Walk and Talk with Darrick
„Where was I? I’m rambling again. Ah, forced breeding, right. You can imagine what that is called in humans, right?“
Darrick trails off every once in a while. There is too much to talk about for these three hours. He has a hard time finishing one topic, as it always leads to another, and then he has to try to find a way back to where he started...sometimes he doesn’t manage.
Darrick Thomson is the husband of Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in the Chiang Mai region, where I’m volunteering for a week. Most of the year there is a vet volunteer program, but due to some communication problems, I’ve ended up here in the time of the year when they don’t offer this, so I’m in a group of 40 non-vet volunteers now. We clean the night pens of the elephants, their water tanks, and bring the fruit from the trucks to the food storage. With 84 elephants in the park, we need a lot of food. The rest of the day, we can enjoy watching the animals, as they roam freely on their 190 acres, followed by their mahouts, who carry some bananas and other treats with them and keep them out of danger. In addition to the elephants, a herd of buffalo, bought to save them from the slaughterhouse, some cows, 15 retired race and military horses, some goats and pigs, almost 500 dogs and 300 cats have found a safe haven here.
Today, we also learn something, as Darrick walks around the compound with us and tells us the stories of the elephants – and how these stories are symbolic for all elephants.
Many of these issues aren’t new to me. I’ve seen elephant rides, I’ve seen the short chains the working elephants have to wear all day and can’t move. I’ve worked with Elephant Aid International to free the elephants from these chains. I’ve learned about the logging industry in Myanmar.
But in Thailand, elephants face all of the problems: the logging, the riding, the circus tricks and shows, street begging, poaching, leaving orphans behind, and injuries from landmines and human-elephant conflict.
“Forced breeding. That’s rape, right.” Darrick has found the red thread again. “So they want new elephants, for the logging, let’s say, and they chain the female, wrap her up tight, and then have the bull come. Sometimes the same bull for many times, sometimes different bulls. They suffer physical damage, broken hips and legs, dislocated joints, miscarriages, and let’s not get started on the mental damage.”
He also talks about the panjan, the “breaking” of the elephant. When they are “old enough” or captured from the wild, they are tied up in a little box and beaten until they give up. Their life in fear of being beaten can begin.
Elephants are never domesticated, because that would be a process of multiple generations being bred in captivity and growing up in close human contact. Elephants still have at least one wild parent.
In Nepal I witnessed a four-year-old elephant during a breaking process that they called training there. He was chained to a pole on a sand hill, and the chains were so short that he could only hobble around the pole, but not get away from it or lie down. He had no food, no access to water, and no shade. The mahout would call out commands and hit him. This went on for days.
The images we get to see in the documentaries at the Elephant Nature Park are far worse. Getting an elephant to accept a saddle, perform unnatural tricks or manage a musth bull, says Darrick, can only happen through the panjan. Thus, he and Lek prefer to keep their bulls in separate pens, so that when they are in musth, their mahout doesn’t have to come too close to feed or clean, and they can’t harm themselves or others. For more information on musth, see my post from Surin.
Many of the elephants here are disabled, many are blind, they have deformed legs, are limping, one has a broken back, and when she arrived here, she was pregnant, and gave birth here at ENP. Almost all of the elephants are old. The animals who are rescued to this sanctuary need to be bought from the previous owner. Old, blind animals that can’t really be used for logging or trekking anymore, are of course cheaper than younger ones. Young, trained elephants cost a fortune in Thailand nowadays. But if they rescued the young ones, this would also create a demand…. It’s illegal to capture them from the wild, and as microchipping is required for all captive elephants now, this should be prevented. However, the microchip only needs to be inserted within the first five years, so smuggling wild young elephants into the system is still possible.
During the day, all of ENP’s elephants can roam around the park as they like, followed by their mahouts, and at night they have to go to their pens. The perimeter isn’t fenced, due to some government issues. So again and again, Darrick stumbles over the word “sanctuary”. What does that means to you, he asked in the beginning. A safe place, we all agreed.
Yes, the Elephant Nature Park is a safe place for these elephants. They all have a much better life than they had before. But it’s not perfect.
Darrick says he and Lek are not yet happy with ENP. Elephants need more space, they would walk 80 to 200 kilometers in the wild, and they wouldn’t be in pens at night.
We walk a bit further, to the mud pit, watch the elephants, let them walk up to him, give them some bananas. He also talks about the dung that we, the volunteers, clean up every morning. It is being composted, which takes about three to four months. The humus is given to the farmers who bring in the watermelons, pumpkins, bananas and corn for the elephants. It’s give and take.
Darrick knows every elephant’s age, background and injuries. He also knows the threats to these majestic animals. There are currently about 35,000 working elephants in Thailand, and only 1000 wild ones. In Laos, “the land of a million elephants” it’s even worse: there are only 70 wild elephants left, and they are separated, making them practically extinct there.
He ends this afternoon with a very passionate speech about how the threat of extinction to elephants and all other animals is our fault and how climate change, deforestation and habitat loss is all caused by humans, and that the number one thing to not make it worse is turning to a plant based diet. He talks about cancer, about cows, and rainforest that is forever lost. About animal agriculture being the number one greenhouse gas producer. On his left wrist, he has tattooed the word VEGAN. Throughout this week, some of the volunteers have been complaining about what has been paradise for me: all the food we get is vegan. Three times a day, we are presented with a huge, delicious buffet, all kinds of soy meats, mushroom mock meat, tofu, lots and lots of vegetables, and even for breakfast there are no eggs, and for the cereal, there is almond milk. It made sense to me, the Elephant Nature Park stands for the love for animals, and who rescues buffaloes from the slaughterhouse can’t really serve animal products for lunch.
But with Darrick’s speech, it makes even more sense. If we want to save our world, we should start with our food choices. And I doubt that tonight anyone will complain that they “miss their meat”.