Hi. This is a quick one, as we are running out the door. Don't feel bad, our journals are equally neglected.
We spent a week at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiangmai. It's a place for elephants who are abused in the tourism or illegal logging industries. Unfortunately, that is all elephants in those industries. There is a lot to get into, but the short version is that to train elephants, it is believed that they have to be tortured, in a three day ritual called the pujong (phonetic spelling), to break their spirit first. After that, they are continually abused, basically using negative instead of positive reinforcement. A lot of the abuse stems from ignorance rather than deliberate cruelty, but that doesn't make the situation better for the elephants.
At the park, every elephant has a personal handler, a mahout. This is true of all elephants, but the ones at the park don't use sharp sticks and hitting, just tugs on the ear and yelling, when needed, which is often, as elephants are large and somewhat willful. One of the goals here is to show that elephants can be trained with positive reinforcement: three of the baby elephants who have not been through the pujong are on a positive reinforcement regime, with good but gradual results.
The park does not aim to have people boycott elephant tourism entirely, but to educate people, and change the industry. If you should go on an elephant trek, please ask to walk with the elephant, rather than ride it, as those baskets basically break their backs. One mahout on the neck or head suits their anatomy just fine, though. Go to www.elephantnaturefoundation.org for more information.
Our role in all of this was to be helpers and vacationers. There were about 15 other volunteers that week, some for the week, some having been there for a month already. Every day when the food truck came, we unloaded huge amounts of corn, pumpkins, watermelon, pineapples, cucumbers and such, cleaned it, chopped it, and put it in baskets for the elephants. Then we, and the day visitors, would feed the elephants a few bits at a time. You can see Jo feeding a baby above. The elephants are perfectly capable of feeding themselves, but they let us do it for fun, which it is. We also go in the river with them, and scrub them off every day, under the careful guidance of the mahouts. And twice a week, we removed the gooky layer of mud from their new mud pit, and then refill it with water, so it's only a little muddy -- elephants are apparently picky creatures. We get very muddy doing it, and then hop in the river, where we dodge floatin elephant poo.
Spending so much time up close with elephants was amazing -- they look much weirder than you think, and they definitely have personalities. On the last day, we saw two young boy elephants play with a soccer ball, and then stomp it, kick it once, and walk away. The young ones also sometimes like to charge at inexperienced volunteers for a laugh, though not while we were there. Oh, I also fed the really old elephant with no teeth, which involved putting the food right into her gummy mouth. Please take a minute to really imagine that.
We were also lucky in that we had a great group of co-volunteers. Canadians, Americans and Brits, as it happened. And there are about 35 dogs at the park, always ready to be patted and played with, or follow you if you go somewhere, or come back, or do anything. The dogs really made every minute even better than it should have been.
Since then, we took a long train ride down to Ayutthaya, where we saw some ruins, and then to Khao Yai National Park, where we hiked in the rain forest, got attacked by tiny leeches, and saw gibbons, hornbills, and porcupines in the wild. Now we are in the wonderful Bangkok apartment of Joanna's aunt's friend. We're taking a week for more national parks and island beaching, and then back here, and then... home. Well, California. And then home.