had the job done quicker than any other group and celebrated with a picnic and a ride back on top of the corn before getting to spend an afternoon tubing on the river that ran alongside the Park. We also took the opportunity to help bathe the elephants in the river afterwards which was just lovely to be so close to them and to play in the water with them.It was a pretty awesome first day and we were all riding high until we headed to the communal areas that evening to watch a film put on by the staff. It was one of the most devastating and shocking things I have ever watched and within minutes most of the room had tears running down their faces. I'm not normally a very emotional person, but I was a wreck watching that video. It was all about the elephants that are kept at the park, the situations they have come from and various other horrifying stories that Lek herself has caught on film of witnessed. It was one of those things you have to watch, you learn so much from it, but it absolutely breaks your heart. Dinner afterwards was a sober and quiet affair as everyone mulled over what we had seen, it definitely brought the group closer together and unified us in our anger and pain over what we had seen. It was a wonderful experience to be surrounded by individuals as passionate about this cause as myself. I couldn't sleep that night, I think after the video I just had too much on my mind but soon enough the sun hit the window and it was time to start all over again. For that second day of work I was helping to clean up the park by clearing the leftover food from the fields - this was one of my favourite jobs because it gave you the chance to watch the elephants in the park just acting naturally, unbothered by us they played and ate as they would in the wild. Some of the babies were a little boisterous and decided they wanted to climb into our van which gave the girls a bit of a shock as the whole thing started to rock with just a coup,e of them left inside. Again, our job was completed quickly and we had plefty of free time to help out with dog walking, to write in our travel journals and to watch the elephants around the park.After lunch, we headed out on an elephant walk in which our team leader took us out around the elephant sanctuary to meet the elephants and to hear their stories firsthand. I mentioned a few in the earlier posts that were particularly devastating but there were loads who had back legs, bad backs and were blind from bad treatment, one elephant had a severely broken hip she had learnt to deal with over time, it had been caused by a horny bull in a forced breeding programme and now, years later she still cannot walk properly. We had the chance to see the baby elephants in action, and playful they are! With a very protective family including an adopted nanny, you have to be careful not to spook the animals because despite us being far across the field from them, she became anxious and charged at us. It was pretty crazy, we had to sprint across the field out of the oath of this stampeding elephant, half of us lost our flip flops and another girl ended up falling face first in the mud, a pretty dramatic day in all! We rounded off the afternoon by playing with the lonely dogs in the dog shelter at the park, where they have over 400 dogs needing homes. Then that night, we had a Thai culture lesson which was brilliant, our guides taught us about the history and customs of Thailand, about the language and the Chang Chang Chang elephant song! My next job was elephant food - unloading trucks of melons and pumpkins then washing and helping prepare the food for the elephants, particularly for those with special dietary requirements. This was hard work because these elephants go through so many melons it's unreal - trucks carrying four tonnes of melons roll in daily and need to be prepared. But once again, team C smashed it, made it fun and were done in no time thanks to a cracking playlist provided by our team leader who seemed to have a fondness for Avril Lavigne. In the afternoon, we spent our time helping to wash down shelters and having water fights as we prepared the elephant's bedrooms for the evening. After dinner, we finally got to meet the woman behind it all, Lek gave a special talk and presentation with another horrifying film for us to watch. This one was even more harrowing than the last and I'm not ashamed to say I was a blubbering mess. Everyone in the room was left shell shocked but insanely inspired after hearing first hand from this tiny woman all that she had achieved and overcome to reach this point and how she had never let herself become disheartened by the terrible things she witnessed but used her anger to fuel her work. Meeting someone so inspiring was one of the best moments of my trip and I left on a high despite the sad things we saw that night.The next day passed in a blur of preparing elephant food, watching the elephants be fed and joining in, bathing them and generally loving life. It would be so easy to have stayed and to live that life every single day. So simple, but so rewarding, I woke up every morning raring to go and finished each day with a heart full of happiness at what we were doing there. That final night at the Park, they organised a special Northern Thai meal with special foods and fabulous entertainment from the local schoolchildren I had been teaching just days before - they all danced for us in traditional costume which was wonderful. It was so sweet, they all recognised me from the school, and came over to say hello - more on my teaching experience in my next post. We had a brilliant last night together and prepared for some really sad goodbyes the next day - in such a short space of time we had become a little family. The next morning, we took to our final jobs of clearing elephant poo - which was definitely not as bad or as smelly as it sounds. Then we headed back to Chiang Mai where I spent the night at a hostel with some girls from the Park and a larger group of us met up to shop, eat and drink cocktails at the local market. It was a perfect end to one of the best weeks of my life.
If you are thinking about volunteering at Elephant Nature Park but aren't quite sure, or are worried the money of it will cut into your backpacking budget. Don't worry for a second longer. I can honestly say that it was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life and that it will stay firmly in my heart forever. Both the people I met and the things that I ddid and saw have changed my life and it has inspired me to do more to help by writing and sharing my experiences with others I meet along the way. Why go elephant trekking or riding when you can experience these creatures in a natural state - unharmed and unafraid - see how they behave when they are happy and safe. Spend money and know that it is going back in to helping to save other elephants from the tourism trade, from abuse and cruelty rather than the back pockets of cruel people who harm elephants. Spend your money wisely and it could be the best experience you have travelling like it has been for me so far.
Since volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it has become a regular topic of conversation with friends, family, fellow travellers and complete strangers. Everyone seems to have elephants on the brain and its little wonder why, these majestic, intelligent and simply beautiful creatures seem to capture the hearts of most. Why? For me, it's always been something in their eyes. Elephants seem to have eyes that tell a story, much like humans, you can tell there is more going on in their heads. That they think and feel in similar ways to us - whether you agree of. It is another matter, but I've always felt that elephants have a lot in common with humans which is why it has always broken my heart to hear about cases of poaching and animal cruelty. The more I read about it all, the more it tore me apart to know that such amazing creatures could be so brutally targeted by my own species. Sad how you can feel so ashamed of your own kind at times, but I guess some brains are just wired differently.
Something that has come up again and again in conversations are the same questions about how to know if elephants are being treated cruelly, what is cruel treatment, whether elephant riding is okay and so on... Of course I answered all of these as best I could after learning so much firsthand at the sanctuary, but the journalist in me couldn't resist talking to the expert about it all. Lek Chailert is the founder of Elephant Nature Park, and during my week long volunteering at the centre I was lucky enough to meet her and to sit in on a talk she gave about her experiences, her work, Elephant Nature Park, elephant cruelty and tourism, and the future. It was simultaneously fascinating and devastating - within seconds she had the whole room captivated, and in less than five minutes she had the whole room in tears. I have never met anyone so passionate and true to her cause, and I have never felt so inspired by a single person. Lek has achieved so much in the face of great cruelty and adversity, she has never given up on her mission and remains stronger than ever and full of determination to make her dream of freedom for elephants a reality.
A week of volunteering left me desperate to do more and help in any way I can, and my best way of doing this is to write, to photograph, to interview and to share all of this with all of you. I know I have many friends and followers who are big supporters of the volunteering programme, who love elephants and are strongly against animal cruelty, so I thought it would be great to share my interview with Lek on here so that you can all hear firsthand from her of the reasons behind her work. By hearing exactly what is involved in domesticating elephants, you can make a decision for yourself about whether you really want to ride an elephant or participate in elephant tourism. As Lek says herself in the interview, the most important thing is educating people on why it is wrong. I hope very much that you are finding my elephant-themed week on the blog informative and interesting, I hope that you too will feel inspired to help by sharing this post with your friends, family and social media followers - you could be helping to save an elephant out there from being subjected to cruel treatment.
Check out the video below for my full interview with Lek Chailert.
If you have any questions about Elephant Nature Park or the topics covered in this video, please do leave them below and I'll do my best to answer. I have a final post in keeping with the elephant theme coming up this Friday - focusing on my time as a volunteer and what I thought of the experience.