A Volunteer Adventure in Thailand

Lek Chailert, founder of Elephant Nature Park

Experience one warm month this winter — check

Volunteer with big, sweet animals — check

Visit an exotic Asian locale — check

Thailand fit the bill on all counts and as foreign travel goes, it’s a bargain. So for the month of January I will be in Thailand, followed by a few days in Cambodia in February. And the big, sweet animals? Elephants!

Zaza and me

Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants in Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai Province, Northern Thailand. Founded by Lek Chailert in the 1990s, the park is now part of the Save the Elephant Foundation.

ENP provides sanctuary for rescued elephants and it has expanded to care for dogs and other animals displaced by the devastating 2004 tsunami and 2011 flood.

img_1500One week into my stint at the sanctuary, I have learned several things. It will not surprise you to know that people who dedicate their lives to the love and care of endangered and discarded animals are selfless, hardworking, and kind. In the case of ENP, those people are the local villagers, sanctuary employees, volunteers and veterinarians from around the world, and founder,Lek Chailert. Lek has been saving elephants since the early 90s, but she will not turn away a dog, cat, pig, buffalo, horse, or a cow. And she is not some distant figurehead. She is here everyday…..talking to volunteers, feeding milk to an abandoned baby boar (hourly!), meeting with the vets and employees, feeding the elephants, and sharing her love and dedication with all.

I have learned that the work we do as volunteers is vital to the health and stability of ENP. There are seventy elephants here…..seventy! And they each eat an average of 250 pounds of food a day. That’s over 17,000 pounds of corn stalks, bananas, melons, and grass –  a day. While most forage on their own on the roughly 5 square mile property, there can be as many as 20 being cared for in the accessible areas. On any given day there are 70 – 100 volunteers cutting corn and grass, scrubbing melons, picking bananas, preparing medicines, bathing and feeding the elephants. And that 250 pounds of food? Well it becomes elephant poo…..and volunteers shovel and scoop away, without complaint. The work that volunteers do allows ENP to use their resources for all of the other costs and labor of caring for such a large and diverse group of animals.

Poo patrol

I have learned that the elephants at ENP have come from some tragic backgrounds. They have been rescued from logging camps and tourist shows where they were subjected to hooks and chains, malnourished and broken. Many had injuries or illnesses that were never treated. Some of the elephants were victims of land mines in neighboring countries, sustaining devastating injuries. At ENP they have received life saving surgeries, medical intervention, nourishment, and care. The elephants are healing and thriving and have formed loving family units that emulate the natural behaviors of elephants in the wild. Watching these dignified giants care for their young, for their disabled or elderly, is something to behold. At first you cry over the stories of their mistreatment, but then you laugh at their antics….trunk tug of wars, splashing in the river, babies rolling in the mud, and mama stealing bananas from your basket.

Poo patrol

So one week in, I can close my eyes in the cool Thailand night and dream of safe, healthy elephants.

Until next week, hope you enjoy these photos……

Students at a local school

Clearing for vegetable planting

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