My travels have been made up of several incredible, life changing experiences so far, but there is one that has stood out more than any other. The very second I booked my week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, almost a year before I went travelling, I knew it would be one of my highlights. Now, after I've completed the week, I look back and wonder how any other travelling experience could top it. In just seven days I learnt, saw, experienced so much, it changed my view of the world, gave me a new passion and inspired me to write and share it with you guys. I can't thank the team at the Park enough for letting me be a small part of their mission, and I can't thank all the other wonderful volunteers enough for sharing the experience with me and making it the best it could possibly be. After meeting other travellers along the way and talking to them about elephants used in tourism for riding, shows etc, after hearing about the misinformation they have been fed and believed, it shows that it is more important than ever to educate travellers, holiday makers, tourists, backpackers and everyone else on what is really going on beneath the surface of a booming industry in Thailand and across Asia.Before travelling to Asia, I had read and researched a lot about elephant treatment which influenced my decision to volunteer at ENP instead of any other centre.During my week there, I learnt far more than I ever did reading, I saw firsthand video footage of mistreatment and torture captured by the founder, Lek, and met elephants that had been rescued from such horrors and heard their stories, saw their wounds. Some had been rescued from logging and had terrible injuries including broken hips from forced breeding, others from tourist camps where they were forced to give rides until their backs broke or were seriously damaged, many were blind from where trainers had stabbed them in the eyes for not complying with orders, others suffered mental illnesses from the extreme torture they had been put through. One story that broke my heart was that of an elephant who was constantly trying to care for and take the baby of another, she was traumatised because her own baby had died. She was forced into logging on steep mountainsides, carrying huge trees and enormous weights every day while pregnant. One day, she went into labour up a hill and when her baby was born it fell down the hill, it died in the amniotic sac and she couldn't save it. They say an elephant never forgets, well her heart won't forget the child that was taken from her through this disgusting treatment and despite it happening years ago, she clearly still lives with that pain everyday.The centre was founded by Lek, who has led a life fuelled by her passion and love for these amazing animals and has dedicated years to campaigning, researching and more. Finally it looks like some governments are starting to listen and take note, but it has been a long hard road for her and her team. The centre started over 20 years ago with just one elephant, Hope, who still lives there today and is the big man of the park, but now they have 44 elephants to take care of. These range from elephants aged one to 80 and all of them have special needs thanks to their injuries, all of them have specific diets and personalities which must be catered for. It is a hard and demanding job, but one of the most rewarding I have come across. One baby elephant at the park is a shining beacon of light for the others and those who work there, Navann is the only elephant at the park who has not gone through the traumatic and horrifying Phajann Ceremony to make them usable for tourism and trade. This means he is a lot more boisterous and cheeky than the rest, but it is lovely to see the freedom and happiness of an elephant who doesn't hold this innate fear thanks to the ceremony.This is something that needs to be clarified for all those who I have spoken to who try to justify elephant riding and tourism, the ones who say the elephants look well treated at that time. Every single elephant used in tourism, for trade or logging has been through a horrific process that can last a week, a month or even longer. The baby elephant is ripped from its mother when it is still immensely vulnerable and needs her care, it is taken away to the jungle where it will go through a process to break the animal's spirit. It is tied up, beaten and terrified, then it is forced into a crush which does exactly what it says on the tin. It is barely big enough for the baby, crushes its body and removes any power and strength it had to move and free itself. It takes away all independence and scares the poor creature beyond anything you could imagine. For days, weeks or even months in some cases - as long as it takes - the creature is shouted at, stabbed with hooks, has pins and nails driven into its flesh, burnt on its head and legs. The elephants is deprived of food, drink and sleep until it conforms to certain behaviours, loses all fight through fear and will eventually perform tricks you seen in shows like elephant painting, climbing through hoops, dancing, elephant riding, the list goes on. Whether they look like they have no obvious injuries at the time doesn't matter, by riding or partaking in these experiences you are funding and supporting years of mistreatment and an industry that still works on the basis of mistreatment.I'm not saying that those who have done this are awful people, I too have sat on an elephant, it is just a lack of education that makes us do this. People get caught up in the whole thing and forget to look past the initial excitement. When it comes down to it, most people I asked - just like me - found the elephant riding experience underwhelming and would prefer to have walked beside the beast to appreciate its full beauty. When you know what the ride is doing to the animal - because yes the weight is uncomfortable and can cause injuries for an elephant, especially when you consider that many of them already have bad backs from previous mistreatment and logging. And many of them are being hit by the mahouts, or have slingshots used on them while you are sat atop them, just because you don't see it doesn't mean then aren't doing it. The mahouts know we tourists don't like to see this treatment so they keep it out of sight, and out of our minds. But the problem is that we need to put it in people's minds, at the forefront of their minds when they go travelling, on holiday or visit these exotic countries. Our responsibility to these animals doesn't stop because we are on holiday and on a break from normal life. They are more important than ever.What can we do to help aid the work of Lek and the Elephant Nature Park? Share this post with your friends and family, make them understand what is behind the industry and educate them so they don't support it. So many don't know a lot of this information or have been fed misinformation, help me correct that and make a change.
How do you feel about elephant treatment in Thailand? Is it something you were aware of before reading this post?