A Week at Elephant Nature Park

There’s a family from the USA, a little Spanish woman with her eleven-year old and a Canadian with her adult daughter, the two high school students on Easter break from New Zealand, the French couple travelling the world, lots of backpackers, of course; and me. These are the volunteers at Elephant Nature Park this week. We do have a well-structured day, but the truth is: there isn’t too much work. Maybe it’s because of the season, or maybe it’s because our coordinators are afraid we won’t be able to deal with the heat. 

The travel guide referred to the three Thai seasons as “cool”, hot and dry” and “hot and humid”. At MUT, the students jokingly told me they were called “hot, hotter, hottest”, and for our volunteer coordinators there is only two: “hot” and “fucking hot”. But Darrick, who is currently rubbing his neck with ice cubes, knows some more: Right now is obviously smoky season. Fields are being burned all around us, although it is now illegal in Thailand (but in the neighboring countries it’s not), that’s why we can’t really see the mountains. “I assume, that’s why you’re wearing the mask” says Darrick, “and we probably all should. But even when I was still a firefighter, I’d usually take my mask off when it was needed the most…” Right now, he just wishes for the Canadian climate. Soon it will be rainy season, in June, July. That is followed by the second visitor-low in August (the first low being April, with the bad air and up to 42 degrees), and in September comes Darrick’s favorite: the thunderstorms. In November to January, the “winter”, it can get nice and cool, and sensitive Thai will need sweaters.
Right now, everybody feels too hot. I get up early in order to do some yoga at nice 26 degrees before breakfast… Up on the terrace, surrounded by the dogs, and a nice view of the elephants.
At seven, we have breakfast buffet, and at eight we start our work: one day we’re on “poo duty”, cleaning the night pens, the next in the “elephant kitchen”, unloading food trucks, and then we’ll swap with the other half of the group again. The banana truck comes every day, the watermelon truck brings four tons every other day. Elephants eat around 10% of their body weight every day, and with 84 elephants eating about 200-300 kilos each of grass, corn, watermelons and bananas, that’s a lot of fruit. 

Yoga with dog

We all live in shared rooms on the compound, and day visitors normally also spend a night. They join us for lunch and dinner and get a tour through the park. They watch the elephants, give them some bananas, and if the animals want to, they even get to touch them.
Lunch is already at eleven, but we even have enough time to shower the dust and smell of elephant dung off before that. In all the free time that we have, we can sit on the terrace or by the river, watch elepehants and buffaloes, pet the cats in the “Cat Kingdom” or help the Dog Volunteers walk the dogs. Many of them are paralyzed, and we strap wheelies on before we let them run around on the lawn. It’s obvious that they still enjoy life despite everything they’ve been through! Most of them are also up for adoption and looking for a “forever home”. Unfortunately Desmond, who does Yoga with me in the morning, is not one of them, otherwise I would have taken the cute guy with me!

Every early afternoon is wonderful, as I just watch the elephants play in the river or dust themselves, a cat in my chair and a dog by my feet… But I also notice that the other volunteers are mostly where I was six years ago when I went to Nepal the first time: they haven’t been this close to elephants before, and they just don’t know much about them yet.

Normally, the park offers a program for veterinarians, too, but the communication was difficult, and only when I had no other time available did I find out that the program pauses every summer from April to August. Well, I could still ask. And ask, and beg and drop names (“But Dr. Golf from Bangkok and Dr. Nathan from India send their regards”), and show the emails to volunteer manager Mix. Finally, Dr. Dom and Dr. Bic agree to take me with them for one day.
As far as I know, there are seven elephants vets here, working in teams on different specialties. The cats and dogs have their own hospital, and then there is an open clinic for the villagers, financed entirely by donations, where they can have their pets treated for free.
Dom and Bic are mainly responsible for dealing with wounds in the elephants, and they are the only ones besides me who wear masks all day. I climb onto the side car of their motorbike and we go looking for our first patient. Yai Bua is 104 years old, that’s extremely old for an elephant, and that age comes with some health issues of course. She has arthrosis, no more teeth and an abscess on her leg that she’s had for many years and seems not to be painful. We feed her soft boiled rice treats with lot of added minerals and I get to give her the daily injection of pain medication. While we wait for her to finish eating, Dom explains the drugs that they use in their elephants on a regular basis and in which dosages. 

Yai Bua, 104

Our next patient has an inflamed tooth root and gets a different anti-inflammatory pain killer. I count the 40 pills and hide them inside a watermelon. “No treatment without food” says Dom, and of course, we have brought a big box of peeled watermelons. While watch her eat, Bic climbs into one of the nearby vegetable gardens. A lot of the food that is served at ENP also grows here, protected by buffalo- and elephant-proof fences. He fills my hands with mulberries.
Thai Khun gets the rice treats, and refuses the banana leaves that they are wrapped in, and also the bananas need to be peeled for her. She’s picky, but we accept that, because otherwise she is really patient, handing us her injures food. She stepped in a landmine six years ago and the wound on her foot still hasn’t healed. Bic flushes, disinfects it, and, with the help of the mahout, puts on a bandage.
After lunch break, we meet at the horse pens. Apparently, it is the vets’ duty to feed and brush them in the afternoons. 

For the elephants, Dom had given me some safety instructions in the morning, but they seem to presume that I know how to behave around horses. After I’ve cleaned the hooves and fur of around six of the retired military and race horses and asked some questions about their eye infections, Bic asks me: “Do you have a horse?”
After another break we meet again at Thai Khun’s pen. This time, Dom is feeding her, so I think I won’t have to do anything, but instead, Bic hands me the Sodium Permanganate and the syringe and says: “You flush like I did in the morning.”
Gloves would have been a good idea with this stuff that dyes everything purple, but hey, as long as Thai Khun is ok with me treating her…!

The Elephant Nature Park opened in 2003, and every elephant arrival is a giant project and adventure. There is even a documentary about one of them, Noi Na: “Love & Bananas”. Founder of ENP, Lek Chailert, comes from a family in the elephant business, but didn’t want to follow in her parents’ footsteps of panjan and exploiting the animals (more on that in my last post). When she decided to go public with pictures of what happens behind the scenes, her family disowned her, life on TV. “Lek” means “little”, but from what I’ve heard about her and seen in documentaries, she may be small in size, but her personality is big. And so is her heart. She doesn’t only save elephants, but, as you’ve read, all kinds of animals find shelter here. Today, she is internationally famous, and has accepted that her new family are the elephants and her husband Darrick.
During the flood in Bangkok 2011, ENP workers went on a mission to save the dogs that had escaped to rooftops and were abandoned by their owners. They gave them drinking water, food, and medical care, and all those who would dare to come with them on their little boat have found a new home at ENP. Since then, many more dogs have been saved, or were left near the gates of the park, or even just came her by themselves. The manager of the dog volunteer program says there is probably a “Trip Advisor for dogs”, as so many have just shown up here.
In the evenings, we are of course also entertained, be it a movie night, a short course on Thai culture and language, or a traditional dance performed by local middle school students. On our first day we were even brought into the village to attend a New Year’s ceremony.
And at night we get to listen to the sounds of the insects, and see the stars. Sometimes a dog barks or an elephant rumbles.


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