a day with the ellies

what an incredible day!

since we arrived in thailand, i’ve been trying to find a way to spend some quality time interacting with elephants, without supporting any of the practices which are so exploitative (trekking, rides, shows, etc.) I feel so strongly about respecting and caring for these gorgeous creatures that i’d sooner ride a trained tiger than get on one of the park benches strapped to the back of so many of the tourism elephants. so i was beiginning to think i’d end up leaving the country without getting up close and personal with any ellies, when i finally stumbled upon elephant nature park. it’s an organisation run by a woman named lek, and it’s so unique to these parts that it’s been featured by national geographic, the bbc, discovery channel, animal planet and others. and i consider myself so lucky to have found it too.

lek runs a sanctuary for elephants which is devoted to respecting, protecting, and caring for these giants without violence or exploitation of any type. she currently provides a home for around 30 ellies, all rescued from a variety of “work” backgrounds or orphaned. and in the course of saving these animals, she has become a one-woman crusade for changing the treatment and legal protections of elephants in thailand.

as a country which purports to revere the elephant, it is shocking to learn how few protections and resources the thai government grants them. one hundred years ago, there were 100,000 elephants in thailand – today there are fewer than 5,000. and that number is continually dropping as more elephants die from overwork and abuse. the elephant has no more protection than a common cow in the eyes of the law, and in practice, elephants are objects of property, with which the owner can do whatever they like, almost free of consequence. and so the ellies which lek rescues all come from a myriad of horror story backgrounds. deliberately blinded, victims of landmines, orphaned by poachers, shattered by tractor-trailer trucks, even addicted to speed. the one thing they all have in common, however, is as victims of the pujan. the pujan is a traditional rite for “breaking” an elephant – physically, mentally, spiritually. footage of the horrific ceremony makes grown men cry, and once you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to erase the nightmare from your memory. the elephant is isolated, bound into a crate for 4-10 days, nearly immobilised and deprived of all food and water and sleep while they undergo hour after hour of torture. they’re stabbed, burned, and beaten with knifes, nails and sticks. they’re roped and gagged and bloodied. their eyes are wild with fear and pain, and the helpless cries would haunt you. the more they resist, the worse it gets, until finally, there is no more resistance, only a shell of an animal left. wounded, traumatised, and scared. all in the name of creating a submissive elephant which will respond to commands and perform party tricks. almost every elephant undergoes this at the age of two – emerging from it much like a p.o.w., scarred, and like all victims of extreme abuse, potentially dangerous.

this custom is so widespread, yet so little known. and lek is on a mission to eradicate it, by publicising it internationally, and receiving death threats as a result. ( in fact, one of her ellies was tragically poisoned while she was in hiding, as retribution for the negative publicity – a guilt and grief she still carries with her.) she’s out to prove that elephants can be raised and trained with positive reinforcement, and to keep other ellies from enduring the pujan. she’s determined to prove that ellies can be just as profitable to tourism in their natural environment as they can performing on the streets or in trekking camps.

and so our magical day with the ellies was spent feeding them, bathing them, watching them play – just being with them, being ellies. which is really all the universe intended for them in the first place.

again, i can’t endorse lek’s work highly enough. if these stories moved you, please consider donating to her cause. she’s an incredible woman doing incredible things, and i am in awe of her passion and commitment. see the rest of the photos here.

in the “it’s a small blogosphere” category, we met a couple named tim and jessica at the elephant park, and as we we’re talking, i couldn’t shake the feeling that i knew them from somewhere. then, suddenly it hit me: i’d been reading their round-the-world blog before we left on our trip! it was all a bit surreal. we had a great time chatting with them, and wish them well on the last leg of their journey.

3 Responses to “a day with the ellies”

  1. Amity
    June 5th, 2006 09:23

    Jen, your descriptions of the way these ellies are treated keeps making me cry…I’ll definitely be donating to Lek’s cause.

    How crazy that you met someone whose blog you’ve been reading! It’s a small world, afterall. :-)

  2. Jen
    June 5th, 2006 10:02

    god, a, if you could’ve seen the National geographic video, you would have been sobbing. truly heartbreaking. and lek is just a powerhouse of energy and good intentions.

  3. Dave
    June 5th, 2006 14:45

    Wow – unbeliveable that you ran into them months later! What a story! Glad you guys got the chance to hang with the “ellies” in a peaceful, non-violent environment. They are beautiful animals…Great pic of you and jonno!

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